When a small city is in close proximity to a huge city, the former’s identity will almost always be tethered to the needs of the latter. If, say, the small city happens to be near the ocean, it will be condemned to be developed around the idea of Summer. This sucks if the city is a place that experiences harsh winters, but if you’re bathed in the moderate transitions of a Mediterranean climate, it’s not much of a problem.
Summer is the stressor for Summer cities. It is, after all, the season where you make bank for the rest of the year, so you need to pull out all of the stops for the swarms of tourists. Combine this with the fact that, during the Summer, people tend to be at their most-est and at their most susceptible. Now imagine a whole city being The Most, on a Global stage.
Viña del Mar is a city less than 90 minutes from Santiago, Chile. Next to Valparaíso, it was born as a bunch of resort homes for Santiago’s Ã¼ber-wealthy, soon transforming into a mixture of the Río-Nice-Monaco for the capital, populated by about 300,000 people. It is a city of contrasts: Fancy hotels, promenades, and casinos in the front, shanty-towns in the back. Literally, there are hundreds of campamentos once you cross the first line of hills. For decades, its mayor was cartoonishly corrupt and incompetent, who “mismanaged” (pocketed) hundreds of millions of dollars.
This small city is also known for its yearly music festival which is, at once, the most amazing and the cringiest thing to come out of Chile. Since 1960, come rain, earthquakes, military coups, or social upheaval, it has been held every third week of February, over six nights. Until the Pandemic. It was last held in early 2020, only now returning in all its cringeworthy glory.
The Festival Internacional de la CanciÃ³n de Viña del Mar basically follows in the footsteps of Eurovision and the Sanremo Music Festival. It started as an actual song contest, with a Pop and a Folk category, but nobody has given a single f*ck about these contests since at least the mid-80s. The festival is held in a park, Quinta Normal, in an amphitheater inspired by the Hollywood Bowl. After a major renovation, it is now basically a gigantic TV studio with a capacity for 18,000 people. It hands over four awards: A silver torch, a golden torch, a silver seagull statue and its golden counterpart. If an artist succeeds in charming the crowd, they will be presented with these awards in succession. Supposedly, it’s a big deal, but in reality, any major star or comedian that doesn’t bomb will end up winning all four.
The Festival claims to be The Most Important Music Festival in Latin America. This is an exaggeration; The biggest music festival in the region is Rock in Rio. But since its schedule is irregular, Viña del Mar’s wins on seniority.
The Festival is a glorious, tragic, and campy mess because it’s not so much a music festival as an oversized variety hour show and telethon. A variety hour that goes on for four hours every night, each one jam-packed with artists of varying talent (usually three per night), plus tributes to whichever music star died that year, dance numbers, two hosts trying to keep it up, and the bloody song contests that nobody, nobody gives a crap about, but they take up two hours almost every night. Oh, and the ad breaks.
The amphitheater is built on the side of a steep hill, its live audience coming across like a wall of people, yet it’s still small enough to see every single face. And this is a very rowdy audience. Nicknamed El Monstruo, they’re actually easy to please, but when they’re not into something, they’re a Godzilla of heckling. Many a career has died or been taken down a few pegs by them (usually the comedy acts), and not just first timers.
Being a mandatory stop for major Latin acts, it’s usually up with the times on who is relevant and what music styles are popular. However, most times you get the same set of artists over and over again: Marco Antonio Solís, Ricky Martin, and Raphael have performed on six editions; Miguel Bosé ten times; five times for Luis Miguel, Juan Gabriel (RIP), Ricardo Montaner and Julio Iglesias; many others have been invited four times. But Viña is also the place where a One Hit Wonder’s cycle comes to die. For Spanish-language OHWs, it’s the final cash pile to squeeze out, but also for European and English-language OHWs that come to die here, usually playing their one hit twice in 30-minute sets: Lou Bega, A-Teens, No Mercy, Safri Duo… what, you’re even less familiar with these than the Latin Superstars I mentioned?
It leaves little in terms of English-language singers, which would be understandable for a relatively poor festival in a very distant country. But even now, with the hundreds of millions of dollars it moves every day, the Anglo artists are usually a selection of legacy acts, the best of Arena and Soft Rock from the 70s, and every second-tier 80s star. Doing Viña is actually a good predictor of whether a legacy artist will star in a Las Vegas residence: Elton John, Lionel Richie, Santana, Sting, etc. For many years, this was the bane of existence for pretentious dorks like me, until we became a main stop-over in the music festival circuit and in world tours: Lollapalooza, Primavera, Creamfields, WOMAD, and so on. In comparison, the Festival de Viña started looking more and more like the sad, poor, and old counterpart. Except that misses the point, the problem wasn’t with the Festival’s lack of diversity in programming, it was that we music nerds weren’t being catered to until recently. The Festival aims towards Latin American mainstream audiences, who mostly listen to content in Spanish unless it’s a legacy act. And that’s fine because in catering always to a more traditional audience, it has given us so much glorious campy mess.
There are the filler variety acts, which usually land with a thud: a guy who does a light show with lasers (which failed because of smoke from a nearby fire); or a Chinese-circus spectacle where little girls playing with diabolos (they kept dropping them). Then there’s the time when Enrique Iglesias threw one of the awards to the crowd, wounding a fan. Or the time Spanish superstar Miguel Bosé, to commemorate his tenth appearance, was presented with a tacky-ass collage, straight out of a suburban mom’s arts & crafts project. Or whenever the Festival’s hosts, with their… rudimentary English, try to explain to the Anglo artists the whole deal with the awards. Wikipedia even has an English-language article of all the artists that flopped or were heckled. Even the censorship during the Dictatorship was campy: A song competing in the 1988 edition, a sappy break-up ballad, was disqualified for “plagiarism”, but allegedly, the actual reason was because the word “no” was said dozens of times, “No” being the rallying cry against Pinochet.
Since our star-system is very trashy (mostly made up of footballers, reality TV stars, and WAGs), this Festival is The most important event of the year, all of them converging on Viña to fight for attention. The entire event is surrounded by an ecosystem of campiness, with every single local TV network devoting 80% of the airtime to the event. There is even a “Miss Festival” pageant, voted by the press corps, a title fiercely disputed between WAGs, influencers, and TV models, who start lobbying and scheming with all the subtlety of the characters from Veep. Winning is mostly about bragging rights, but also about the attention economy: The winner takes a dip in a hotel pool, sometimes wearing a bikini. In recent years, they’ve held a red carpet opening, where our local celebrities wear things like… this (the theme was sustainability).
The Festival is a lot like the Fast & Furious franchise: We Latines will forever have a soft spot for it; it’s an absolute treat if you don’t take it seriously; the only ones who take it seriously are the stars who don’t have much going elsewhere; and it’s an easy cash-grab for established or legacy artists. But every once in a while, an F&F movie or the Festival does something amazing, unexpected and memorable: The Police in 1982, Franz Ferdinand in 2006, or Faith No More in 1991 (that’s an article on its own). And most importantly: Whether you hit or bomb, the one thing everybody expects from those performing on Viña or in the Fast franchise is that they should be doing The Most. The one thing that’s unacceptable is phoning it in. Maroon 5 did so in 2020. Their career has never recovered since. We cursed them. You’re welcome.
Alberto Cox attended the Festival in 2009, alongisde his mum and two aunties. We went to see an iconic Spanish singer, who was followed by a popular teen band. We left, and at the exit we ran into a very Hyper, ever-grinning TV correspondent asking if we had a great time. My aunties, annoyed to no end, went on a rant that broke the journo’s smile. I had a blast.