Gone but not forgotten: Selena’s influence endures long after her death

Since Selena’s death in 1995, the world has been in mourning. But even after her death, her influence on pop culture is enduring.

In 1995, the world lost one of its best performers. Selena’s shocking death occurred at the age of just 23 years old. But thankfully, her music has not faded from our cultural landscape, and neither has her influence.

One might even argue that with every passing year, Selena’s legend and her legacy have continued to grow. That’s a testament to both the raw power and charisma she wielded as a performer and the universal appeal of her music. How else could someone so young still cast such a long shadow more than two decades after their passing?

Who was Selena?

Selena Quintanilla was a child of South Texas. In many ways, she had a very different upbringing than most of today’s mainstream Latin music stars. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, she spent her childhood traveling on both sides of the border, playing Tejano music with her siblings at swap meets, county fairs, and family gatherings. It was in these small non-traditional venues that Selena learned the importance of understanding her audience.

As she got older, Selena gained more confidence in herself and her music, and it showed in her performances. The youthful joy of a teenager on stage can be infectious to fans of any age. That’s the energy that Selena conveyed onstage, and it made anyone watching feel somehow more alive.

The music

In addition to her undeniable onstage presence, Selena’s music spoke to so many different aspects of the human experience. Tejano music has always been a music of the masses. Its lyrics often explore themes of Mexican and Mexican-American struggles, family, and romance. Despite this important and highly relevant subject matter, the genre has generally been enjoyed by an extremely small portion of the greater American music market. While Selena didn’t necessarily expand the worldwide audience for Tejano music, her contributions did lead to a broader awareness of the genre and respect for its artists.

Selena’s unrelenting emotional range runs throughout her music, and it’s undeniable to anyone who listens to even a few of her songs, in Spanish or English. Her Spanish tracks can be fun and silly, like the aptly named “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” which makes any listener immediately move their “bidi bidi bom bom”. She also recorded a number of classic Mexican rancheras that highlight her vocal range and emotional investment in every song. Listening to “Siempre Hace Frio” (“It’s Always Cold”) makes one wonder if she was truly pining for her lost love when she sang “Vuelve conmigo, alma de mi alma, vidita mía.” When listening to the track, you hear her pain through the lyrics, but you feel her pain through her voice.

She was just as talented at expressing these complex emotions through song in English. That’s because she wasn’t only Mexican and wasn’t only American. She was the archetype of the truly multi-cultural American youth. This ability to go back and forth between two cultures was on full display with the posthumous release of her final studio album, Dreaming of You. It was meant to be her crossover opus, introducing her to the English speaking audience and launching her to superstardom. The album was roughly half English and half Spanish and enjoyed great critical and commercial success.

Continued influence

Unfortunately, Selena never got to see her dream realized because she was gone before the album was released. While it may be tempting to ponder what great heights she may have achieved if she were still here, that isn’t the best way to honor her. What’s important to remember is that despite her worldly absence over the years, her influence is everywhere.

Many people point to the beginning of the Latin music explosion as Ricky Martin’s 1999 Grammy’s performance. While it was a pivotal moment, it shouldn’t totally overshadow the impact that Selena’s death and the subsequent release of Dreaming of You had on American culture. Four years before Martin’s Grammy performance, Selena completely changed the way that Spanish language music was perceived in this country and made it more accessible to a wider audience.

The past years without an expanding Selena catalog have been difficult. Nevertheless, her contributions continue to blossom in the form of her influence on new artists, and in the way we feel when we hear her music. Thanks to the gifts she left behind for all of us, Selena will live forever.