Why the Countercultural, Decades-Old Madrid Scene Matters to America Today

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Why the Countercultural, Decades-Old Madrid Scene Matters to America Today

In the midst of the constant unrest on our American shores, I’ve been finding comfort on the other side of the Atlantic: in the recent history of Spain and its dizzying countercultural explosion of music, cinema and free expression that followed the country’s bold transition to democracy in 1978. This phenomenon came to be known as La Movida Madrileña—The Madrid Scene—or simply La Movida for short.

While I’m admittedly prone to intense bouts of nostalgia for periods I didn’t live through, I do have justifiable reasons for my infatuation with La Movida: I’m married to a Spaniard, I’ve lived in Madrid and I recently published a book on Spanish history, for which I interviewed several prominent “movidistas.” But more to the point, I’m an American trying to make sense of the interplay between politics and art in this often undemocratic-feeling historical moment of our democracy.

La Movida provides me with a useful, and usefully joyous, juxtaposition.

Most histories date the origins of La Movida to a tribute concert for a deceased young musician held in Madrid in February 1980. Some electric coalescing of audience and sensibility took place that night, as if sending a unifying voltage through the rest of the city, from grungy night clubs, to outer-ring working-class neighborhoods, to El Rastro Sunday flea market where young comic-book heads and vinyl junkies traded their wares, ideas and evolving fashion senses. With its visceral, boundary-crossing power, music was the driving force of La Movida.

Much of the music from La Movida was inspired by music from the U.S. and the U.K.; censorship by the recently collapsed Franco regime no longer kept out foreign sounds like new wave, punk and glam rock, which exercised an enormous influence on young musicians in Spain. Imagine the first time you heard The Clash, David Bowie or The Velvet Underground, then multiply that feeling by the collective cathartic release and creative impulses of a 36-year dictatorship having come to end. I imagine it feeling like the high to end all highs (though this isn’t to say actual drugs didn’t play a considerable role in La Movida—of course, they did).

You can hear the Talking Heads’ afrobeats and funked-out guitar inspiring Radio Futura’s “Escuela de Calor” (“School of Heat”), and Cheap Trick’s influence can be heard in Los Secretos’ bouncy, melancholy “Déjame” (“Leave Me”). In seeming paradox, the music of La Movida was a way of connecting to the world outside of Spain, while also looking inside in search of a new identity.

One of my favorite songs from the era is Alaska y Los Pegamoides’ “Bailando” (“Dancing”), a disco-y pop rock song with a bath of brass flooding the chorus as Alaska (pictured above) sways with her skyscraper of black hair in front of a live audience in 1982 on the TV show Aplauso. “Dancing,” she intones in her low, weary-sounding voice, “I spend the day dancing.” I find it hard not to get up to from my desk chair and dance myself when I watch this video. When I hear it, I’m transported by wondering what it must have felt like for young people in Spain to suddenly dance in an atmosphere of freedom instead of the rigid regime their parents had grown up under.

La Movida was just as ecstatically free in other art forms, including movies. It produced none other than Pedro Almodóvar, now internationally famous for films such as All About My Mother, Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In. In 1980, he released his first feature-length work, Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otras Chicas del Montón (cheekily translated as Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom). A campy comedy about sex, friendship and the vertiginously changing times, the film indirectly engaged with the past Spain was leaving behind by flaunting its creative agency and flagrantly violating taboos. For instance, a teenage lesbian character—played by Alaska, as it happens—urinates on a masochistic housewife, in effect urinating on Franco’s altar of sacred Spanish values. As anyone familiar with Almodóvar’s work knows, there was more gleeful irreverence to come, but you can also see his governing aesthetic already present in the bright colors and gaudy accents of his early mise-en-scène.

People in Spain have described the Franco years as an era of black and white and the La Movida as stepping into Technicolor, like Dorothy arriving in Oz. Looking at it this this way, Almodóvar’s palette seems as much about the story he wanted to tell in his uninhibited first film as the greater story of democracy reemerging in Spain.

When I ask myself what La Movida has to say about life in the United States right now, I answer that it forces me to take both a closer and more aerial look at the artistic offerings battling for attention with political developments—at the many brave and striking creative choices rising out of our culture. My bookshelf is crowded with works that have rewired my brain, such as Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls and Valeria Luiselli’s The Lost Children Archive. Meanwhile, Moonlight, a film about gay black kid facing hardships as he grows up (with its own unforgettable color palette) won an Oscar for Best Picture. And an astonishing piece of music and art titled Lemonade unleashed an earthquake of a cultural moment.

While the U.S. may be too large, atomized and diverse to ever birth something as cohesive as La Movida, I have the feeling that we’re not just living through a challenging time right now. We’re also living through an artistically special time. It’s not one scene. It’s many great American Scenes.

Aaron Shulman is the author of The Age of Disenchantments, available now from Ecco.