Copyright New York Times Company Jul 9, 2006
MAITE PERRONI was having trouble with the word ''you're.'' Ms. Perroni, a 23-year-old Mexican singer and actress, gripped her headphones in the vocal booth of a posh recording studio high above Sunset Boulevard and tried it again. ''Even in your sleep, when you're dreaming,'' she sang in a faltering voice, and then threw her hands up in desperation.
''The 'you're' is more quick, right?'' she asked the song's producer, Peter Stengaard, who urged her on as a few bars of the mid-tempo ballad, ''I Wanna Be The Rain,'' blasted through the studio on a repeating loop. Ten takes later, she finally nailed it.
''I was so nervous,'' Ms. Perroni said in heavily accented English, looking a little pale and breathless, ''This album is so important for us.''
Ms. Perroni is a member of RBD (known by the Spanish pronounciation, ''erre beh deh''), a photogenic Mexican sextet that started out as a soap opera spin-off but now rules the world of Latin pop with feel-good teen anthems and Las Vegas-style concert productions. Yet the group remains all but unknown among English speakers, a problem its members are hoping to solve by recording their first English-language album. Due this fall, the album is being aimed at non-Latinos in the United States, as well as markets in Canada and even Asia. And on Saturday, they're playing Madison Square Garden.
''We're trying to start from scratch with a whole new audience,'' said Christian Chavez, a member of RBD who was raised along the Texas-Mexico border and lives, like the rest of the group, in Mexico City. ''We don't want to stop with Spanish songs. We want to keep reaching for more and share our music with as many people as possible.''
In other words, this is not just another Latin crossover attempt. This is the making of Mexico's first worldwide pop brand.
''For the Mexican industry this is all totally new,'' said Camilo Lara, president of EMI Mexico, who signed RBD to the label in 2004. ''They are the first Mexican artists to be exploded on a global scale.''
Mexico has had plenty of teen-pop crazes before -- Timbiriche in the 1980's, and Magneto and OV 7 in the 1990's -- but none ever touched RBD's international popularity. (Among Spanish-language acts, only the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo came close). RBD's four albums have together sold five million copies worldwide, a staggering figure for a Mexican pop act. Its most recent single, ''Mexico, Mexico,'' was commissioned as the nation's official World Cup anthem.
As for the United States, Mexican pop artists have not typically fared well here in English translation. But with ''Hips Don't Lie,'' the song by the Colombian singer Shakira, becoming the most played pop song in American radio history -- not to mention one of the most downloaded songs in iTunes history -- RBD might be plotting their linguistic makeover at just the right time.
''Everybody wants to buy into Latin culture, whether it's Wal-Mart, Dr Pepper or Verizon,'' said Chris Anokute, the Virgin Records executive who signed up the English-language album. ''The only music that increased in sales last year was country and Latin. To me it's a no-brainer. It's just a matter of putting RBD in the market.''
There is only one catch, he said: ''They have to come off as credible. They can't come off as novelty Spanish acts trying to break in America.''
No wonder Ms. Perroni was so nervous.
To smooth the transition, Mr. Anokute has given the group a stack of songs from A-list writers and producers like RedOne, who produced the mash-up of ''Hips Don't Lie'' that Shakira and Wyclef Jean are scheduled to perform at Sunday's World Cup finale. More significant perhaps, the album features two songs -- ''I Wanna Be The Rain'' and ''Tu Amor'' -- from the golden pen of Diane Warren, a seven-time Oscar nominee who has written monster hits for the likes of Celine Dion (''Because You Loved Me''), Cher (''If I Could Turn Back Time'') and Toni Braxton (''Unbreak My Heart'').
''For the American market I thought their music was really cool, but it had to be slightly different to work here,'' said Ms. Warren in the offices of her Realsongs studios, where the group has been recording during a brief break from its United States tour. ''They needed a mass appeal song.''
But even she had never heard of RBD until a member of her staff showed her an article about the group in Billboard.
''I didn't realize,'' she said, ''that they were such a phenomenon.''
THE name of the phenomenon is Rebeldemania.
RBD was originally formed as a marketing tie-in to ''Rebelde,'' or ''Rebel,'' a megahit Mexican telenovela, or soap opera, on which all of RBD's members were actors. Two of the group's biggest singles, ''Rebelde'' and ''Nuestro Amor,'' have alternated as the show's theme music.
Set in a private boarding school in Mexico City, ''Rebelde'' follows the exploits of Miguel, Mia, Diego, Roberta, Lupita and Giovanni, a group of friends who decide to start a band when they're not blackmailing teachers and falling in love. The show's sexed-up look is preppy punk chic: the boys wear red neckties and fallen suspenders, the girls wear tight white blouses, plaid miniskirts and knee-high stockings. Characters often pepper their speech with English phrases like ''What's up?'' and ''Hello?''
That RBD would end up with international aspirations is only fitting for ''Rebelde,'' a show with so global a back story. Based on ''Rebelde Way'' -- an Argentine soap opera from 2002 that was also set at an elite boarding school and also featured its own spin-off band (Erreway) -- ''Rebelde'' was bankrolled by Dori Media, an Israeli production company. Dori successfully marketed ''Rebelde Way'' to countries from India to Greece to Ukraine. It became the blueprint for the transnational age of the telenovela: financed in one country, broadcast in another, and then franchised to more than 50 different international markets.
''Globalization in the world of teens is much more rooted than that of adults,'' said Leora Nir, Dori Media's vice president for television programming. ''Kids almost all over the globe are confronting the same problems and issues, and have gotten used to seeing TV as a legitimate tool for seeking and finding answers. The idea was to enter the international marketplace through a good, high values teen telenovela which would incorporate one of the most important elements of youth lives -- music.''
