The novelist Ngugi wa Thiongõ once complained that it is impossible to write satire about Kenya; the dictatorship that rules his native land is already too absurd. No writer could possibly invent anything more ridiculous. The same could be said about the contemporary-music industry, which might as well be called the image industry for all that the sound of music has to do with it.
I thought I was poking fun at the industry's image mania recently when I wrote an article that focused not on Elvis Crespo's new music but on his new hairdo (see "Crespo's New 'Do," October 26). I never dreamed the story really was all about the hair. I learned I had been duped when a Sony Music publicist called shortly after the interview, asking me to sign a release form swearing that New Times would not publish the photos of Crespo's shorn look until November 1. While release dates on CD reviews are common, this was the first time we'd ever been handed a release date for a haircut. I did not sign. Instead, with the article going to press, our art director generated a number of possible coifs on the computer -- it was a gag.
Until last week, when the real photos finally showed up -- a veritable catalogue for a merengue Barbie. There's Everyday Elvis gripping a chair in a plain white T-shirt, his hair flying up above his freckled nose. There's Nightlife Elvis in a black button-down shirt, his hair a textured helmet framing his full sensuous lips. There's Street Elvis, back pressed against an exterior wall, arm flung across a concrete fence, his bangs framing the thoughtful furrow in his brow. Then there's Martha Graham Elvis in a black leather tie, his elbow crooked above his head, and his hand pointed like a shadow-play swan's head, gripping several locks of feathered hair between his pinkie and fourth finger. Finally there's Speed Racer Elvis, the Elvis of the CD cover and publicity photos. Also known as Japanimation Elvis, this Elvis is posed in a stark oversize black leather jacket against an orange and black background. Japanimation Elvis's features have been airbrushed to the pink smoothness of fetal tissue. No more freckles, no more olive skin tone. The cracks have been filled in on his ruddy peach lips, now darkened to a papaya red. All flesh about his chin has been stretched as taut as a drum, and the endearing real-life foxy point of his nose has been honed to the sharpness of a stiletto. The layers of his hair have been straightened like the edges of so many razors. His right eye dissolves into the colored background like the stop- motion disaster photos of an Eighties nuclear-scare film. He is engulfed in the Wow! Flash! of his new album's title, just as his music, in his most daring recording ever, is eclipsed by his jet-black wisps.
On December 4 no fewer than five photos of the nuptials between Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola and Mexican telenovela star-cum-songstress Thalia arrived by e-mail, 4583k of conjugal spin direct from an Estefan Enterprises publicist. "I am living my own fairy tale," said the blushing bride in a press release that accompanied the photos. This fairy tale is a familiar one: The wealthy king (after being dumped by Mariah Carey) strides out to the provinces in search of a humble (Latina) village lass to make his queen. A wizard introduces them -- none other than our own superproducer, local Sony executive and best man Emilio Estefan. Many of our neighborhood luminaries made the trip to Manhattan for the ceremony: Gloria Estefan, Cristina Saralegui, Julio Iglesias, and Fernando Carrillo among many others. President Clinton regretted that he could not attend.
Even without the presence of the national executive, the tale takes on historical overtones. Maximillian I, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, launched a series of marriages that forged the Hapsburg dynasty in Europe at the end of the Fifteenth Century when he declared, "Let others wage war; thou, happy Austria, marry." Latin pop, only recently nudging into mainstream U.S. markets, will now have a permanent home at Sony Music, guaranteed by the domestic bliss of the mogul and the Mexican starlet -- for as long as that lasts.
Trussed up in a dress that weighs 80 kilos (more, we might wager, than the actress herself) and cost $400,000, Thalia is banking that the future of her singing career will stretch at least as long as her bridal train, which seemed to slither all the way down the aisle at St. Patrick's Cathedral and out on to the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue, where thousands of Latino fans turned out to see CD royalty. The bride has been described as "beautiful," "radiant," and "precious." Any mention of Thalia's singing voice? No matter. Let others take voice lessons; thou, happy Sony, marry.
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