Nancy Sanchez’s “Angel Baby”: a musical touchstone for America
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!,
It is hard to make me cry at a music video, and even harder to make me introspective. I see so many of them and so many of those I see are very good, but they don’t touch my crying nerve and they don’t stop me in my psychic tracks. Now one has. “Angel Baby”, the video for the newly released single by Nancy Sanchez, made me cry and has set off an internal wave of introspection about myself and my country. Sanchez’s “Angel Baby” is far more than a beautiful work of emotion and music; it is a brilliant work of cultural communication that delivers a message desperately needed in our country today. It is not only Grammy-worthy but Pulitzer-worthy.
Sanchez is a rising but under-recognized artist who, by all rights, should have a national profile. With an angelic voice, awards as a jazz singer, collaboration in the bilingual Latin folk-rock group The Mexican Standoff, and leading her own mariachi band while finishing a degree in Medival Music, her talent array is amazing. Her albums have ranged across all those genres, each one a masterwork. “Puerta del Sol” from her latest album, American Novio, is featured on the soundtrack of the STARZ hit TV show Vida. But she is also a clever bi-cultural activist and visionary who blends her immigrant Mexican context with her Orange County American life – she represents America’s future, and she knows it.
That is the foundation Sanchez brought to “Angel Baby,” a 2018 version of the 1960 song by Rosalie “Rosie” Mendez Hamlin and the Originals when she was 15. When Rosie died in March of 2017, Sanchez wanted to pay special tribute to one of her biggest Mexican American Songwriter influences, the Latina who wrote lyrics in both English & Spanish. That tribute is the stunning “Angel Baby”, written, directed, and edited by John Cantú, and produced by John Avila for Mares Entertainment. The video is set in Los Angeles 2018 and brings a “Touched by an Angel” twist to the original story and a heaven-sent gauze to the photography.
But beyond the exquisite production, it is Sanchez’s voice and visage that brings my tears. Singing in English with some Spanish storytelling, she floats like an angel through the video using her considerable natural beauty and camera-loving acting talent to draw the viewer into the story. That story starts where the 1960 original began, with a car accident, but it is subtly revised and beautifully redesigned. Rather than the heartbreak of the original, Sanchez’s video showcases the challenges and dangers of life in the second largest Spanish speaking city in the world, and how brave and loving responses from good people – and good angels – can set things right.
Its brilliance lies in its marriage of familiarity and surprise in a way that tells America that Latino culture and immigrants are not “the other”, but are us. It applies the understanding laid out by Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers that people are simultaneously curious about new and different things, and deeply afraid of anything that is too new. Immigration – especially Latino immigration — for the heartland and the suburbs of America is new and different and frightening, made more so by politically charged racist stereotypes.
Sanchez’s “Angel Baby” blends the familiar – a song many of us grew up with regardless of our age, and the surprising – something new and different, in this case a tattoo-covered Latino man and woman, played by Reggie Chavira and Mikki Hernandez, the very images being used to generate fear at political rallies. The video puts them into a story that is about angels, a staple of religious middle America, and about helping people coping with challenges that spring from recoil at the new and different. It is what Kant called the “familiar surprise”; it disarms, engages, and erases the barriers to receiving the message. It does it with music that is embedded in America’s DNA across ages, across states, across political beliefs. Sanchez and her team have created a musical vaccine for racism.
My first visceral reaction to the video was tears because of the beauty of Nancy’s voice and of the production and the inspiration in the story. But as it ended and I realized what Sanchez and Cantu had done, I moved onto introspection about my own attitudes and that of the country in whose politics and universities I have played a small part. Why are we here in this mess? Because after decades of trying, I and many others didn’t learn how to marry the familiar with the surprising to show my country the common good in all of us the way Sanchez’s “Angel Baby” does in 6 minutes.
In the time I have known Nancy Sanchez I have developed a deep appreciation for her as a singer/songwriter and as a strong person. But I realize that I have never fully understood the depth of her talent until “Angel Baby”. I probably still don’t and it could be I never will, but I do understand that Nancy Sanchez’s “Angel Baby” is the best video of 2018 and may likely become a musical touchstone that lasts far beyond any single year. Sanchez and “Angel Baby” should be at the Grammys next year, with a Pulitzer on its resume.
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