Songs about Mexico run rampant through the commercial country landscape, but which Mexico are they singing about?
Perhaps the most alcohol-soaked, party-themed country album of the year was released in July: Jerrod Niemann’s Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury. Its songs chronicle the drinking habits of the heartbroken and the young, and along the way vacations in Mexico ("Down in Mexico"). As Niemann sings it, Mexico is a place to leave sadness behind: "From Monterrey to Tampico Bay / don’t matter how far south you go / can you really be down in Mexico?" It’s a place for North Americans to go to hang out on the beach and drink, with a permanent smile burned into your face. "Mariachi bands don’t play the blues", he tells us.
Contrast that picture of Mexico with this year’s news headlines: for example, "Twenty five dead in clash between Mexican soldiers and gang", a story published 23 September by the UK’s Daily Telegraph. That story chronicles events near one of the places Niemann sings about, Monterrey, which has become increasingly violent this year. It begins: "The soldiers had stormed a training camp set up by suspected drug gang members near Mexico’s border town of Monterrey, which has seen an escalation of violence in recent months, including the massacre of 72 migrants last week".
Niemann’s song is just one in an ever-growing string of mainstream country songs about Mexico. The Telegraph story is just one among many 2010 headlines about Mexico’s struggles, with drug-related violence, which at times has shut down daily-life activities in some towns, but also powerful, destructive earthquakes.
Though Niemann does mention a few specific locations in Mexico, as have some other singers (Toby Keith’s 2008 song "Cabo San Lucas" comes to mind), Mexico is most often sung about in general terms, as one monolithic place. We go to Mexico to get away from it all, to escape to paradise. Eddie Raven’s 1984 song "I’ve Got Mexico", which hit #1 on the country charts, seems like the template. Here, Mexico is freedom, a way to get a woman off his mind. "Who needs you / I’ve got Mexico," he sings. Mexico in this song is where relaxation is king. He’s "down on the beach / drinkin’ coke and rum".
Three years earlier, in "Blame It on Mexico", another possible template, George Strait sang of Mexico not as a place to run away from a woman, but to meet one. Here Mexico is again a utopia of sorts, where genuine feelings (love) can emerge from an atmosphere of "guitar music, tequila, salt and lime".
Of course Mexico played a role in country music before that. American cowboy singers inevitably dealt with the land south of the border; there’s a Gene Autry collection titled South of the Border: Gene Autry Sings Solds of Old Mexico. There are legions of border-town songs by Texas singer-songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely, whose 1995 Letter to Laredo album is largely set on the border. Yet on country radio and the best-selling albums of mainstream country stars, the Mexico your hear about more closely resembles that vision of a paradise, where you can drink all you want, work as little as you want to, and be whoever you want to be.
In 2002 Tim McGraw told us in song, "that’s why God made Mexico / a place where we can lay low / and the Cuervo goes down nice and slow / and the warm wind blows." In 2004, Toby Keith added a hedonistic side to this idea of Mexico. In "Stays in Mexico", it’s where people from the US go to hook up on the down low, to drink tequila and go on a "dirty swim" in the ocean. "There’s things down here the devil himself wouldn’t do," he proclaims.
That line takes on rather morose meaning beyond Keith’s intentions when you set it next shocking news headlines like this, from the NY Daily News: "Mexico man’s face skinned and stitched onto a soccer ball in Sinaloa in threat to Juarez drug cartel" . A 2010 lyric that seems quaint next to those stories comes from Corbin Easton’s song "A Lot to Learn About Livin". In Mexico, he tells us, the "biggest problem’s deciding what fish we’re frying / does it go with tequila or beer?". He does mention a specific place, Cabo, not a place with this same turmoil, but in the song overall he strings it together with a general vision of Mexico as paradise.
In that song, the protagonist returns from Mexico a changed man, now OK with just driving a cab for a living. That notion of Mexico as a self-help device, a moment of self-realization, is paramount among these country-music visions of Mexico. The main driver of this is Kenny Chesney, who often blurs together Mexico with the Caribbean and any other warm beach location, to form one central image of paradise. His paradise has the usual drinking and relaxing, but is just as much about introspection and self-actualization. It’s a place to learn about life, while you’re sitting at a beachside bar talking to older, wiser locals and eyeing the beautiful women that walk by.
It’s also where you get over heartbreak, as in "Beer in Mexico", from 2005’s The Road the the Radio, where he sings of soul-searching and drinking in Mexico. "Let the warm air melt these blues away", he sings. "No Shirt No Shoes No Problems" is similar. "Blues / what blues?", Chesney in Mexico sings.
Musically Chesney’s beach songs are often filled with Jimmy Buffett-isms or pseudo-reggae, while still touching back at those earlier country Mexico songs and pop daydreams of Mexico like James Taylor’s "Mexico". That’s carried through to many of the country musicians in his wake. Indeed, when a new young singer takes a Mexican vacation (like Corbin’s "A Lot to Learn About Livin", Niemann’s "Down in Meixco" or the Zac Brown Band’s smash hit "Toes"), he seems to be channeling Chesney.
With Chesney, going to the beach, be it Mexico or an island, is a metaphysical journey towards simplicity, embodied by the wise old fisherman in "The Life", a vision of the naïve and primitive not unlike many Hollywood manifestations of minorities. He uses images like a beachside "Old Blue Chair" to represent the moment where your thinking about life changes, where you decide that when you return home, things will be different. In this sense, Mexico to Chesney and his contemporaries is a Mexico of the mind, not a real place but a manifestation of our inner hope that life can be less painful, more relaxing, simpler, and based more around our individual, innermost desires.
It’s also a place where you go, as opposed to a place where you are from. Even the older, wiser figures usually went there and stayed. They made the choice to change, in other words, which is what Mexico is really all about, as is so much of current mainstream country music. Throughout the country landscape is that desire to change; interesting for a conservative genre so nominally focused on "tradition".
"Toes", still prominent on country radio, exemplifies this idea that Mexico is more an idea than a place. When he returns from his beach vacation, he just heads down to the nearest lake and lives life in the same way. Beachfront property is interchangeable; it’s the way you think about it that matters.
Thinking of Mexico as a mental vacation spot, not a real, complicated place that is quite different for the many who live there, may seem ignorant of the realities of the country. In country songs there is no overcrowded Mexico City, no crippling poverty, no battle over immigration to the US, not even headlines like this one, from the 3 October 2010 Telegraph, about the gang violence affecting tourists: "Holidaymakers are latest victims in Mexico’s drug war".
Looked at another way, though, maybe this vision of Mexico is not entirely illusory. That last headline aside, it’s the one most US tourists probably experience when they travel to Mexico. Mexico to most Americans is Spring Break and all-inclusive resorts. It is sitting by the beach with a drink in your hand, talking to fellow travelers and the occasional local service employee. Maybe these country songs aren’t offering some naïve dream but chronicling the naïve dream that tourism itself works to support, and that so many of us so readily consume.