On Sunday, the unexpected death of Juan Gabriel, the Mexican singer-songwriter superstar, made front-page news all over the world. He was a unique icon across Latin America. Gabriel didn’t exude Julio Iglesias’ sleazy playboy appeal or employ the gently virile baritone of José José. His big, belting, melodramatic vocals and performance style, accentuated with occasional hip and hair shakes—and a signature finger-snapping move—both appealed and appalled. He became known as El Divo de Juarez, a male diva, in an appellation that captured some of the complexities of his gender-blurring persona, a unique combination of cheesy masculinity with feminine touches.
News stories mention his stunning sales figures (over 100 million records sold, from pop to rancheras) and his rags-to-riches soap opera life. Emerging from lower class origins in a deeply classist and racist society that dislikes reckoning with its racial hierarchies, he was also an unapologetically feminine man in a culture that profoundly denigrates femininity. The New York Times alluded to a former male lovers’ salacious tell-all as a way of acknowledging his never-stated sexuality. Rarely mentioned, and more relevant, is the fact that Gabriel found his most transcendent success in a genre that allowed him to turn his potentially stigmatized identities into musical gold. He was the master of a music often heard but rarely named: “musica para planchar.”
“Musica para planchar” or “musica de plancha” roughly translates into “ironing music.” The designation refers to a hard-to-pin-down modern pop sensibility, perhaps closest to what U.S. critics call schmaltz, mostly made during the early eighties until its last gasp in the early aughts. It is largely—though not exclusively—applied to ballads. This type of music features dramatic strings, trumpets and synths. The “ironing” label—originally pejorative but recently reclaimed—is meant to suggest the genre’s perceived feminine, domestic (and lower-class) consumers: maids and housewives who listen to its tragic stories while ironing, as if watching a soap opera. (The songs often became opening themes for popular telenovelas.) Most determining, perhaps, is its subject matter: the songs are written from—or for—a feminine perspective, even when performed by men, and focus on melodramatic stories of love and abjection, with sex evoked through euphemism and romance metaphors.
There are many stories to tell about plancha music, and its borders are porous, but some of the biggest hits by the early stars of the genre can give a sense of its sensibility: Yuri (“Maldita Primavera”, “Damn Spring”), Ana Gabriel (“Simplemente Amigos”, “Just Friends”), Marisela (“Dama de Hierro”, “Steel Woman”), Rocio Durcal (“Como tu Mujer,” “As Your Woman,”) Pandora (“Como te va Mi Amor,” “How Are You My Love””), Daniela Romo (“De mi Enamorate”, “Fall in Love With Me”, written by Gabriel). If these were the music’s queens, Gabriel—who wrote for many of them— was the genre’s undisputed king. His soap opera life gave him plenty of unspoken abjection to displace onto the form’s melodramatic stories, and he became its most prolific—and successful—auteur.
Like Rock Hudson, another performer whose life outside heteronormative conventions gave him unique insight into the aesthetics of masculinity, Gabriel knew how to craft the fantasies of male romance that some women—and men—desire. He was a master at turning the complications of male vulnerability into grand pop arias. His most iconic hit, “Querida,” is a man’s lament for his lost “Darling.” It opens with dramatic strings and horns and Gabriel’s softly enunciated declarations of missing his woman. “Darling/You must realize that time is cruel,” he sings, in a tone of almost motherly advice. The passage of time and its fraught nature in the world of romance are some of his most persistent themes. He belts out big notes as he begs his missing lover: “Look at my loneliness,” as if showing his wounds. This combination of powerful vulnerability or vulnerability expressed through the power of his voice was an aesthetic trademark.
Vocally Gabriel is most famous for his beautifully precise and powerful upper range, but he knew how to hold it back for dramatic tension; when to cry out, then murmur softly, then come back even more powerfully. “Querida’s” orchestration carefully mimics and weaves around this alternating minimalism and excess, as the opening trumpets and strings are, towards the end, driven by rockier drums, which turn the song into a laid back but rocking jam for his belting. His desperate—and sudden—belts of “Querida” and a frantically repeated trio of “Dime Cuando Tus” in the song’s finale became particularly iconic. The famous Latin American impersonator Julio Sabala nearly made an entire career out of his homophobically histrionic imitations of Gabriel, and it was precisely the uniqueness of a man screaming delicately about a woman that provoked such furor.
