Parks and Recreation, “The Comeback Kid” | Leslie’s Ice Rink Campaign Stop (NBC, 2011)
I. WHY GLORIA ESTEFAN? AND WHO’S GLORIA ESTEFAN?
At the risk of explaining the joke, much of the humor of the above clip arises from the dissonance between the slow, awkward fumbling of the actors and the upbeat, confident music that periodically soundtracks their movements. That music is Gloria Estefan’s 1989 single “Get On Your Feet,” off the album Cuts Both Ways, the first credited to her as a solo artist.
It’s entirely possible, though, to imagine the scene being just as humorously effective — perhaps even more so — with a different song playing over it. “Get Ready For This,” perhaps, or “2 Legit 2 Quit,” or “I Believe I Can Fly,” all of which are at least as cheesy as “Get On Your Feet,” and some of which might be even funnier juxtaposed with Amy Poehler lying exhausted on her back.
But if the staff of Parks and Recreation knows anything, it’s their characters. Leslie Knope would have chosen the music for this event, and she wouldn’t pick Dutch eurohouse (which would be unpatriotic), pop-rap (which would be too “divisive” i.e. black), or inspirational R&B (again, too black, and due to its singer comes with a built-in layer of irony that would have penetrated even her clueless-white-lady consciousness). “Get On Your Feet” is the perfect Leslie Knope anthem: energetic, optimistic, earnest, dorky, unfashionable, terminally uncool, and politically diffuse, urging the listener to vague “action” without ever taking an identifiable partisan stance.
That list of adjectives is not a bad starting place for talking about the music of Gloria Estefan. Many more apply, of course, and I intend to deploy them over the course of this week. But if it is the case, as I believe it is, that Gloria Estefan was and is as monumental a figure in the landscape of popular music (1980-present) as contemporaries like Madonna, George Michael, Whitney Houston, and Sade, then those adjectives constitute one of the primary arguments against me.
This is because in the Anglosphere (the climate of opinion which prevails among those who speak English, especially in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) it is commonly accepted that being uncool or unfashionable is the cardinal sin of popular music. The Anglosphere also tends to behave as though coolness and fashionability are objective realities; the metrics change over time, of course, but at any given point in history you can dip into the timestream and determine what was cool and what wasn’t. In 1984, when Miami Sound Machine had their first crossover hit, Grace Jones was cool; Menudo was not. Hüsker Dü was cool; Barbara Mandrell was not. New Order was cool; Joan Baez was not.
In the Hispanosphere, on the other hand, the politics of cool, while still very much present among the young, the urban, and the whitish, have less influence. In part this is because the Hispanosphere is too diffuse to have any central agreed-upon aesthetic — Spain is not Cuba is not Argentina is not Mexico is not Colombia is not Puerto Rico — and in part because commercial popular music is not considered exclusively or even primarily the domain of the young, as it has been considered in the Anglosphere since the 60s. (Incorrectly, if you look at the data; but that’s a topic for another day.) Gloria Estefan is as much a product of the international Latin-Music market as she is a product of the United States’ music culture, and the Latin market’s appetite for the kind of sounds and visuals that read in Anglo-America as earnestness, tackiness, and schmaltz is vast, all-embracing, and intensely pleasurable.
But none of this is answering the question I posed with the title of this piece. Why Gloria Estefan?
A: Because I think her music has been criminally underrecognized by critics and by all who discuss music, especially pop music. Because she’s made several of the greatest records of her era. Because she was one of the first secular pop singers I learned to enjoy as a young teenager taking my first tentative steps out of the all-evangelical world where I spent my first twelve years. (This week will not be dedicated to nostalgia, but it will play a part.)
And who is Gloria Estefan?
Oh, that’s right, Tumblr; everyone here is thirteen. You might know the name; you might have heard a song or two in ambient commercial venues, where she occupies the same general space as LaBouche, Right Said Fred, and Fine Young Cannibals, but unless you’ve payed close attention to Latin radio (or live in Miami) you might not have ever heard her as a significant pop artist rather than as a goofy relic. I’m not going to summarize her Wikipedia article; you can read it yourselves. The main thing to know is that she was the voice of Miami Sound Machine up to 1988, and then the record sleeves stopped crediting Miami Sound Machine, but the same people were still writing, playing, recording, and producing the music. Those people were all Latino; specifically, Cuban.
That’s where we’re picking up next time.
I’m not a fan of Gloria Estefan, but this is really interesting.