Not Enough Fizz

The Billboard Latin Music Conference trudges through a transition year for the music industry

Now six years old, Miami's annual Argentine Festival has established a few traditions: the tango tent, the mini-soccer field, frenzied chanting between acts by bottle-blond bombshells waving blue and white flags, prolonged jams by straight-ahead rockers Los Piojos to the cultlike adulation of 10,000-plus fans, and a slowly emptying amphitheater during a final freeze-dried performance by one crazed aging idol or another (this year it was Fito Páez).

There's not much room in this nostalgia-soaked formula for Babasónicos. Currently the best-selling and most critically acclaimed band in Argentina, these self-proclaimed purveyors of "nonsense sound" (ba-ba-sonics) are too now for the backward-looking comfort on offer along with the choripan at Bayfront Park each April. In a country where every major group for the past 50 years has been praised with a reference to some British or U.S. act (the Argentine Rolling Stones! the Argentine Dave Matthews!), Babasónicos is sui generis. Outlaw country, techno washes, Delta blues, Fifties doo-wop, garage rock, hip-hop, punk, and Latin pop ballads all go into the grinder and come out like something no one north or south has ever heard before.

Although the band has made regular pilgrimages to Miami for more than a decade to visit MTV Latin America, the rockero mecca on Lincoln Road, the Argentine festival is Babasónicos' first local live appearance in a big venue before a big crowd. Shake shows up exactly on time to catch the band go onstage and keeps track of the playlist in her head. Current smash hit "Irresponsables," a psychedelic parody of the Latin pop crooner. Check. Electronic rock-out "Deléctrico." Check. Hard-hitting anthem "Pendejo" ("Asshole"). Check. That must mean Shake's favorite, "Fizz," will be the final encore. I've had that tune in my head ever since the Miami-based Delanuca label rereleased Jessico in the United States two years ago. I can already hear the opening, mind-blowing riff. But the rest of the crowd is here for Los Piojos. These immigrant kids know what they want and they want what they know. Next.

"Yeah, 'Fizz' was going to be our next encore," frontman Adrian Rodriguez teases me a few days later during an interview at the South Beach offices of EMI, which is distributing the band's latest release, Infame. "Fizz" is a kind of theme song for the band, telling the story of a group of boys from a dismal suburb who find beauty in the farce of celebrity. After toiling underground for years in the dismal suburb of Lanus (I could say the Argentine Hialeah, but won't), the band has finally subverted the glitz of Buenos Aires, where starlets fight and feathers fly. "Once someone knows beauty, they can't go back to lies," he explains. Even if fame itself is a lie? "Paradoxes inspire songs," the songwriter admits. "That's what musicians should do: reveal the contradictions they see in the world." Anyway, he promises they'll play the song at the next show.

Babasónicos' visit coincides with another annual Miami ritual, the Billboard Latin Music Conference at the Eden Roc Resort. From April 26 through 29, music industry leaders discuss urgent issues and track emerging trends, all culminating in the awards show, broadcast live this year from Miami Arena by Telemundo. But the official Billboard events are no more fresh or forward-looking than the Argentine nostalgia fest; there's no place for Babasónicos' brand of rock except at EMI's unofficial afterparty at Soho Lounge on April 29. Until then Shake's got "Fizz" between her ears as she sits through industry panels and eavesdrops on the deals going down in the Eden Roc lobby.

Last year the big "news" during the conference was the decade-old underground movement known as reggaetón. This year it's hip-hop on the Mexican regional scene and the breakout success of Christian pop. But the real buzz has nothing to do with the sound of music. From the panels to the cocktail lounge, everyone from major-label heads to indie band managers is trying to figure out how to make money while the industry transubstantiates around them. The Internet has been resurrected as a potential savior, with Websites such as Batanga.com trumpeting major sponsorships from the likes of Ford. For all the talk of ring tones, cellular phones alone might be enough to save the industry. Sniffing the wounds of the major labels, indie pushers huddle in the lobby, cutting deals with unsigned bands and European distributors.

There is no such effervescence at the Billboard Awards. The good thing about Billboard, as opposed to the Latin Grammys, is that no one is trying to impress Anglos, so there's no embarrassing pandering to stereotypes. The bad thing is that the Telemundo crew is apparently not trying to impress anyone. Who performed? Who hosted and presented? I can't remember. After the Latin Grammys and Univision's Premio Lo Nuestro, even the cleavage and couture hauled down Billboard's red carpet feel as flat as yesterday's soda.

The EMI afterparty starts out promisingly. It begins well after midnight when Spanish duo Amaral deliver heart-wrenching angst. Aleks Syntek is oddly charming as (okay, I'll say it) the Argentine Elton John. Obie Bermudez shows a little wear from his incessant promotion of Confesiones, leaning too much on his vibrato. Then around 2:00 a.m. Vico C stirs up what was left of the conference-weary industry crowd, reminding us why he was the one that started this whole urban Latin thing way back when. The calls for a Vico encore are inevitable, pushing Babasónicos' long-awaited appearance past 3:00 a.m. By then the band is tired and pissed and about to leave for New York City in a couple of hours. Forget the encore; the die-hard fans don't even get a full set.

"No 'Fizz,'" Rodriguez scowls as soon as he sees me. For now at least, Latin pop's beautiful lie falls flat.

 
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