It was in the midst of Chile’s national unrest that Alex Anwandter decided to push himself beyond his own inner turmoil.
Anwandter was already a popular singer in the country, first as vocalist of the Santiago dance-rock band Teleradio Donoso and later on his own disco-influenced 2011 solo debut “Rebeldes."
Meanwhile, student protesters in Chile were making international headlines, blocking traffic, and occupying high schools, demanding reforms to a decayed, unjust education system and fighting for ideas like universal higher education.
Anwandter, long fascinated by the intersection between the political and personal, found himself playing music to the protesters at occupied schools, where they were living and sleeping.
"I would find myself, and surprise myself, singing about things that had nothing to do with the students’ demands — singing about my personal life,” Anwandter says, talking to me via Skype from Santiago. “Which is 99 percent of pop music — ‘inner turmoil,’ as they say. Which is fine, we all have our very valid inner turmoil. But at the same time we are connected to each other in many ways, and it was shocking and revelatory to find that I wasn’t talking about that enough in my work."
It makes sense, then, that the two major works Anwandter released in 2016 are both dedicated to drawing out the intersection with the personal and political, particularly with regard to violence against the LGBT community. One of those works was a feature film he directed, "Nunca Vas a Estar Solo," that details the aftermath of the brutal beating of a young gay man in Santiago.
"In Latin America, the political song is traditionally [sung by] a bearded guy with an acoustic guitarthat [trope] has been around for over 60, 70 years."
The other is “Amiga,” an ambitious album that reads both like a diary and a political manifesto, a record that crosses a spectrum of musical influences, from dance floor missives to earnest ballads and full-throated torch songs, while managing the very rare feat of feeling both deeply personal and inspired by a greater social purpose. It’s a tremendous, very human album — one that can feel hopeful and apocalyptic, emotionally immediate and philosophically grandiose, an album whose life or death message is delivered in Anwandter’s tender, reedy voice.
“I think it’s very necessary to develop new aesthetics of being subversive,” says Anwandter. "In Latin America, the political song is traditionally [sung by] a bearded guy with an acoustic guitar — that [trope] has been around for over 60, 70 years.
"Other attempts at stuff like this have been too dense, too academic,” he continues. "An album by a band I really like, the Knife — their latest album was called ‘Shaking the Habitual.’ It was way too cryptic for its own good. It had, like, nine-minute experimental digressions into queer theory, and no one gets that. I thought the pop song and its accessibility would be kind of an interesting strategy."
“Amiga,” however, is ambitious even in Anwandter's endeavor to be palatable, with a sound indebted to everything from Grace Jones’ frank, surreal electropop to Juan Gabriel’s emotive balladry.
Anwandter also directed the video for “Amiga” lead track “Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazón,” which was filmed in two nuclear power plants in Chile. Anwandter, a blue jump-suited worker, barely handles the day-to-day drudgery of his factory job, sulking and glowering at other workers until his patience finally dissolves into a passionate, dissociated dance sequence.
The video itself is a play on the song’s lyrics, which translates in English to “It’s always Friday in my heart,” though the lyrics, while echoing some of the video’s working-class themes, are both a little darker (“siempre quiero la total destrucción,” or “I always want total destruction,” Anwandter sings) and more direct ("La iglesia me mandó al infierno/Y el congreso piensa que estoy enfermo,” or “The church sent me to Hell/And the congress thinks I’m sick").
"It’s a little cartoonishthat quality is necessary to give some levity to the fact that I’m speaking about really terrible or depressing stuff."
“With the video, I wanted to take this sense of hopelessness and turn it into a dystopian world,” says Anwandter. "It’s a little cartoonish — that quality is necessary to give some levity to the fact that I’m speaking about really terrible or depressing stuff. At least in Latin America, I’m aware that we have to work more hours to get paid less than in more developed countries. So, if you add that up week after week, month after month, year after year, it affects the quality of life — it’s kind of serious stuff."
The dramatic crux of the video is when Anwandter, looking two faceless coworkers in the eyes, softly blows them a kiss. Later, walking alone outside the plant with his hands in his pockets, he suddenly becomes lifted, dreamily raising up his hands and flipping them outward in a gesture of defiance.