Unsurprisingly, Gabriel was also an influential crafter of sonic femininity. His platonic relationships with dramatic divas—Spanish singers like Rocio Durcal or Isabel Pantoja, and the Mexican telenovela and pop star Thalia—led to his writing for them, creating some of their biggest hits. Pantoja’s major hit “Asi Fue,” (“So It Was”), is another grand pop aria. It takes the perspective of a woman telling a lover that she’s fallen for someone else. “I’ll help you forget the past,” she sings, in an attempt to assuage the lover’s wounds. The song requires theatrical talent along with big vocals in order to convey its flamboyant panoply of feeling and when Pantoja sings it she performs a dramatic flamenco dance in the long symphonic interlude that closes the song.
Not all his song writing focused on love lost. His song “Gracias a la Vida,” (“I Thank Life”), which he wrote for Thalia, demonstrates his pop range, and some of the ways that his sensibility could be put to different uses. The mid tempo ballad—a thankful ode to the universe, love, and God upon finding a lover—has a vaguely Caribbean, reggae flavor. Famous for her girly voice and coy giggles, Thalia turned the song—and the quasi-S&M video—into the most outrageously kitsch-camp Juan Gabriel production ever. “You are the love I’ve been waiting for,” she sings in her cotton candy voice, before yelping out one of her inimitable exclamations: “owwwww!”
Arguably his last successful “plancha” single was “Abrazame Muy Fuerte,” another performance of male vulnerability, which became a soap opera theme song and his last number 1 hit. As in “Querida,” he sings about his need for love. Yet the song is less about romance or eros and more about a kind of worldly agape. In “Abrazame,” a narrator asks the world—or a friend—for passionate embrace. Gabriel specifically chose non-gendered formulations (a very difficult endeavor in Spanish) whenever he refers to a person, such as “someone who swore to give up their life for me,” or “my love.” Even the title—unlike Querida, which refers to a woman—conjures a subject without gender. In a powerful rendition of the song in a Mexican concert, Gabriel played the song’s lyrics in the background, along with footage of him kissing telenovela queen Veronica Castro, elderly women, and the pope, hinting at his universal understanding of love.
“Time is cruel,” he sings again in “Abrazame,” but perhaps with more knowledge about its pain. The last decade was less kind to Gabriel. Even though by the early aughts plancha music acquired a nostalgic retro-cool sheen—discotheques from Colombia to Costa Rica celebrated plancha nights and Sony Music Latin released plancha anthologies—the style that made him a superstar became commercially anachronistic. Strong vocals are the main instrument for any plancha balladeer and he lost the powerful upper reaches of his register, so that his concerts became hit or miss. After a much-anticipated concert in Colombia, for example, spectators complained that his voice lacked the elasticity of his early years.
Like other aging pop stars, he found some success—and even number 1 albums—by turning to duets with contemporary stars to update his image. Perhaps because of “Querida’s” rockier finale, he chose Colombian rocker Juanes to revisit his most iconic hit. In the new version Juanes strains as he attempts to sing in his highest register—and outside his usual style—and Gabriel cuts short—or just completely evades—some of the song’s trademark big notes. Still, a joyful energy permeates the song and video, which features—aside from shots of a woman running in a wedding dress and in a sunset—footage of him and Juanes recording the song. Juanes laughs good-naturedly throughout, as if in complicity with Gabriel’s camping up of his rocker image.
Perhaps it is fitting that in a concert after Gabriel’s death, Marc Anthony, one of his many duet partners, had to turn to the audience to help him finish “Abrazame Muy Fuerte,” as he became overwhelmed with emotion. In one of the most compellingly written lines of the song, Juan Gabriel sings: “My love/Of pain I have never been a partisan” (“Amor Yo nunca del dolor he sido partidario”). And yet it is as an extravagant partisan of the subtleties of pain and vulnerability that the Divo of Plancha Music achieved pop and global universality. He will live forever; or as long as the world requires romantic fantasy and escape from pain, both of which—as Gabriel well knew—exist in their own time that feels eternal.