THE PITTSBURGH OF MEXICO” is one of the more printable insults lobbed at the steel-industry town of Monclova. From Monterrey, the home base of the two-man band Plastilina Mosh—whose 1998 debut, Aquamosh (EMI), sold faster south of the border than anything by Selena—the city is a bleak two-and-a-half-hour drive, mile after scrub-brush mile of barbed-wire fences separating nothing from nothing. 

On this day the duo’s destination is Icarus, a disco in the middle of town with a capacity of six hundred. Like a lot of Mexican discos, Icarus resembles the set of Saturday Night Fever: Mirror-plated columns and a mechanized ball hanging over the center of the floor vie for attention with classical statuary guarding the restrooms. Though American rock stars wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this, Plastilina’s Alejandro Rosso and Jonas (no last name; just Jonas) have seen this sort of joint before. And even if the surroundings are squarely seventies, the kids who show up for the six o’clock all-ages show are up-to-the-minute—especially the nine-to-thirteen-year-old girls decked out in fashionable thick-soled sneakers and microscopic backpacks.

Plastilina’s set is their usual mix of punk, funk, hip-hop, and jazz, and when it’s over, they have to make like the Beatles landing at Kennedy Airport in ’64: They run through the back alley and leap into their van, not quite quick enough to avoid the crush of girls who swarm all over the vehicle, jumping on the sides, pressing their lips against the windows, squealing with unmistakably sexual delight. The scene wasn’t so different earlier that day when the band held a press conference in a back room of the Ludivina Hotel. It went on for about an hour, and after it was over, the nearly twenty journalists in attendance—male and female—lined up to get autographs and be photographed shaking hands with Alejandro and Jonas or planting a kiss on their cheeks. A few went for the mouth.

Who are these musical matinee idols? For starters, they’re a study in contrasts. Alejandro, 26, grew up playing classical piano and got turned on to jazz by a music teacher who played saxophone with Buddy Rich. He dresses nicely, grooms himself well, and looks like the plastic surgeon’s son he is. Jonas, 23, grew up playing in punk bands, wears cut-off shirts that reveal his tribal tattoos, bleaches his hair blond, and has a pierced nose. At their press conferences Alejandro pulls a Gen-X revamp of upper-class hauteur: He gives his questioners a dazed look, as if he’s suffering from momentary aphasia, then favors them with an inscrutably delphic utterance. Jonas plays the part of the potty-mouthed prole: When one interviewer says they look bello (“beautiful”), he feigns exasperation and asks, “We look like vello [“pubic hair”]?!?” When another asks what sort of responsibility they feel toward their pre-teen fans, Alejandro launches into a lengthy, sober-sounding answer. Jonas responds by lighting up a cigarette.

What they have in common, however, is a childhood spent in Mexico’s third-largest city. Monterrey (population: 3,000,000) is something of an anomaly. Dominated for generations by two Sephardic Jewish families, it’s always been a prosperous, industrial town—unapologetically capitalistic in a manner that has often discomfited the socialist powers that have run the country. There is poverty, to be sure, especially where the land begins to slope upward toward a picturesque and jagged mountain range, but in the heart of town one is more likely to notice the first-rate art museums, fine restaurants serving cabrito, the regional specialty, and dazzlingly beautiful women dressed in the latest European fashions.

A mere two hours from the Texas border, Monterrey—like many norteño towns—admires yanqui industriousness and has always drunk deeply from the well of American pop culture. “In Monterrey,” says Alejandro in his accented but fluent English, “even little shacks have satellite dishes. Drive out on the highway and you’ll see them on top of gas stations.” Texas musicians who’ve started playing in Monterrey in the past couple of years can testify to the influence. Los Skarnales, a Houston band self-described as “ska-rockabilly with swing influences,” recently heard rumors that bootleg cassettes of their music were in wide circulation there. “We didn’t really believe it, so we decided to call around,” says the band’s manager, Joshua Mares. “Sure enough, we found a TV program—Des Velados—that wanted us to play live on their show and a promoter who offered to pay all our expenses. We played at an indoor stadium in front of four hundred or five hundred kids—and some of them already knew our lyrics.” That kind of reception, Mares emphasizes, “is better than we get in Houston.”

The Houston hip-hop turntablist group Mathmatech DJs also played their first Monterrey gig recently “The audience knew almost everything, from obscure James Brown tracks to [Japanese artist] DJ Krush to [France’s] DJ Cam to California DJs like Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Q-Bert,” says Mathmatechnician Eric Castillo, a.k.a. DJ Ceeplus. “I talked to lot of them, and they drive to Texas or Louisiana—particularly Austin—to buy twelve-inch singles they can’t find at home.” Thanks to the city’s relative prosperity, such trips are a regular occurrence. “Most people in Monterrey go to Texas five or six times a year, and maybe on New Year’s they go to San Antonio or Houston,” explains Jonas, remembering his many trips across the border. “I was at Lollapalooza in ’93. It was the first time I saw Rage Against the Machine, who I like a lot. That sound I make on my guitar on ‘Niño Bomba,’ where it sounds like a DJ scratching—that’s the kind of thing I got from [Rage guitarist] Tom Morello.”

This intimate knowledge of American culture can be heard on Aquamosh, which veers between English and Spanish lyrics and the instrumental stylings of the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Liberace. In the U.S. that might simply seem like a canny commercial recipe, but in Mexico it adds up to something more. Alejandro describes Mexican rock as chronically “underdeveloped,” and all the evidence you need is in a large Mexican record store like Mix-Up, where you have to wade through rows and rows of Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins CDs before finding anything in Spanish. And even then it’s likely to be a section devoted to teen starlets—the Mexican equivalent of Britney Spears.

