Pop music loves its cultural contradictions and Rosalía knows this. So, although she portrays herself as a caricature of a flaming Española at times, she isn’t as provincial as she appears. And although her videos gone viral are an explosion of high definition eye-popping color, beneath it all her Flamenco spirit is rooted in melancholic sepia tone of dusty folklore.
Rosalía, 25, is a pony-tailed millennial with the voice of an angel who is exporting deep Spain’s pueblo culture to the world while donning hot pants, crop tops, platform sneakers, and suburban long nails. Originally set to become a new kind of Lola Flores, creative twists and turns have now led her down a path of having been crowned the new queen of world pop music instead so that the Spanish now call her “our Beyoncé.”
Thanks to loads of maja charisma, a hypnotizing reggaeton hook, and a few talented producer buddies, her hit song “Con Altura” is not only the song of the Iberian summer, but the world’s. Like with Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” the song has become an auditory addiction for both Spanish and non-speakers alike. See Oprah magazine’s translation of “Con Altura” lyrics as proof.
As a writer, producer, singer and dancer who knows what she wants, as well as who she wants to work with, Rosalía tapped the Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin along with producers Pablo Díaz-Reixa “El Guincho” from the Canary Islands, and the Canadian Frank Dukes, to pay homage to a Daddy Yankee old-school style of reggaeton. While surfing Youtube, they found a clip of the Dominican personality Mariachi Budda using a catchphrase that translates literally to “with altitude,” and they found their song´s thesis: living life with elegance, swagger and a perhaps a tad high.
According to The New York Times, in late June, the video approached half a billion views and 155 million plays on Spotify. Like in Flamenco, a genre that fuses cante and baile, Rosalia’s top-notch choreography is clearly just as important as the music she produces. The world has been mesmerized at how naturally she gyrates, throwing in palmas and sevillanas into a purely reggaeton setting, proving how deeply ingrained Spanish dance poses have already been in world music for decades.
For all her use of red, bling, and black eyeliner, a true gypsy she isn’t. Rosalía comes from Sant Esteve Sesrovires, about 25 miles west of Barcelona, and grew up speaking both Spanish and Catalan. Like many girls of the suburbs, she grew up around Catholic imagery, industrial complexes and with the sounds of motorcycles and trucks around her. Although she is not Andalusian, home of flamenco tradition, she trained with the country’s best and made a name for herself playing the music circuit and even appearing on a televised talent show. When she was 13, she discovered Cameron de la Isla, Spain’s all-time greatest Flamenco Romani (colloquially known as a gitano in Spanish) singer, which she described as her life before and after having heard him. She would go on to study at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya.
Her breakthrough 2018 album El Mal Querer combines true sounds of pained flamenco, but with elements of electro-pop for the Lady Gaga generation. It’s a conceptualized project that began as her university thesis and explores that dark machista way of loving that Latinos are infamous for. The album is arranged in 11 tracks, which are like chapters, inspired by an anonymous manuscript Flamenca, penned in the 14th century that she came upon and that moved her. The story is about a young woman who is locked up in a tower by her jealous husband and there’s also a romantic triangle. Rosalía takes us through the woman’s story, from the love affair’s doubt-filled beginnings with her second biggest global hit “Malamente” (Chapter 1: Augurio) to that final moment of broken empowerment in the last track, “A Ningún Hombre” (Chapter 11: Poder), with lyrics such as: “I won’t let any man dictate my future, only God can judge me.”
For those who carefully read the lyrics, the album is a disturbing series of threats of violence from a man to a woman. She travels into Kurt Cobain darkness yet manages to escape to goddess-like altitudes of psychic escapism. But as is the case with most Flamenco, there is fierce power in her pain which is palpable in the music. From the Tra! Tra! cries in “Malamente,” which her concert-goers like to sing aloud to, to the revving of motorcycle-engines and screeching tires of frantic getaways. To listen to the album with headphones is a journey into new flamenco a la Rosalía, with its muted guitars, pixelated vocals, crisp hand clapping and otherworldly sounds of literary imagination.
By mixing elements of flamenco, hip-hop, and electronica she has caused the world to fall in love with her duende, a Spanish word that means a heightened state of emotion, expression, and authenticity. Pharrell Willams is one of the many big names that have asked to collaborate with her and Pedro Almodóvar found a role for her in his latest film “Dolor y Gloria.” In the film, she and Penélope Cruz sing a duo to “A Tu Vera” by Lola Flores and while watching it, this reporter was grateful that the powers above gave us all the pain and glory that is Spain.