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Slain Tejano Singer's Album Tops Pop Chart

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 26, 1995

Selena's "Dreaming of You," a posthumous album by the slain Tejano superstar, has become the fastest-selling album by a female artist in pop history, with 175,000 copies purchased on the day of its release last Tuesday. The album's first-week sales of more than 400,000 copies will ensure its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.

"Dreaming of You" was supposed to have been Selena's first album in English, which was the second-generation Mexican American's first language. But when Selena, 23, was allegedly shot to death in March by former employee Yolanda Saldivar, she had recorded only four tracks for the album. "Dreaming of You" had been envisioned as a first step in establishing Selena as a crossover act able to reach both the Anglo and Latin markets.

"It is the most bittersweet feeling imaginable," says Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin, who signed Selena in 1989. "We -- her family, myself and obviously Selena -- had this dream since 1989, and we now see it coming to fruition. There's this incredible celebration of Selena's music, and she's throwing the party, but she's not going to be there."

When Behar first signed Selena, he envisioned her as a crossover artist, particularly since the Tejano music scene was male-dominated. "I remember seeing her and getting very excited, though I knew female artists do not thrive in this {Tejano} market." Tejano is a Texas-based sound that combines German polkas with the conjuntos and boleros of Mexico.

"But I also realized Selena is bicultural, that needle in a haystack that we're looking for," Behar adds, ". . . to be able to identify with the Anglo masses as well as the Hispanic masses, but just as importantly, to have the Anglos identify with you as a performer. Selena possessed those qualities."

That crossover dream, shared by Selena, was derailed when her recordings quickly established her as a rising, then reigning, star in the Latin market (with three No. 1 albums and six No. 1 singles). She also became one of Latin music's most successful touring acts, drawing 61,000 fans to the Houston Astrodome in January.

"It's almost like the English thing had to go to the back burner, simply because we felt we should solidify her presence in the Latin market," says Behar. "And once we did that, we didn't want her Latin fans to feel like we were abandoning them for an English music career. So we were moving ahead cautiously rather than impulsively." The earlier dual-language successes of Jon Secada and Gloria Estefan clearly helped open that particular option again.

Though Selena was well known in the Southwest, much of the country had not heard of her until her killing and the ensuing public grief of her fans. Those fans snapped up every Selena album (at one point, five of them occupied the top six spots in Billboard's Latin charts). People magazine published its third commemorative special in her honor. Within a month there was a biography, "Selena: The Phenomenal Life and Tragic Death of the Tejano Music Queen," with text in both Spanish and English. And a film biography is being planned.

Except for the ending, any such film would be family fare all the way. It would trace Selena's emergence as a singer at age 8, her early teenage years on the Tejano circuit fronting the family band (Selena y Los Dinos included both her brother and sister and was managed by her father, Abraham Quintanilla). Three years ago, when Selena married the band's guitarist, Chris Perez, she was already a major star.

Of course, familial devotion was only part of Selena's appeal to a large cross-section of the Latino audience. A vivacious beauty, she was sexy yet wholesome, blessed with a down-to-earth personality. And the combination of character and skyrocketing career made her a crucial role model for Mexican American youth, and girls in particular.

"They saw her as an ambassador of the Hispanic community, so they cheered her," says Behar. "She was a very confident person, extremely positive. . . . She didn't for one minute have any hesitation about her success in the future."

Selena had already gone through one crossover process in the Latin market, which is not a monolithic entity but a fractured one full of distinct regional styles, says Ramiro Burr, the pop music reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and a writer on Latin music for Billboard. "What works in one market may not work in another," he says. "Selena and La Mafia were the two artists in Tejano who had expanded their music, and changed it enough and evolved enough into the pop realm, that they worked well in Mexico and the West Coast. Not every group can do that."

Plans for a tour of Central America were underway at the time of Selena's death, and she would have been more comfortable with the language than when she broke through in 1989. Back then, Selena spoke only broken Spanish and, like Linda Ronstadt, had to learn her songs phonetically.

"Mexican Americans in Texas grow up in school learning English," Burr points out. "They might do a little Spanish at home, but English becomes the dominant language until they lose Spanish totally. . . . She was caught off-guard by her sudden success, and when Selena went to do interviews in Mexico, people thought it was both cute and stupid that she couldn't talk her own native language. So she took a crash course in Spanish."

"Dreaming of You" shouldn't be the test of Selena's crossover success, but a testament to its possibilities. After all, she had done vocal tracks for only four songs and was due back in the studio in April and May. The album -- put together by Selena's family and EMI -- also includes several of her Tejano hits, a pair of remixes, English-Spanish duets (with David Byrne and the Barrio Boyzz) and two songs from the film "Don Juan DeMarco," in which Selena appears briefly as a mariachi singer. The package includes a 24-page booklet with anecdotes and lyrics. A share of proceeds will go to the EMI Records Group Selena Scholarship Fund.

The songs in English were produced by Keith Thomas (Whitney Houston, Amy Grant), Guy Roche (Celine Dion) and Rhett Lawrence (Mariah Carey). In truth, they come across as standard middle-of-the-road pop fare, though some are enlivened with spoken passages or whispered phrases in Spanish. The Thomas-produced ballad "I Could Fall in Love" and the infectious "I'm Getting Used to You," written by Diane Warren, suggest Selena's talent but don't really advance it. Aside from her old hits, the liveliest tracks are Selena's bilingual duet with Byrne (from the upcoming film "Blue in the Face") and the mariachis "El Toro Relajo" and "Tu Solo Tu."

Besides its extraordinary sales and radio air play, "Dreaming of You" is eliciting strong radio reaction from both English- and Spanish-language stations, particularly in the Southwest. "Tu Solo Tu" is No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks chart, and "I Could Fall in Love" is No. 2, the first time an artist has placed both Spanish- and English-language songs in the Top 10.

None of this surprises Behar, who projects sales of "Dreaming of You" at 3 million by year's end. Though some of those sales will result from consumers' curiosity in the wake of Selena's slaying, says Behar, most buyers simply enjoy her sound. "News may create awareness, he says, but music sells music."

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post

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