Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 22, which explores the music and life of Selena with help from Los Angeles Times writer Suzy Exposito.
We are talking Selena; we are talking Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” Which of course is late Selena, it’s English-speaking pop-crossover Selena, it’s posthumous Selena. It is a lovely song that I also find to be terribly sad, for the untapped Global Pop Star potential you can hear in it. But it’s also tragic to me that the only Selena song to ever crack the American Top 40 only begins to show American Top 40 listeners what Selena was capable of, and the singular radiance Selena already exuded. I want to live in a world where “Que Créias” made the Top 40. Turns out there were not plenty like her. Turns out there was only one. All of which makes “Dreaming of You” one of those heart-stopping songs where the meaning changed drastically between when she sang it and when the wider world first heard it.
Selena Quintanilla is born in Lake Jackson, Texas, on April 16, 1971. Her father, Abraham, first notices her enormous talent—her perfect pitch, but also her overpowering charisma—when she is 6 years old. By the time she’s 10 years old she’s leading the Tejano band Selena y Los Dinos—Tejano, of course, being a Mexican American style specific to southern Texas. The band is managed by her lovable taskmaster father and among others features her sister Suzette on drums and her brother A.B. on bass; A.B. got heavily into production and songwriting as well. By 1988, when Selena is still just 17 years old, Selena y Los Dinos have already put out six albums on indie Tejano labels and won a small fleet of Tejano Music Awards. Vintage Selena YouTube in general is just a colossally rewarding experience: Please make some time for the band’s performance of “Dame Un Beso”—that’s “Give Me a Kiss,” a very early original cowritten by A.B.—at an outdoor show in Mexico in 1987. Central to Selena’s magic even then is that you can hear her outfit: the probably homemade sparkly silver space suit, the towering poof of hair that doubles the size of her head. You know what she looks like even if you’re not looking at her.
One thing the Spanish language has all over the English language is that corazón is a much better word for “heart” than heart. It is more romantic; it is more evocative. Selena singing the word corazón—as she does in roughly, like, 80 percent of her songs—is my version of cellar door. She signs to a major label, EMI Latin, as a solo artist, albeit with Los Dinos as her backing band and the family business very much intact. Her first solo album, Selena, comes out in 1989. Track one is called “Tu Eres.” You are. And it ends like this:
Every album Selena makes, from this moment forward, is a negotiation between Selena the Established Tejano Star and Selena the Future Global Pop Star. When should she cross over? How should she cross over? When should she start singing in English? Selena first learned Spanish by singing in Spanish. She often adorably bungled her conversational Spanish during interviews. But her father insisted that at the onset, at least, to Make It, she had to sing in Spanish. She had to become Selena the Established Tejano Star first. Selena the Human Teenager loved global pop stars. She loved Jodi Watley, and Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul, and yes, of course, Madonna. You can hear Selena’s love, for all of those women, on Selena’s albums, immediately. But Selena’s biggest—and best—songs are not working very hard to pander to American pop radio. The best song on Selena, the album, is “Besitos,” that’s “Kisses,” and it’s built on the cumbia beat that she’ll soon weaponize for even bigger and better songs.
But of course soon they were calling Selena “the Mexican Madonna,” and that had a lot to do with her flamboyant fashion sense: flamboyant by Tejano music standards, relatively chaste by Madonna standards. And the most Madonna-esque song on the Selena album was called “My Love.” Sung in English, and cowritten for the first time by Selena herself, and a love letter of sorts to American pop radio.
Also a ton of Latin freestyle influence in this song. Latin freestyle, based mostly in New York City, had a splendid influence on American pop radio in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Exposé. Sweet Sensation. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. Debbie Gibson’s “Only in My Dreams” is a freestyle jam at last. All of which inspires Selena, but even at this early stage does not begin to define Selena. Back to that YouTube binge. Get a load of Selena performing “My Love” on TV in 1989. The all-black outfits. The bustier. The rhinestones. The dance moves. Selena can moonwalk. Selena’s got better spin moves than Barry Sanders. You see, clearly, the influences, you see the individual parts. But you also already see, even more clearly, the whole of Selena, the Singular Global Pop Star. The one of one.
Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father and manager, always made clear that he wanted Selena’s albums to flaunt their variety. To hit on different styles, to stick and move, to offer Something for Everybody, whether you wanted Selena to stay a Tejano Star or you wanted Selena to morph into a Global Pop Star. “Ven Conmigo,” the song, stuck to the Tejano side but still represented a huge upgrade. The accordion, on the self-titled album, sounded a little canned, but now they could afford to bring in a legit accordion player.
But the Mexican Madonna song on this album, though it’s sung in Spanish this time, is called “Enamorada De Ti.” Meaning, “In Love With You.” A.B. Quintanilla later described this as his first true attempt at an R&B or hip-hop sound; he fondly recalls being on the road and dragging eight keyboards and a ton of other gear into a tiny Motel 6 hotel room to get this song made. This song features Selena’s single greatest delivery of the word corazón, in my opinion; she also raps on this song. Just straight-up raps.
On her next album, Entre a Mi Mundo—that’s Come Into My World—you get the mighty “Que Creías,” which was my all-time favorite Selena song even before I saw the Pissed-Off Umpire thing. You also get her second Monster Cumbia Hit, “Como La Flor,” that’s “Like the Flower,” which is very arguably the single greatest Selena song of all time.
“Como La Flor” is on the short list of the most radiant and infectiously joyful sad songs ever born. This song will outlive us all. When Kacey Musgraves, country star and national treasure, played the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2019—she played NRG Stadium, where the Houston Texans play—she covered “Como La Flor” in honor of Selena’s final live performance, at the long-gone Houston Astrodome, in 1995. I can’t imagine most of the crowd was expecting a Selena cover from Kacey, but they all knew what to do.
The Entre a Mi Mundo album also gives you two English-speaking hits, the chest-beating power ballad “Where Did the Feeling Go?” and the much sweeter and less aggrieved “Missing My Baby.” We’re in full-blown crossover mode on “Missing My Baby,” this is sumptuous R&B, this is best-case scenario Shopping Mall Slow Dance music.
Fantastic song. A fantastic bridge to R&B fans, teen pop fans, English-speaking fans of all inclinations. Just so long as they’re walking over that bridge toward Selena, and not the reverse. If “Missing My Baby” got her a bunch of new fans, great. But all of those new fans needed to hear “Como La Flor” and “La Carcacha” and “Que Creías” as soon as possible.
If you’re relatively new to Selena and need just one album to start with, that’s gonna be Selena Live! from 1993, which made her the first Tejano artist to win the Grammy in what was then called the Best Mexican/American Album category. Tejano music, as the Anything for Selena podcast argues, lost a great deal of cultural ground with young people, after Selena’s passing, losing ground especially to the genre known as Regional Mexican. The differences between Tejano and Regional Mexican are subtle if you’re a relative outsider—both are great if you love accordions, and dancing, and exuberance even amid profound sadness—but those differences are glaring if this is your music, your culture, your history. All of which makes Selena Live! both a career highlight and a Tejano music highlight. This concert starts with a nearly 10-minute medley of “Como La Flor” and “Baila Esta Cumbia,” which is like the Rolling Stones starting a show with a medley of “Paint It Black” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.