Will Young Rockers Really Rock The Boat?

"We've got to yank the problem out by the roots,

We've got to change the government. There's no reason to keep following a bunch of idiots

Who take us where it's convenient for them.

And it's our sweat that sustains them,

That keeps them eating warm bread,

Bread that belongs to our people...."

Chorus: "Gimme gimme gimme, gimme all the power."

When the Mexican rock band Molotov belted out this rebellious ballad for 1,000 fans at the Hard Rock Cafe in Mexico City not long ago, listeners did what they always do in response to the group's in-your-face tune: They sang along and went wild. The lyrics--which get a lot more profane than the selection here--reflect the anger and frustration that many of Mexico's young people feel. For as long as most of them have been alive, Mexico has been awash in economic and political crises. Yet they've felt powerless to change things. For 71 years, a single political machine--the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--has ruled with a heavy hand: Opposition has been quashed, votes bought or stolen. Corruption is a fact of life, and so is disillusionment.

That may change soon. In presidential elections set for July 2, a charismatic opposition leader named Vicente Fox stands a good chance of defeating the PRI for the first time since the Mexican Revolution of the 1920s. Behind this prospect are reforms enacted in 1996 that created an independent electoral institute charged with guaranteeing a fair vote. And with more than one-third of Mexico's 59 million voters under the age of 35, the choices of the young could be decisive. Polls show that this age group overwhelmingly supports the notion of yanking the entrenched system out by the roots.

All Mexicans born since 1976, when the peso collapsed after 30 years of economic progress, are considered part of the "Generation of Crisis." They've never lived in a stable economy. Four brutal crises in the past 25 years have condemned millions to abject poverty, have kept wages stagnant, and have severely limited the career prospects of those lucky enough to complete high school or go to college. The most recent peso devaluation, in 1994, sparked the nation's worst recession in seven decades. Many young people were forced to leave school and go to work; others saw their parents lose their cars, homes, and businesses. For many, it was the last straw, convincing them that the turmoil wouldn't end until the PRI's reign did.

BLATANT FRAUD. Young people here have long felt they were mere spectators to dramatic political change happening everywhere but in Mexico. In the 1960s, when antiwar demonstrations were the norm in the U.S., the army in Mexico gunned down thousands of students who were protesting police brutality. As the world's other authoritarian regimes began crumbling along with the Berlin Wall, the PRI won yet more elections by way of blatant fraud.

Passivity is passe now, and rebellion is in, as Molotov's rousing reception attests. It burst onto the scene in 1997 with its first CD, Donde Jugaran las Ninas? ("Where Will the Girls Play?"). But this was no standard rock-band arrival. While fans loved the music, radio stations, fearful for their broadcast licenses, wouldn't play Gimme the Power, the CD's hottest song, because of its bald references to crooked cops and money-grabbing politicians and its call to overthrow the system. For several months, record shops refused even to sell the CD, and the band members sold it themselves from the back of a van. A Mexico City newspaper called Molotov "harmful and offensive trash."

"TOO HONEST." All the publicity helped push Molotov's reputation across the border. In 1998, the CD was nominated for a Grammy; it later went platinum, with world sales of than 1.2 million. "Our songs were too honest for some," says guitarist Tito Fuentes. "But a lot of people identified with what we were saying in a big way."

I started listening to Molotov a couple of years ago: My preteen children loved the rebellious, politically charged lyrics. Like most kids growing up in Latin America, they see injustices all around them, a daily reality most Americans will never witness: poverty, corruption, preventable disasters, political killings. Surely, I've concluded, it's Molotov's plain talk about life as it is lived in Mexico that accounts for much of its appeal.

I met the band's four members, who range in age from 22 to 27, a few weeks ago as they prepared to depart on a monthlong tour through Germany and the former Soviet Union, where fans are as attracted to the group's compelling rock/hip-hop/rap alternalatina beat as they are to the lyrics, which are littered with Spanglish profanities. But joining the music industry's growing hordes of crossover musicians, who sing in both Spanish and English, is hardly the point. The lyrical salad reflects the amount of time young Mexicans, like their counterparts around the world, spend on the Internet and listening to foreign music. It also helps that Randy Ebright, the clean-cut rapper-drummer known as the "Gringo Loco," is an American who moved to Mexico when he was 14.

Last year, Molotov released its third CD, called Apocalypshit. It features songs about sex, drug addiction, society's parasites, and environmental destruction--universal themes for young people today. In "Que no te Haga Bobo, Jacobo" ("Don't let Jacobo Make You a Dunce"), the group blasts Televisa, Mexico's huge TV network, for its too-cozy relationship with the PRI and for veteran news anchor Jacobo Zabludovsky's habit of ignoring "negative" news such as guerrilla uprisings and election fraud. Zabludovsky was taken off the air a few months ago, as Televisa scrambled to retain viewers sick of being misled. It's a definite sign of Mexico's slow-but-sure democratization.

"RADICAL CHANGE." Like most youths in Mexico, the band is about more than political activism. In fact, a big concern among opposition politicians is that many hard-partying young people might not drag themselves to the polls on July 2--a Sunday. More than 2.5 million 18-to-21-year-olds are eligible to vote for President for the first time. "The younger the voters are, the more likely they are to vote for radical change," says Rogelio Carvajal, a director of the youth wing of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). "We just have to make sure they actually vote," the 24-year-old lawyer adds.

"There are people who are getting rich...[while] people live in poverty,

And no one does anything about it because they don't care...

At one time we were a world power,

[Now] we're poor, they govern us badly."

During Mexico's rush toward globalization, many people here started believing their country was joining the club of advanced industrial nations. Then came the 1994 devaluation: It popped that dream and led to a lot of soul-searching. "With everything that has happened in the past five years, our whole way of thinking has changed," says Alberto Meza, 30, an electronics engineer I met through an Internet mailing list of Molotov fans. "We're all tired of being spoon-fed."

Meza, married with two small children, will vote for Vicente Fox, the 57-year-old former businessman who's running in an alliance of PAN and the Green Party. Fox, who vows to wipe out corruption, is neck-and-neck with the PRI's candidate, Francisco Labastida, a career PRI man.

Will Young Rockers Really Rock the Boat? (int'l edition)
Will Young Rockers Really Rock the Boat? (int'l edition)

Back in the 1970s, the Mexican government censored rock music as being subversive and a threat to national security. That seems laughable now, especially in this age of downloadable music. The censorship of Molotov's lyrics may be only partly visible, but it nonetheless demonstrates that the challenge now is to make Mexico's political system as open as the economy. "We aren't going to see real change in Mexico until we change the political party in power," says Molotov bass player Paco Ayala. When Mexican young people wake up on July 3, they'll know whether that has happened.

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