The media conglomerate Televisa licensed the show in Mexico and hired Pedro Damian, a fixture in the telenovela industry for more than two decades, to retool it for local audiences. He cast it knowing that he was also casting a pop group with a major music label deal waiting in the wings.
The show made its debut in 2004, and swiftly emerged as one of the most popular youth-marketed soap operas in telenovela history. In Mexico ''Rebelde'' lasted for three seasons, rather than the typical one-season run; during most of that stretch 23 percent of all Mexican households tuned in for a nightly dose. That was RBD's built-in audience.
''The group started as a fiction on the show and then it became real life,'' said Mr. Damian, who speaks in a gentle British-inflected English. ''Now the real life has surpassed the fiction. When they decided to make a record on the show, they hadalready sold three million records in the real world.''
The final episode was broadcast last month in Mexico, but the show is still running daily in the United States (on Univision, which reaches 98 percent of the nation's Hispanic households) and 15 other countries, from Spain to Romania to Israel. A new spinoff series for Mexican television, which catches up with the kids a year after graduation -- ''a dramedy,'' Mr. Damian said -- is to begin shooting this fall.
''The show helps the music, and the music helps the show,'' said another RBD member, Alfonso Herrera, 22, who got his start in Mexico City theater productions of ''The Crucible'' and ''Antigone'' before moving to soap operas. ''We know that we began as 'Rebelde,' but that doesn't mean we don't take our new role as musicians very seriously as well.''
Besides the usual merchandising onslaught of T-shirts and ring tones, there is now a ''Rebelde''-goes-manga comic book series, chewing gum, handbags, candy and stationery, and each member of RBD has a personal fragrance line. When the group played the Los Angeles Coliseum in April, it drew 65,000 fans and earned a total of $3.1 million, the second highest-grossing concert in the stadium's history (ahead of Madonna and U2, just behind the Rolling Stones). At this year's Billboard Latin awards RBD had three of the four albums nominated in the Best Pop Album of the Year category, and its debut, ''Rebelde,'' won.
The group's concerts and public appearances are now occasions for mass hysteria; one autograph signing in Brazil in February became a chaotic stampede that killed 3 people and left 38 injured.
''When they hired me, I thought it was just going to be a soap opera with this group in it,'' admitted 19-year-old Christopher Uckermann, who plays Diego, the troubled son of a politician. ''Imagining something on this scale just wasn't possible. None of us ever thought this kind of success and recognition could happen. We are all still in shock.''
Only two of the group's members -- Anahi Puente, 23, and Dulce Maria Espinoza, 21, both of whom started recording in their teens -- have any real professional experience as singers. Ms. Perroni, for example, had been a student at Televisa's in-house acting academy before landing this, her first professional job, and Mr. Herrera confessed he didn't start singing lessons until he was cast as Miguel, the scholarship student. The group does not write its own songs or play instruments.
YET the RBD members insist that they are not manufactured media products. Instead, they see themselves as followers of that age-old pop faith that the simplest music -- when performed with the right combination of footwork, hip swivels and rousing group harmonies -- can bring the purest joy.
''The problem with groups before us like Timbiriche is that they gave up on the power of pop music,'' said the pink-haired Mr. Chavez, who has the group's strongest male voice. ''They started mixing it with rock and doing fusions. They thought pop wasn't good enough. That's our special ingredient. We really believe in pure pop.''
Mr. Damian also speaks of the band's development as a matter of faith. ''We knew we had to create a lifespan for 'Rebelde' that would go beyond the soap opera,'' he explained. ''We talked about a magazine, a radio program, merchandising, sponsorships, a musical group, concerts. It was a whole 'Rebelde' concept. The belief was that being a rebel is something that everyone wants to be.''
''To be rebelde used to mean you had to have a mask and a gun and come out of the jungle,'' he continued, referring to Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista rebel leader who started an armed revolution from the Mexican jungle in 1994. ''Now you have to have a short skirt and a red tie and be very cute and very nice. It's rebellion as a lifestyle and an aesthetic.''
Mr. Damian might be onto something. When Enrique Pena Nieto ran for governor of the State of Mexico in 2005, he made an appeal to young voters by choosing RBD's ''Rebelde'' as his campaign song. He won.
At a recent RBD concert in a tennis stadium in Indian Wells, Calif., thousands of the group's ''rebel'' fans -- a screaming sea of mostly teary-eyed young Latinas and their patient parents -- were in full effect. Most of them wore their own version of the Rebelde school uniform. ''Thank you for being a part of generation Rebelde,'' Ms. Puente told the crowd in Spanish as she put her hand over heart. ''It's you who are the real rebeldes.''
The original idea for RBD was that its members would perform as themselves, not their roles in the telenovela. But onstage they repeatedly switched between personas. The fans responded accordingly. That means Alfonso Herrera was greeted with a ''Te Amo Alfonso'' sign by a 7-year-old down in the pit, and by a ''Te Amo Miguel'' banner, for his TV character, from the bleachers.
''Sometimes I am Miguel,'' a sweaty Mr. Herrera laughed backstage after the show. ''Sometimes I am Alfonso.''
The identity question will soon become a serious business decision. Early next year RBD heads to Canada to begin shooting its first feature film. The members haven't been told if it will follow the adventures of their ''Rebelde'' characters or, like a Mexican ''Hard Day's Night,'' tell their real-life story as members of RBD: six 20-somethings who stumble into the mania of global pop stardom.
''We still don't know how we're going to handle that,'' Mr. Damian admitted with a grin. ''I carry my BlackBerry with me every day, though, and I'll be reading e-mails from the fans. They'll help me figure out what to do.''