The video, in essence, is the sum of at least two cultural critiques, one regarding the dehumanization of labor and the other regarding the insufficiency of more conventional (or, specifically, masculine) forms of protest.
“Different struggles are not exclusive to each other,” says Anwandter. “This oppressive routine that I describe, which pretty much everyone in Chile, or in Latin America, has to go through, intersects with other types of violence, like sexism or homophobia.
"Somehow, yeah, the most revolutionary thing I get to do in the video is be feminine,” he continues. "It’s a surprisingly powerful weapon to be feminine, to subvert this world order, if you will."
The midpoint of the album itself represents a shift musically from a record that was heretofore dominated by a dramatic, disco sensibility to musical forms that lay Anwandter a little more bare, and more direct. “Manifiesto,” which presents him alone with a piano, is both the album’s musical fulcrum and its clear-voiced statement of purpose.
“Hoy soy mujer,” Anwandter sings nakedly, emphatically, or in English: “Today, I am woman."
“'Manifiesto' is [in] a less literal sense [about] being a woman, [than it is about] eliminating the whole notion of masculinity, and the way that translates into all sorts of violences,” he says, adding that the song grew out of the very real, very urgent threats faced in everyday life by the LGBT community in Chile. “'Manifiesto' is about subverting that by embracing and actually shouting who you are. I think it’s a powerful song because the song itself does what it speaks about — I mean, it’s actually me, shouting, singing very loud."
Death is a subject that haunts “Amiga,” a sentiment paired at times with feelings of resignation, despair and urgency. There’s the idea, in “Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazón,” of viernes as not only the culmination of the work week and a symbol of everyday economic oppression, but also the obliteration of a discrete universe. On “Intentarlo Todo de Nuevo,” a gorgeous, swooning ballad that owes a special debt to Juan Gabriel, there’s the line “Prefiero morirme antes de intentarlo todo de nuevo,” or something like, “I’d rather die before I tried it all again.”
“It’s a way of conveying how the issues that I’m interested in are actually life or death issues,” says Anwandter. “It sounds extreme if I say it that way, but it actually is extreme. I have a friend who was beaten a couple weeks ago. He’s gay, and he was beaten two blocks away from his house. And they didn’t rob him, they just wanted to beat him. He could have been killed. They broke one of his ribs and a finger, and they broke a bottle on his head."
It’s a story not unlike the one that inspired Anwandter’s film, "Nunca Vas a Estar Solo.” The film was inspired by the brutal murder of Daniel Zamudio, a young gay man who happened to be a fan of Anwandter’s. The sheer cruelty of the murder, motivated by prejudice and hatred, was supposed to “change" Chile. But as Anwandter points out, time has hardly borne that out.
“I find it very shocking that this idea we have that the world is “progressing" might not be so — that we may be regressing into more violent times,” he says. "It's that sense of urgency that for me is kind of the key element of what I’m trying to express."
"Your elected vice president is openly homophobic, and that will translate into a shift in the moral climate, and that itself will translate into more violence, more concrete violence, against the LGBT community. That is something that goes on daily, and in every sphere of our lives here.”
Anwandter doesn’t hesitate to remind me that the darkness doesn’t lurk so far from our own doorstep. “You in the U.S. are now living what’s been going on here in Latin America for ages,” he says. “Your elected vice president is openly homophobic, and that will translate into a shift in the moral climate, and that itself will translate into more violence, more concrete violence, against the LGBT community. That is something that goes on daily, and in every sphere of our lives here.”
That may change, at least in part, says Anwandter, if marginalized communities can “shout” themselves into recognition. It is in the shout of “Manifiesto,” and the rest of “Amiga,” that Anwandter elucidates his own complex, human perspective — one that uses style as metaphor and that raises up the queer and the feminine as necessary keys to transcending the cycles of repression and violence.
Top image: Chilean artist Alex Andwandter’s new album “Amiga” is a powerful statement that pairs inner turmoil with an urgent social message. | Nacional