Liberators of Latin pop: (from left) Antoinette Zel, Cristian Jofr, Charlie Singer, Jos Tilln
Steve Satterwhite

Yo Quiero Mi MTV

Simón Bolívar's dream of a unified Latin American republic died hacking and wheezing in Colombia in 1830. Che Guevara's vision of a Latin American revolution took a bullet in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967. Tonight's attempt by MTV to rally the region around a music video awards show -- the first MTV Video Music Awards Latin America (VMALA) -- might appear a less lofty aspiration. But that doesn't make it any easier for the network to get kids from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego to turn on and tune in. What's hot in Managua is not in Santiago. That smash hit in Buenos Aires just won't play in Monterrey. How can a single show come off cool and connected to 22 different Latin American countries -- especially when the show is broadcast live from Miami Beach?Nevertheless, this pop-culture Bolívarian campaign is being plotted from a sixth-floor conference room at the MTV offices in the Sun Trust Bank Building at the corner of Alton and Lincoln roads. A replica of the astronaut who planted the MTV flag on the moon in early promos for the U.S. network looks down on a meeting of 40 tattooed twentysomethings and a handful of MTV veterans over 35 as they report on their progress sixteen days before the show will air.

In place of the great South American liberator sits executive producer (and senior vice president of programming and production) Charlie Singer, an unassuming Anglo who was there when MTV began 21 years ago in New York City, then helped launch the network in New Zealand, before staking claim to Latin America. Singer listens as Los Angeles-based producer Audrey Morrissey, another long-time hand who has put together numerous awards shows for the U.S. network, calls for reports on marketing, talent, content, logistics.

With her shoulder-length blond hair, blue-tinted glasses, and slight Valley accent, Morrissey vibes less Latina than Phoebe on Friends. She points out that while the show will be in Spanish, the production documents will be in English. "Fortunately our TelePrompTer operator speaks Spanish," she adds for a laugh. Later she warns staff that the woman in charge of the credits does not, so make sure she has your name spelled right.

Next Morrissey congratulates José Tillán, vice president of music and artist relations, for already having booked "100 percent of the talent and 85 percent of the presenters." Tillán has all the biggest names in Latin rock and pop -- Carlos Santana, Shakira, Maná, Café Tacuba, Paulina Rubio, Juanes, Diego Torres, and on and on -- as well as international acts Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, System of a Down, Lenny Kravitz, and Johnny Knoxville, the host of MTV's gross-out show Jackass, which is wildly popular throughout Latin America.

The room applauds.

Tillán bows his salt-and-pepper head.

Then Morrissey launches into a "little show and tell" on an overhead screen, rolling a series of short spots announcing the nominees for video of the year in a booming masculine voice of indeterminate national origin.

"We're going to try to switch to a female voiceover," interjects Singer.

"I definitely want a strong, deep, sexy female voice to balance out our two male hosts," Morrissey agrees.

All around the table, people shout the name "Sasha."

The young woman who must be Sasha accepts the mock offer like a good sport.

"Can you do a neutral accent?" jokes Singer.

Sasha nods.

"C'mon Sasha, say 'Shakira,'" Singer commands.

"Shaaaaa-kiraaa!" Sasha purrs as the room erupts in laughter.

When MTV Latin America opened on Lincoln Road in 1993, blond Sony bombshell Shakira was still a curvy dark-haired beauty unknown outside her native Colombia -- and the tastes of Latin American viewers were anything but neutral. So when MTV exported its music video network and signature "irreverence" (the network's favorite word) down Latin America way, the company ended up splitting its programming into three separate feeds (North, Southeast, and Southwest) and setting up offices in Mexico City and Buenos Aires to keep in touch with the biggest markets. MTV Latin America transmits plenty of North American rock and pop -- Jackass and The Osbournes, System of a Down, and Avril Lavigne -- but for the past nine years it has thrown in Latin American bands and humor as well. That strategy has allowed the network to break bands across the region that might only have been big in their home countries.

"We were a crucial platform to export this music," says Tillán, naming bands MTV has boosted regionwide. "[Colombia's] Aterciopelados. [Mexico's] Café Tacuba. [Argentina's] Fabulosos Cadillacs. We were reaching all these countries. Radio only reaches your city. We took chances. We believed in bands from the beginning, like Juanes. That first record didn't sell at all."

"But we liked it," Singer chimes in, preferring to come off as a genuine music fanatic rather than a calculating industry exec.

Just as the U.S. network's role in breaking obscure bands in the Eighties (Adam Ant, anyone?) caught the attention of American record labels, MTV Latin America's power in promoting a number of otherwise alternative Latin bands soon brought the majors -- many with relatively new Latin imprints -- knocking on the door.

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."

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."

"The biggest joke," admits the executive producer, born and raised in the U.S., "is that I'm the arbiter."

Maybe. Then again, that's a joke with a familiar punchline: Latin American creativity, North American technocracy.

But who knows -- maybe in the labyrinth of pan-regional Latin America, the dream of an independent pop culture isn't so far away.


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