“Sometimes I think the little girls don’t understand a damn thing.”
— Robert Christgau, writing about Duran Duran (who were infinitely better than Luis Coronel)
The debut album from Tucson’s teen tenor Luis Coronel plopped like a wet turd onto the norteño scene a year ago, thanks to Del Records honcho Angel Del Villar, who noticed Coronel selling out small venues and decided to see how far he could go. The answer: pretty far. In 2013 Coronel’s debut album peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart. Since then his videos have amassed millions of views, and he now routinely sells out bigger venues. Billboard chalks his appeal up to “a young bilingual, bicultural and cellphone-clutching teen demographic”, which seems accurate: not only do most people younger than 50 clutch cellphones, but Coronel’s latest video is set in a nuevo-American Graffiti world. In the parking lot of a place called “Bob’s Coffee Shop”, he wears a letter jacket and serenades his chiquitita in Spanish. Real Pat Boone type; Del Villar would’ve been a fool not to sign him.
The problem is, he’s no good. Coronel specializes in ballads so squishy they can slip between your ears while having no measurable effect on your brain. He wants to be yours; he was born to love you; you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He’s the drippy boyfriend so afraid to offend your parents they just wanna kick him out the door. In his song “Tendrás Que Aguantarte”, one of two Coronel originals on his new album Quiero Ser Tu Dueño, he discovers his girlfriend has cheated on him. With a plucky banda patting him on the back, Coronel declares living well the best revenge and actually apologizes to his cheating ex, presumably because she still has to put up with his almost psychotic banality.
Dueño debuted at #1, doubling the first week sales of its predecessor, and indeed it’s twice as good. By which I mean, Con La Frente en Alto contained two listenable songs, and the new album has four. What’s more, the first album contained several songs clearly designed to humiliate young Coronel. Or at least that’s the only way to make any sense of them. At one point he sang a duet with his poised labelmate Nena Guzman, and someone — the smart money’s on producer Manny Ledesma — had the bright idea to make Coronel sing up in her range. Eeeesh. Someone should’ve told him singing flat is not an acceptable form of chivalry.
Coronel sounds marginally better — i.e., not painful — on the new album, but he’s still nobody’s idea of a good singer. He sings like a typical high schooler at a variety show; holding out long notes because he has to, he creates musical black holes from which no personality can escape. When he slides into a melisma, you can practically hear him reading the notes off a piece of sheet music. When people say of a singer, “so-and-so would never make it on American Idol” (or whichever musical reality show they’re insulting), they usually mean that singer is too quirky or subversive or “deep” to be embraced by the masses. Luis Coronel wouldn’t make it because he sounds completely unremarkable.
His best songs are the ones that give his norteño band or brass arrangers opportunities to show off. Indeed, his small recording band is one of the best in the business, a combo of great session players whose names appear on most of the rockingest norteño albums in recent years. (Do I even need to mention Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel on bateria?) On Coronel’s last album someone (I blame Ledesma) handed this extraordinary band a bunch of crap ballads to play, which left them floundering a bit. Mario Aguilar’s acordeón, for instance, sounded less “astounding virtuoso” than “bored player tossing off licks to fill the void”. Now, blessed with two bona fide corridos among the crap ballads, these musicians sound snapped back to life, like Marty McFly when his hand suddenly reappears. Granted, among the larger world of corridos “Mi Vida” and “Hermano Mío” are sappy things, respectively recounting Coronel’s hardscrabble origins and how much he loves his brother. Coronel sings both like he’s seeking head pats. That’s another Pat Boone touch: sweetening lascivious genres so easily offended listeners won’t take offense. But with a band this good, the singer’s easy to ignore.
The problem with Coronel isn’t that he’s safe. Banda el Recodo is safe for the whole family, and their music explodes in spasms of joy and excitement, heartbreak and anguish. In Coronel’s music, nothing happens, and then it happens over and over again. And he’s got some big names handing him songs! Luciano Luna, the Diane Warren of the Sierra, wrote Coronel two super generous tunes: the swinging polka “Nací Para Amarte” (sample lyric: “There are so many things that I have to give you”) and first single “Tenerte” (sample lyric: “I hope to give you what you crave”). Both are reliably pretty and pleasant. Neither is the least bit memorable, which is Coronel’s fault as much as Luna’s. Luciano Luna churns out song after song and returns to the same goggle-eyed well for most of them; but usually you remember his hits, like Noel Torres’s “Me Interesas” or Recodo’s “Dime Que Me Quieres”, because their singers find the authority to bring them to life.
Yeah yeah, Coronel’s just a teen heartthrob. But if Latino American teen heartthrobs have taught us anything, it’s that age ain’t nothing but a number and teeniness ain’t no excuse. Norteño’s Jessie Morales, bachata’s Leslie Grace, and pop’s Becky G have rasped, cajoled, sassed, and wiled their ways into people’s lives through sheer force of charisma. Coronel hasn’t got it yet. He’s doing pretty well for himself, but if — as reported in both Billboard and Triunfo — he’s harboring ambitions to cross over into English-language pop, let’s hope he grows into his own songs. He’s got nowhere to go but up.