Yo Quiero Mi MTV

To reach Latin American kids, MTV first has to invent Latin America

Couldn't they put pop acts in rotation too?

"It's very different from six years ago," Tillán observes. "Then it was a very alternative channel. Back then you had rockers on one side, fresas [pop softies] on the other. It was Britney Spears vs. Limp Bizkit. Madonna vs. Diego Torres. But now our audience doesn't want to bring these walls up."

"About four years ago, we had to intertwine these two musics," adds Singer. "We got a lot of noise about it, but one of our biggest rises in relevance rode that transition. We were able to talk to [our audience] more and listen more."

Liberators of Latin pop: (from left) Antoinette Zel, Cristian Jofré, Charlie Singer, José Tillán
Steve Satterwhite
Liberators of Latin pop: (from left) Antoinette Zel, Cristian Jofré, Charlie Singer, José Tillán

With the transition to rock and pop, the pool of artists recognized across the region grew. MTV could choose not only from the alternative acts the network itself was breaking, but also from a growing roster of pop artists seeking broader global exposure.

"This year it felt like there were enough artists crossing each others' borders," says Singer. "We could finally celebrate Shakira, [Chilean Brit popsters] La Ley, and [Mexican pop-rock gods] Maná."

Is it any coincidence that those are the same bands that have been in heavy rotation on MTV over the years?

"We're part of it," Singer admits. "We're modest. Our job is to identify movements."

"The industry grew," argues Tillán. "I think what happened six or eight years ago is that Latin American artists ceased to copy [U.S. and European acts] and started to develop a new identity. Now there are at least fifteen truly pan-territorial superstars who have name recognition to sell records outside their home countries. There used to be one or two."

Time for an awards show.

But putting all the pieces of Latin rock and pop together still requires some heavy lifting.

Back at the VMALA roundtable, Morrissey announces that a "collective of foreign writers" will be coming to town: two, maybe three Argentines; one, possibly two Mexicans; and two MTV writers from New York.

"Humor is a huge part of the MTV image," Singer explains. "Not taking yourself seriously. Not taking the music biz seriously. It is very hard to do humor for us, especially given the two extremes: Argentina and Mexico. I don't know that we're gonna nail the humor because we have to water it down to make it work cross-culturally."

Case in point, the promos featuring each of the show's co-hosts: 23-year-old Mexican actor Diego Luna and 38-year-old Argentine television personality Mario Pergolini.

"The Pergolini spot has a little delay," a young man named Fernando tells his cohorts in the conference room. Apparently there's been a snag in production in Buenos Aires.

While the Luna spot rolls, Chilean-born creative director and marketing VP Cristian Jofré, a stocking cap pulled over his bald head, paces the conference room in bare feet. ("Each crisis is bigger than the last," he says later, "until you just have to laugh.")

Onscreen, the baby-faced actor riffs on his own starring role in last year's international coming-of-age cinema smash Y Tu Mamá También. Luna lists the show's babe-alicious lineup while he and a pal, legs dangling off diving boards, appear to jack off into a deserted country club pool.

"It's going to be buenisimo," Luna moans while wiggling on the board.

The frat-boy spoof couldn't be further from the Pergolini spot which, when it arrives two days later, is screened on a laptop by a relieved Jofré over lunch with Tillán and Singer.

The long-faced Pergolini listens in bug-eyed shock as his psychoanalyst reminds him that (sufficiently irreverent) he has "mocked important singers" and "mocked consecrated songs."

"What you are," the shrink diagnoses gravely, "is a frustrated singer."

To help the VMALA writing team balance locker-room yuks with psych-couch sarcasm, Singer has enlisted New Yorker Chris Kreski as head writer. An erstwhile writer for the MTV game show Remote Control in 1986, Kreski also has worked on The Daily Show, World Wide Wrestling, and almost every MTV awards show in the United States, but he has never worked in Latin America -- and he doesn't speak Spanish.

Arriving just ten days before showtime, Kreski spent the first day taking a "crash course" on the talent and genres featured on the bill. Expecting something along the lines of the weekly tacky extravaganza Sabado Gigante, Kreski says, "It's amazing to me how wrong I was even three days ago. All of my preconceptions were misconceptions."

Kreski might not know what's funny in Mexico, but he has enough experience to know that you have to have at least one literate person present every award and you can't expect stoned bass players to remember too many lines. So the second day in Miami he spent going over the ideas developed by the Latin American writers, looking out for what he calls "left turns" -- hidden ideas that "might not translate well onstage or take too much rehearsal."

Ultimately nobody can know what will make a hemisphere, or even half a hemisphere, laugh.

"We tell writers, 'Write whatever you want. Write a lot of it,'" explains Singer. "Then we decide what's appropriate or what will work."

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