Paulina Rubio is even sexier in English than in Spanish. Or maybe it’s not she but her music that’s sexier. You can compare the two great dance-sex tracks on Border Girl, her first English-language album, to the Spanish versions, and in the English there’s more thrill in her quavers and sighs. In Spanish, “Sexi Dance” has more breath action, and the track rocks and funks hard, but redone in English as “Fire—Sexy Lover,” it’s got a lighter accompaniment that breathes and sighs along with Paulina, who therefore doesn’t have to put so much lung into it herself.
And in the English version of her current hit, “Don’t Say Goodbye,” she holds back her voice more, and again this makes her body seem more present in the music. And speaking of her body, I’m not at all sure whether Paulina is redheaded or blonde (perhaps I should re-word that: I’m not sure whether she’s being redheaded or blonde). In the color photos on her Web site her hair looks red, but that might just be the lighting. On the album cover she seems to be a dirty blonde, and her many black-and-white photos all scream “blonde”—maybe the hair’s shape and style are “blonde,” regardless of the color. Nonblondes don’t have such wavy multitoned glamour. They have dark fiery glamour instead. Redheads are the exception, I suppose—they’re allowed to combine the two glamours.
As for the color of Paulina’s voice, it’s brown and rough; brown and rough seem to be the Mexican vocal standard for beauties (cf. Gloria Trevi). In English Rubio un-roughs herself a bit, which makes her disco songs sexier but makes her bouncy songs less bouncy and her wailing songs less full. She rocks and stomps and weeps better in Spanish, but she sighs and swoons and gushes better in English. So you need to hear her in both languages.
I love “Don’t Say Goodbye” in any language. Songs like this take in the basic throb of music, the immediate joy and beauty, the music in the music, the joy-beauty-throb that more officially subcultural dance musics (house, techno, garage) aren’t so sure they want. Straight-up pop and sex music. Not that there’s anything extraordinary in “Don’t Say Goodbye,” other than its being very good—probably the best piece of music released this decade. It’s just another deliriously beautiful dance song, one of a slew that have been breaking pop recently, hits by Iio and Amber and LeAnn and Kylie, from which you can get much the same thing. And if you want to you can reach back into your record collection and feel the sexy dance in “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” or “Fascinated” or “When I Hear Music” or “Don’t Leave Me This Way” or “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the melody of which briefly appears in the background of “Don’t Say Goodbye”). Such music plays in different ways for different listeners: as unnoticed or detested commercial pop, as pretty radio music on the drive home from work, as yet another Saturday-night beat to dance to, as a transcendent dancefloor moment when the sighs and reverb seem to inhabit all of space, as leisure-time sex and giggle. We really ought to call this music disco—the tuna that tastes good rather than the tuna with good taste, the stuff that hardly cares what it symbolizes, whose great decade even more than the ’70s was the ’80s, when the word disco fell into disfavor (even better reason to use it) but the music became the real worldbeat: freestyle in New York and Miami, Hi-NRG and New Romantic in Britain, Europop in Italy and Germany, available on cheap “Hits Collections” out of Mexico and pirated as “East Beat” and “Summer Dance Hits” cassettes in Singapore and Hong Kong. And disco still carries on, ready to pop up anywhere. (LeAnn Rimes’s “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.” I love it: a dance remix of a Dianne Warren tune sung by a country singer off the soundtrack of an already forgotten movie from a couple of years back. And it still won’t leave the radio alone.)
As I type I’m again visiting the Paulina Rubio Web site, which is playing an endless loop of “Don’t Say Goodbye,” which I continue to love love love. But I know no more than most Anglos about her extra-musical persona. A Latin American beauty, daughter of a famous actress, lived in L.A. and Spain as well as Mexico, long time in teenybopper band Timbiriche, starred on a TV soap. Yet reading her bio, I feel the shock of recognition, an unexpected sense of identity with her, one artist perceiving another: “‘I think music is like love,’ sighs the south-of-the-border phenomenon, when asked about her first foray beyond the Latin market. ‘You kiss someone to give and receive an energy, a connection. I’m trying to connect to people worldwide, to send out my musical kiss around the whole planet.'” I myself made almost identical comments when I became a technical editor, my first foray beyond legal proofreading: “I think that technical editing is like love; you produce an RCRA Part B Permit Application to give and receive an energy, a connection.” And listen to Paulina here: “‘My mom was shooting a lot of films in Europe when I was young, so we were traveling with her around the world, with a lot of artists around: writers, architects, singers, filmmakers,’ exclaims Rubio. ‘It made me very independent, and that is when I started making some of my own decisions, at around 7 or 8.'” Again, the resemblance is uncanny. My mom wasn’t an actress—she was a statistician, in fact—but she was the woman who toilet-trained me (exclaims Kogan), and that is when I started making some of my own decisions. Just ask my mother.
” ‘My music is in nightclubs, but also in kindergartens and at weddings, and all kinds of places,’ she says of her broad appeal. ‘In music, there are no rules. Like painting, you can mix color and textures.'” Well, she has me here, I guess: My writing has never been in kindergartens, since I couldn’t spell yet. But some of my drawings were. And writing, like music, has no rules (unless you count grammar, meaning, diction, coherence, comprehensibility—those sorts of things). You can mix nouns and verbs. In the same sentence.
The fact that Rubio is good in a number of styles means that there’s a consistent aesthetic intelligence at work—good music results from thought, a multitude of judgments and choices, on every record (though maybe promo-sheet babble doesn’t best represent it). As for what Paulina’s trying to say in her fan bio, I doubt that “Don’t Say Goodbye” comes across as her kiss to the world, that there’s a particular woman with a particular body and hairstyle and history whom I’m responding to. Amber and LeAnn could have done this kiss too, as could a whole bunch of others who are only names to me, or unnamed voices. Paulina hasn’t made the genre a vehicle for her personality, and she doesn’t need to. She doesn’t need to be a Shakira or a Mariah. Her point about “no rules” is that she’s free to do a bunch of different musical forms—rock, ranchera, bolero, ballad, disco. But I don’t see how that’s so free, since all pop singers are multistylists; that’s one of the rules of modern pop. However, Paulina does seem to benefit from disco’s haphazard omnivorousness. When the even-more-eclectic Celine Dion covers Nat King Cole or duets with Pavarotti, she’s displaying her bona fides as a singer, whereas when Paulina does a disco cover of Kiss’s “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” she’s got no point to make other than let’s see what this’ll sound like. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” had always wanted to be disco anyway, and back in 1975 K-Tel Records had already declared Kiss a disco act by including Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” on K-Tel’s Disco Mania compilation, right between the Hues Corporation and BT Express. Like, I was made for discoing, baby; you were made to disco me.