Rebelde Without a Pause

The day before Mexican pop sensations RBD took to the stage of L.A.’s Coliseum last weekend, things were very busy on the soap opera that gave birth to the group back in 2004. Mia told Miguel she was, finally, ready to have sex with him, and then she flirted with her father to get her monthly allowance reinstated. Lupita revealed that she knows who Milan Kundera is, Roberta started plotting her takeover of the school raffle and, in the closing minutes, the federales accused Miguel of ordering his own kidnapping.

It was all business as usual on Rebelde, Mexico’s top youth-market telenovela set at ?an elite boarding school in Mexico City, ?where the boys wear loose red plaid neckties and fallen red suspenders, the girls wear shorter-than-short red plaid skirts, knee-high black boots and chest-clinging white Oxfords, and everybody punctuates their Spanish with English phrases like “Bye,” “Of course” and “What’s up.” As part of the show’s first season in 2004, some of the more telegenic characters decided to start a band, and RBD was born.

Imagine Beverly Hills, 90210 if David Silver’s music career had actually taken off, or The OC if Summer and Marisa belted duets with Ryan and Seth at the Bait Shop and then sold their hits on iTunes. In other words, it’s the Monkees, Mexican prep-school style.

So it was also business as usual at the Coliseum when RBD came out singing the show’s self-titled theme song (you have to howl its chorus, “Y soy rebelde!,” to get the effect) to a screaming crowd of more than 60,000 people. They are used to the crowds by now. Since the show’s debut, RBD has released three albums of Auto-Tuned pop candy that together have sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide (next month, they release their fourth, a live CD-DVD of an acoustic show recorded this past January at the Pantages).

The combination of the band (signed to EMI) and the show (which airs daily on Televisa in Mexico and Univision in the States) have made RBD — pronounced Erre-Beh-Deh — into Latin America’s biggest pop mega-phenomenon since Menudo. There are endless endorsement deals, a manga comic book, a gig as the new musical voice of the Mexican soccer team, a feature film in production this fall, and a slew of ring tones that might as well come stock on Mexican cell phones. The band doesn’t have one MySpace fan page, it has more than 200 of them. When the group visited Brazil for an autograph signing in February, the hysteria got ugly: Three were killed and 30 injured by the overzealous crowd.

There were no injuries at the Coliseum, just a downpour of rain and sleet that only proved how useful RBD posters can be as makeshift umbrellas. The ecstatic, glo-stick gripping audience of mostly preteen girls (and their suffering parents) helped put RBD in the record books. With all the pre-show hype by local radio giant Superestrella, the first station in the city to play RBD, it was the biggest show by a Latin act in the history of Los Angeles.

“You should all be proud of being Latino,” the group’s lead heartthrob, Alfonso Herrera, told the crowd, “because being Latino is the best.” The girls screamed louder than they had already been screaming.

Past RBD shows have been heavy on covers, but this one featured all their hits (or, at least, all the hits that have been written for them). Fire erupted from the stage when they sang “Fuego,” and they didn’t need mikes for “Solo Quedate En Silencio” or “Nuestro Amor” — the sea of singing girls took care of all the vocals. Midway through the show, the group’s only half-credible singer, Anahi, made being a rebelde synonymous with being a girl. “No dude will ever be able to handle us,” she told the crowd as police helicopters swarmed overhead. Even the single dads started cheering.

Making Rebelde/RBD this popular outside of Mexico always has been the point for the show’s producer, Pedro Damián, who developed it as a Mexican franchise of Rebelde Way, an Argentine soap opera created by the Israeli production company Dori Media. Rebelde Way became the first telenovela to go global, with rights sold to places like Romania, Russia and Israel. When Gorillaz debuted their “Dare” video in Mexico, the group chose Rebelde over MTV.

An occasional Hollywood actor, Damián was the Svengali behind Mexico’s previous kid-pop triumph, Timbiriche (which launched the careers of Paulina Rubio and Thalia), as well as the man responsible for the telenovelaMi Abuelo y Yo (which launched the careers of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna). RBD even brought him out on the Coliseum stage to bask in the roar of the enraptured, pigtailed world he created.

With the series coming to a close in May, Damián and RBD have been working hard to distance the singers from their characters on the show. So no Rebelde scenes rolled on the video screens, just clips of the band — as themselves — goofing in limos and hanging out at the Standard on Sunset. But keeping them separate won’t be an easy task. Much of the crowd was dressed up in the skirts worn by their favorite characters. The 7-year-old sitting next to me was there to see her favorite, Roberta — the show’s resident redhead bad girl — and the trio of teens behind me cared only about catching a glimpse of Herrera’s character, Miguel, in the flesh.

RBD make for compelling pop stars because they’re extensions of the characters they play on TV. Remove Anahi from her Mia Colucci role and, instead of a spoiled daddy’s diva who replaces “talk to the hand” with “huele mi champú” (smell my shampoo) and a flip of her terraced hair, we’re left with just another tiny blond with flat abs and an Alejandra Guzman rasp. Maite Perroni’s faltering voice is overlooked because she’s Lupita, the best friend with a heart of gold. As for Christopher Uckermann’s attempt at doing the Harlem Shake in his yacht-club slacks? Well, he is the doe-eyed Diego.

“You are all rebeldes,” Diego assured the crowd after he stopped shaking. The pop miracle had worked: The audience had finally become part of the show.

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