Tuned Out

Why the tejano music industry hasn’t recovered the death of Selena.

Is tejano dead? That question has been kicked around so often since 1995, when Selena died tragically, one might actually start believing that the music of assimilation has assimilated itself into extinction. And justifiably so. No other tejano artist has come close to achieving her success. Selena Quintanilla Perez was the total package: She was talented, she was smart, she was attractive, and she was a star destined for greater stardom. Even five years after her murder, she’s still the biggest thing in tejano. Sales of her albums remain strong, with two new compilations recently appearing on the Billboard 200 national album charts, a level that no tejano act has reached since her passing. In March the biggest buzz at the Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio was the new musical based on Selena’s life, which was kicking off a Texas tour before heading to Broadway.

There’s no question that had she lived, Selena would be at the forefront of the Latin music explosion that has raised the profiles of Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, and Christina Aguilera, a movement in which the absence of any tejano act is glaring. Emilio’s prominence has declined as traditionalists like Bobby Pulido and Michael Salgado have grown more popular; he has also suffered from well-publicized personal problems. La Mafia, which had rivaled Selena in sales, was torn apart by a lawsuit filed by departing co-founder Leonard Gonzales and has only recently gotten back on its feet with a three-record deal with the Los Angeles-based label Fonovisa. Mazz split in two, with singer Joe Lopez forming La Nueva Imagen de Mazz and creative director Jimmy Gonzalez putting together the Original Mazz. But even with Selena’s contemporaries struggling, does that mean tejano is dead?

“If it’s dead, I’m out of a job,” sighs Jonny Ramirez as he picks at his steak at an upscale restaurant near the San Antonio airport. As the morning host of KXTN-FM, Tejano 107.5, Ramirez is literally the voice of the music in the capital city of tejano. Both he and his drive-time partner, J. D. Gonzalez, say that tejano appears to be undergoing an identity crisis, but they wonder whether it’s a reality or a matter of perception. Ramirez acknowledges that KXTN is no longer the city’s top-rated station, as it was during the mid-nineties, but he points out that it is among the three most-listened-to stations in San Antonio, that its audience numbers are higher than ever, and that the cost of a one-minute advertisement on Tejano 107.5 is higher than that at any other frequency in the city. Since the station went on the Internet at the beginning of the year, e-mails from listeners as far away as Guam have poured in.

“We’ve got our own sound,” explains Gonzalez. “Our market is so specific. We’re not a mainstream genre.” Ramirez agrees: “It’s not a sound, per se. It’s a lifestyle. We love rock and roll, blues, jazz, country. We’re hard to pin down.” Ramirez and Gonzalez are typical of the tejano listener: Both are under forty, sophisticated, and bilingual, and they’re both trying to make sense of tejano’s latest trend: a return to the rural ranchera sound that tejano sought to separate itself from when it emerged in

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