New Order had never performed in San Antonio before last weekend, which gave the British synth-rock band’s March 11 show at the AT&T Center the emotional weight of a four-decade communion.
The rapturous arena crowd included city councilor Melissa Cabello Havrda, an unabashed alternative rock fan, and state representative Diego Bernal, an electronic musician in his own right.
Bernal, who admitted on Twitter that he went to the concert knowing only the band’s radio hits, declared the AT&T Center performance “one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time.”
Coincidentally, a couple of days after the New Order concert, I came across an interesting interview on the Chicago radio/podcast show Sound Opinions with Richard T. Rodríguez, professor of English and media and cultural studies at the University of California, riverside.
Rodríguez spoke about his latest book, “A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and US Latinidad,” which Duke University Press released last September.
Partly a work of pop culture history and partly a remembrance of Rodríguez’s adolescent experience as a Mexican-American from Southern California obsessed with British post-punk music, “A Kiss Across the Ocean” explores the bond that exists between time between Latinos and British 80s rockers.
The book takes its title from a 1984 Culture Club concert special, and Rodríguez opens with a vivid account of February of that year, when his mother left 12-year-old Rodríguez and his sister at his aunt Irene’s apartment in Santa Ana, California on a Saturday morning.
When Rodríguez entered the apartment, he was greeted by Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” video playing on a small TV set atop a stereo.
“The lead singer of the band — a charming, confident, gender-ambiguous figure I would soon come to know as Boy George — captured and held my gaze throughout the music video,” Rodríguez writes. “He moves me deeply and immediately influences my lifelong attachment to popular music.”
Rodríguez is interested in why Latinos gravitate to 1980s British post-punk, but it’s to his credit that he rejects the simplistic, knee-jerk motivations that often accompany stories about ex-Smiths singer Morrissey’s Mexican-American fan base , like the idea that Morrissey’s melodramatic emotionality makes Chicanos feel at home.
For Rodríguez, it’s perfectly natural for Latinos to be drawn to 1980s British music, in the same way it was perfectly natural for his mother to love the Beatles and Carole King.
During his interview with Sound Opinions, he pointed out that Latinos were drawn to 1980s British post-punk for a variety of reasons. But he suggests that many Latinos found the music appealing not because it was reassuringly familiar, but because it sounded so excitingly unfamiliar. It offered the potential to escape your identity and reinvent yourself.
“Latino and black kids are attracted to this music because it represents something completely different from what they are used to,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a way for them to express themselves.
“There can be certain types of ethnic or cultural resonances between their identities and music, but I also think it represents a certain type of connection where people are able to express themselves in a way that takes them away from these very hard and fast notions about what it means to be Latino or what it means to be black.
Rodríguez’s book, however, deals less with the question of why Latinos love this music than with how that love manifested itself and produced “mutual intimacy” with British post-punk artists of the 1980s.
For example, the leader of Siouxsie and the Banshees changed her name from Susan Janet Ballion to Siouxsie Sioux due to her love of Native Americans.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson (whom Rodriguez has befriended in recent years) paid tribute to her Latino fans on her first solo album with the song “Americanos,” a top five hit in England in 1989.
The relatively obscure band Blue Rondo à la Turk incorporated Afro-Cuban beats into their music and wore zoot suits that served as a nod to the LA Chicanos of the 1940s.
Adam Ant expressed his fascination with Latino culture on 1982’s embarrassed, deaf B-side, “Juanito the Bandito.”
Every Thursday afternoon, Rodríguez, under the guise of Dr. Ricky on the radio, streams his favorite 80s British post-punk classics on UC Riverside’s KUCR-FM.
Ultimately, Rodriguez’s book is a tribute to the music that not only provided a soundtrack to his adolescence but also allowed him to navigate his way through the thorny issues of identity.
Judging by the crowd at last week’s New Order show, that music had a similar effect on many of us.