Thursday, February 21, 2008

I am the Monster

It's February in Chile, and that means one thing: Viña del Mar’s Festival de La Canción, a pop music extravaganza that monopolizes Chile's attention for six nights each year. I went to this concert three years ago and wrote about it for this week's Santiago Times weekend edition.

This year, I'll have to content myself with watching the Festival on TV. That doesn't mean I can't pay homage to it on my blog, though. Here's my article:


Seagulls. Torches. Beauty queens with suspiciously prominent bustlines. I admit it: I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the phenomenon that is Viña del Mar’s annual Festival de La Canción. And I’ve been.

At the time, I was a chipper exchange student on summer break in Santiago. Having never lived abroad before, I was a gluttonous consumer of all things Chilean. I devoured Chilean literature, listened to Inti Illimani and drowned my avocado salads in lemon juice.

Consequently, I was beyond thrilled when presented with a new opportunity to luxuriate in Chilenity: My friend José Luis and I had managed to get our hands on tickets for a handful of the Festival’s six nights of pop hedonism. On the performance roster were Juanes, Julieta Venegas and a number of other Latin stars I belted along with when my host family wasn’t around. After eagerly packing up a plentiful supply of sunscreen and an extra digital camera memory card, I boarded a bus bound for the Garden City, barely able to contain my excitement.

As it turns out, those on modest budgets are forced to contain their excitement for quite some time before seeing their favorite Festival performers hit the stage. I had arrived in Viña with grand plans to laze on the beach until sundown before ambling over to the Quinta Vergara, the outdoor stadium where the Festival is held. José Luis, however, was Chilean and knew just how delusional I was. He reminded me that our tickets were branded “General Admission,” which meant we would have to arrive three hours early to guarantee ourselves a view of the stage.

Convinced he was exaggerating, I reluctantly agreed to begin plodding toward the stadium while the sun was still well above the horizon. As we got closer, it became increasingly apparent that no exaggeration had been involved. The streets were clogged with eager concert-goers intent on snagging good seats. The congestion was thickened by those who stopped to eye the glow sticks, posters and other Festival paraphernalia being hawked on the sidewalk. Dominating the curbside economy were Samurai-style headbands silkscreened with the names of the night’s performers.

José Luis’ insistence on excessive punctuality was further validated when we arrived in the stadium and made the climb to the lofty realm reserved for General Admission. Although we had arrived almost three hours early, the best place we could find to sit was the far edge of a bench toward the back of the balcony. The Monster—as the Festival audience is called because of its size, rowdiness and merciless treatment of performers who fail to impress—had already taken shape.

So it was that thousands of anxious fans found themselves smashed together for an evening of waiting. It was a potentially explosive situation. Fortunately, the event’s sponsors had foreseen the peril and provided each entering spectator with copious reading material. The coupons and promotional pamphlets handed out just inside the stadium gates enjoyed a literary life of approximately 45 seconds before assuming a much more lasting function—as projectiles.

It started innocently enough. A balled-up coupon bounced lightly off the head of an unsuspecting audience member. However, the situation soon escalated to all-out war. The sky above the Quinta Vergara darkened with wads of paper being hurled at anyone and everyone—not even children were spared. I now understood why security guards had stripped me of my water bottle at the gate.

This apparent ecological disaster may outrage the environmentally inclined. Not to worry: The Monster recycles. Each paper missile became new ammunition for its target, creating a veritable cycle of good-natured violence. The battle intensified when vendors appeared in the aisles waving yard-long balloons that quickly became samurai swords. These weapons were especially formidable in the hands of those sporting the headbands they’d purchased on the street—even if the headbands said “Miguel Bosé.”

Occasionally, there was a ceasefire that lasted just long enough for the entire upper deck to engage in a marathon round of the Wave. At crowd events in the United States, the Wave usually staggers to an unnoticed demise before completing its second lap around the stadium. Not so at the Quinta Vergara, where it lasted up to 10 minutes straight.

About an hour before the show was scheduled to start, the antics were interrupted by a series of sirens blaring over the loudspeakers. Minimally-clothed dancers flooded the stage and began to lead the crowd in an aerobic pysch-up routine that involved stomping and a whole lot of arm-flailing. By the time the Festival ended five days later, José Luis and I had memorized the steps, not to mention a good portion of the lyrics of the newly-released reggaeton anthem “Gasolina.”

On Wednesday, I watched the first night of this year’s Festival the way most Chileans did: on TV. Strangely, the nostalgia I felt as the camera panned over the chanting crowd wasn’t for the music. Sure, some of the artists I saw at the Quinta Vergara gave fabulous performances. It was also incredibly liberating to jump and scream along to Latin pop music in a socially acceptable setting.

Nevertheless, what I remember most about Viña is the collective energy that reined in the cheap seats during the seemingly eternal pre-show wait. The strangers from all over the country—and from outside of it—who converged on the Quinta Vergara three hours early were instantly united by boredom, sore rear ends and envious contempt for “los huevones de platea” (“the jerks down front”), who began serenely filing into their reserved seats shortly before the show began. We laughed together, danced together and pummeled the crap out of each other. The huevones down front had no idea what they’d missed.

One of the objects I refrained from throwing during the paper battles was a big red sticker someone had handed me when I’d entered the stadium. It read, “Soy el Monstruo” (“I am the Monster”). When I returned from my year abroad, I tucked it away with my other souvenirs, confident that I would always have fond memories of the hours I’d spent waiting in the Quinta Vergara. I like to think all the people I bludgeoned on the head with balloons will too.


Mamacita Chilena said...

I've never been to the Festival de Vina in all my years here, for the precise reasons you many people, too much waiting!

Maeskizzle said...

Jejeje. The festival de Viña. I went once too. I had no idea what it was. I'd just arrived in Viña the week before as an AFS student - high school exchange - and my host sister came across a couple tickets to go see some performer who I couldn't tell you then or now who he was. All the girls were screaming the whole time. And I remember looking around and everyone was tan with black hair. I was the lightest skinned person in the whole quinta vergara. That's about all I remember. I enjoyed myself except for the incessant screaming. I think I was pretty much awestruck at the magnitude of it all. Later I figured out that I had actually paid for the tickets. Jejeje.