Or at least that’s how it has been. At the moment, Mexican rock is going through a painful but exciting transition, what African-American pop experienced in the early seventies when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder told Berry Gordy they wanted to write their own songs and make albums that were more than collections of singles and filler. To them, that meant getting “serious”—drawing jazz and anti-war protests into the mainstream of black pop. For Mexican bands, working in a very different place at a very different time, the recipe is very different. Rather than getting serious, they turn into bottom-feeders, drawing what Jonas calls “U.S. trash culture” into the mainstream of Mexican pop. Plastilina’s peers—Molotov, Control Machete, Zurdok Movimento—have retrofitted the iconoclastic sounds of hip-hop, punk, and indie rock to their own particular battles against the hokey Mexican musical establishment.

AS FAME AND FORTUNE SWIRL AROUND PLASTILINA, confusion seems to be the order of the day. Standing one night outside Bar-Rio Antiguo, a well-appointed nightclub in the historic district of Monterrey, Jonas jerks his head for a moment as if something doesn’t quite make sense. Then he adjusts his internal clock to celebrity time—“Right, I’m famous now,” he might be thinking—and laughs. Bleeding through the club’s entryway is the sound that has momentarily set him off: the cover band inside launching into a version of Plastilina’s recent hit, “Mr. P. Mosh.” Two years ago Jonas was playing covers with some of these very guys at a place down the street. Now he’s getting comped at the door and the bar, asked for his autograph, treated like royalty. “They’re always complaining,” he says of his former colleagues. “They’re like ‘We have to play your song! We hate it!’” Obviously, “hate” is too strong a word. Once Jonas and his entourage get inside, he’s inexorably pulled onto the stage, where he grabs a guitar and joins the band for three numbers: a tune by the much-loved Argentinian band Soda Stereo; “New York, New York”; and that old frontera anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Alejandro was too tired to go out this night, and for good reason. A week ago Plastilina completed a U.S. tour opening for the Anglo-Indian band Cornershop in anticipation of the American release of Aquamosh. A few days ago they threw a big party celebrating the record’s gold certification in Mexico. Two hours ago they played the Globofest radio festival in front of 18,000 screaming teens at Monterrey’s Fundidora Auditorium.

Sponsored by Televisa—the country’s largest media conglomerate—Globofest featured classic Mexican radio fodder: a succession of pre-packaged pop stars singing and dancing to canned tracks. Ernesto Dalesio, who went on before Plastilina, is a smooth-chested pretty boy, a Latino Usher who drives the girls crazy every time he hikes up his shirt. The group that followed them, La Onda Vaselina, is a septet of dolled-up boys and girls in matching costumes doing synchronized movements to crappy pop. Their name (rough translation: “New Wave Vaseline”) seems as nonsensical a moniker as Plastilina Mosh’s (“Play-Doh Mosh”) until Alejandro explains: “The movie Grease—in Mexico, it was called Vaselina.”

Plastilina have allowed themselves to be sandwiched in between these sorts of acts because of an unofficial promotional quid pro quo: If Televisa played “Mr. P. Mosh” on its radio stations, the duo would appear at Globofest. But Jonas and Alejandro, like rockers everywhere, aren’t sure they like the smell of teen spirit. “Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it sucks,” says Jonas of the adolescent girls who scream and cry and swarm him and his partner wherever they go. They scream and cry and swarm when Dalesio and Vaselina are onstage too, which makes the whole thing suspect in his eyes. As Alejandro puts it, “They’re not only your groupies—they’re groupies.”

Plastilina’s road manager, Benjamín Rodríguez, recognizes these distinctions too. “See back there, against the wall?” he asks during Dalesio’s set, pointing toward the furthermost seats in the arena. “When there’s a real rock show, the kids back there burn T-shirts for the band.”

“Will we see that tonight?”

“No, not for this kind of music,” he says, wincing as Dalesio begins overemoting a Spanish-language cover of “I Only Want to Be With You.”

When Jonas and Alejandro go on, things shift dramatically. Their short set is ragged but enthusiastic. Alejandro—wearing an Ace bandage around his head since an audience member in Tijuana tossed a bottle at him—wanders around in a faux daze, falls down on the stage, and then attacks his keyboard. Jonas paces around, schmoozes with the audience, and then breaks out a cookie-shaped guitar that Alejandro built for him. They run through three songs—“Niño Bomba,” “Afroman,” and “Mr. P. Mosh”—that emphasize their party heartiness by featuring Beastie Boys—styled call-and-response raps and old-school hip-hop beats. After the set two representatives from Televisa—a beefy guy in a suit and a babe in a low-cut dress—walk onstage to present them with medals.

This made sense for all the other groups, but the official commendation clashes with Jonas’ tattoos, and the guy in the suit looks a little lost out there, a little clueless about what Jonas and Alejandro are up to. But not too clueless: Gazing out at the thousands of screaming Plastilina Mosh fans, he must recognize that this—the explicit black flavor, the proud lack of polish, the Beck-inspired cut-’n’-paste textures—is what the Mexican music industry is going to look like in a few years, and he might as well hop on for the ride right now.

In the back of the hall, someone is burning a T-shirt.

Jeff Salamon writes for Rolling Stone and Spin.