Shock! Horror! Narcocorrido!
EMP 2008 has been one of the most engrossing and exhausting ever, but Elijah Wald's presentation was so NAJP-relevant it deserves its own post. Wald has written for many periodicals but concentrates on books, which anyone who's ever signed a midlist contract can take as one more scary story about the economics of arts journalism. One of his recent books is about the narcocorridos--Mexican and Mexican-American story songs about the drug trade. Wald had another scary story about these story songs, and about arts journalism. I'll try to sum up. Anyone who wants to find out more can do so at or via elijahwald.com.
Briefly, it goes like this. In late 2006, a narcocorrido artist named Valentin Elizande was murdered, reputedly--on speculative hearsay evidence--in response to a grisly YouTube video that appeared to threaten a drug gang from a rival province, which was presumed to have finished him off in retaliation, though the video only appropriated his song and had nothing to do with him. Shortly thereafter, a Mexican singer named Zaida Pena was murdered along with two associates. She was not a narcocorrido singer, but one of her songs had a title that could be translated "shot to the head"--an idiom better rendered coup de grace, in this case the experience of seeing her man with another woman. A little later, five more Mexican musicians were killed, including four members of a techno-style band no one could imagine had anything to do with narcocorrdido.
No one, that is, except for all the newspaper editors, in Mexico as well as the US, who then assigned stories about how drug dealers--supposedly encouraged by violent YouTube entries, although Wald reports that YouTube has encouraged a move away from the narcocorrido trend because it can be more immediately responsive to the news events traditional corridos often dealt with--are killing off Mexican musicians. Essentially, Wald believes, this is nonsense--only one of these artists, Elizande, had anything remotely to do with the drug trade. He says most of the reporters who've consulted him as an expert, with Fox a significant exception, try to account for the objections he raises, doing a tightrope walk between rational analysis and the sensational story their overseers smell. Most of the stories run in the news hole, not the arts section. Most of them, he says, are the only coverage the newspapers in question ever give Mexican music, which accounts for 50 percent of all "Latin" music sales in the US.
Think maybe there's an arts story here? I wish. Wald reports that at a conference he recently attended, several academics thought they might write papers about how the drug trade was killing off Mexican musicians. They were disappointed when Wald proved a wet blanket.