In the myth of Narcissus, the demigod falls in love with his reflection in a river, so much so that he spends the rest of his life staring at it. The tale is old as time and is referenced frequently, if not directly, as “narcissism” has become a buzzword in the Gen Z vocabulary. One aspect of the myth is often overlooked, though: Narcissus is not only in love with himself but with a static image of himself. An image that, in practice, immobilizes his actions. Because action implies change, and change risks the integrity of that image Narcissus so dearly holds onto.
In this sense, I’d argue that most Brazilian music, or at least the kind of music that simultaneously aims for popular success and critical acclaim, may have turned narcissistic. The figures of “nova MPB” (the “new popular Brazilian music”, which by now is not nearly as new nor as popular) are stuck in the self-image designed for them in the 1950s and 1960s. Tropicalia anticipated many creative modes of contemporaneity in its rituals of cultural anthropophagy. But in doing so, it also condemned the music of contemporary Brazil to an eternal Tropicalia, or a fever dream of it – cultural autophagy, if you will.
Bala Desejo is a superband formed by Zé Ibarra and Lucas Nunes, former members of the neo-Clube da Esquina project Dônica, and by singer-songwriters Dora Morelenbaum and Julia Mestre. Dora is the daughter of Brazilian jazz legends Jacques and Paula Morelenbaum. Nunes and Ibarra also have strong ties to legacy MPB: Tom Veloso, Caetano Veloso’s youngest son, was one of the main composers of Dônica with them. Besides, Nunes is credited as the main producer in Caetano Veloso’s last album Meu Coco (2021), and Ibarra has deservedly claimed a regular spot as a lead musician in Milton Nascimento’s touring band.
Zé Ibarra has a precise sensibility and a powerful voice, and Bala Desejo is usually accompanied by other virtuosos, like Alberto Continentino. Yet there is something to all tracks in an EP like SIM SIM SIM that insists on extending the vices of new MPB – notably, its difficulty with the “anxiety of influence” of old MPB. Bala Desejo sounds like a direct pastiche of Rita Lee, both the late 1960s/early 1970s psychedelic Rita Lee, who sang with Os Mutantes, and the late 1970s/early 1980s glam pop Rita Lee, who sang with Tutti Frutti and Roberto de Carvalho. Although the tracks are compositionally closer to Tropicalia, including an explicit intention to embody the 1970s superband Doces Bárbaros, SIM SIM SIM‘s production replicates that glossy, polished ambiance and rich harmonies of the scene represented by Robson Jorge and Lincoln Olivetti in the 1980s.
To that, Bala Desejo adds topic applications of some of the most reified images of Latinidad one can find: “Baile de Máscaras” delves into the binary rhythmic interplay of Carnival’s “marchinhas”; “Dourado Dourado” articulates Fania Records-style salsa; and “Clama Floresta” sketches an attempt at reggae. In these cases, the narcissistic paralysis may even feel intentional, with conscious nods to what Bala Desejo imagines might be the musical traditions rooted in Brazilian culture.
In all of those nods to Latin music, there remains the impression of posturing, of taking up a character’s role. The tradition is dealt with in a cold, calculated manner, with corporate cleanliness and affective disengagement, a fault that also hits other recent releases of new MPB, like Tim Bernardes’ solo album, 2017’s Recomeçar, or Sessa’s debut this year’s Estrela Acesa. In the case of Bala Desejo, despite some solid arrangements and moments of brightness, such as in the conclusion to “Nesse Sofá”, I hear a general lack of self-awareness and embarrassing naiveté that only the wellborn can afford to experience.
Just like wealth tends to accumulate as inheritances are transmitted from generation to generation, so too is cultural capital hoarded and concentrated, forming a lineage of power across creative markets. Bala Desejo’s engagement with and imitation of a calcified image of Brazilian culture is not a coincidence but an inevitable result of their ties to the same cultural elite that consecrated that image. A lesson on the entrenchment of patterns of domination in a system of culture is that most artists of this new MPB, including the four members of Bala Desejo, have studied in the same private school in the affluent neighborhood of Gávea in Rio, for this is the school where most icons of the old MPB have registered their children, of course. The promiscuous relationship between the Brazil lived by Bala Desejo’s musicians and the Brazil invented by their parents explains both the faux happiness that their songs exude and the forced aesthetic they embrace in their costumes, make-up, poetic import, and overall vibe.
When you are the heir of composers Caetano Veloso or Jaques Morelenbaum, you have access to an abundance of resources, a tactical network of Important People and Places, facing a strange facility to get press coverage (which includes this very review). Yet many other contemporary Brazilian artists deserve to be put in the spotlight more than Bala Desejo has been in the last few months. Check out the haunted musings of Atletas and Fantasma do Cerrado, the cosmic noise of Negro Leo and Arthur Bittencourt, or the pinball jazz of Vasconcelos Sentimento and Amaro Freitas. These artists may, given time, effectively renovate what Brazilian music is and means, disturbing the narcissistic paralysis of Tropicalia. Counterposed to Bala Desejo’s SIM SIM SIM, however, I get itches to listen to even the most outmoded and derivative pop of Anavitória or Sandy, for example, because they feel more honest and less tacky.