THE CORNER CLUB: Caetano Veloso’s Beautiful Contradictions

On this edition, we explore Caetano Veloso’s seminal 1968 debut, which sparked a movement in the face of a totalitarian state.

The first 30 seconds of Caetano Veloso’s revolutionary 1968 self-titled debut carry with them almost 400 years of Brazilian history.

There’s the arrangements themselves, with strings pitched like they’re about to break, swinging back and forth like jungle vines. There’s a plethora of chirping flutes, as if the recording studio has been descended upon by a swarm of tropical birds. The percussion, clattering, clanging and ringing violently, is nothing short of relentless, coalescing all these sounds into something that’s gleefully cacophonous, and dare I say it, a beckoning to the inherent “exoticism” of a land like Brazil.

Surely, that’s a sentiment that Veloso intended to draw out of his listener. Why else would the most prominent fixture of the sonic landscape he’s created be the nasally, derisive voice of his drummer, Dirceu?

Dirceu is reading from a letter to the King of Portugal from the knight Pêro Vaz de Caminha, written in 1500 and widely considered the first Brazilian literary text, not to mention the founding document of Brazilian history. It’s the letter that, with its descriptions of the land in Brazil as “fertile and green,” “where everything planted there grows and flourishes,” beckoned Portugal to hold Brazil in its empirical grasp for over three centuries.

It was a daring move to harken back to the times when Brazil’s shores were untouched, especially given the new hypercapitalist, U.S.-instituted military regime that had been instituted in Brazil a mere four years ago. And what’s even more daring is the rest of the song, “Tropicália,” a brilliant salvo that spits on the face of the rapid consumerism being pushed on Brazil by multinational corporations, all while cannibalizing the sounds of American culture for something that’s distinctly its own.

It’s just the first of many contradictions; one moment, Veloso’s marveling at the trains passing by, the next he’s enraptured with the beauty of Brazil’s central highlands. His lyrics explore high art and delve into Dadaist passages, yet they still find time to embrace kitsch Brazilian icons like Carmen Miranda. The percussion clatters with the spirit of Carnaval, yet it’s anchored by urbane horns and tight, visceral strings.

“Tropicália” is an absolutely stunning opener, and it’s one that would eventually embody a movement that would take shape around its name. With vanguards like Veloso and compatriot Gilberto Gil, the Tropicálismos kickstarted an artistic revolution that drew from João Gilberto and The Beatles alike; that gleefully intimidated Brazil’s old guard, not to mention the ever prescient junta slowly tightening its grip on the country. And it’s the presence of the latter that makes the whole of Caetano Veloso so remarkable; it’s a record filled subtle acts of rebellion, all coalescing into a statement that’s remarkably powerful and terrifically cohesive.

There’s the tongue-in-cheek “Soy Loco Por Ti America,” which seems like a love song for the U.S. until you realize which “America” he’s talking about. The lyrics start sunny, lovelorn, and starry-eyed, but there’s a subtle sense of unease which makes its way to the forefront as the verses pass on. He sings in memory of a “dead man,” who would, years later, be revealed as revolutionary Che Guevera, a man whose murder at the hands of CIA-aided forces brought a sense of hopelessness as the U.S. continued to enforce a brutal “shock-doctrine” (as Naomi Klein calls it in her marvelous 2007 novel) onto the working class of Latin America, his America.

Elswhere, we have the rapid-fire “Superbacana,” a razor-sharp parody ad for a “super-cool” superhero. Here, Veloso fires out nonsensical nightmare slogans ripped straight out of a demented hour of Saturday Morning Cartoons; Rogerio Duprat’s arrangements respond with blaring horns and thunderous drums, getting faster and faster as they perpetually escalate into chaos. It’s a pointed mockery of Brazil’s corporatized state, a brilliant subversion of the advertising and consumerism being fervently pushed by companies like GM and Ford.

And then of course, the record’s crown jewel: “Alegria, Alegria,” maybe the greatest anthem to ever escape Veloso’s pen.

Emerging from a glorious blast of fuzzed-out guitar, the song pulls from 20th century pop culture as joyfully as it criticizes it, turning it on its head while welcoming it with open arms. It’s a song that marvels at the Brazilian sunlight, while staring below at the stuffed newsstands and all the arrests being made. It drinks Coca-Cola, name-drops Brigitte Bardot, and finds kindred spirits in Jean-Paul Sartre and fellow Tropicalismo Chico Buarque. And in the face of it all, it asks, simply, “why not?”

In The New York Times, Veloso said of “Alegria, Alegria”: “It’s an affirmation-of-life kind of song, but it has an ironical hint to it.” Like the rest of the record, the song is triumphant, emotional, and striking. It manages to sound immensely cathartic, even while carrying with it the weight of revolution. As Veloso aptly put it, “It was against the dictatorship without saying anything about it.” And on a record that remains a legendary act of defiance even fifty years later, that may just be its greatest triumph.