Busto Arsizio (Varese), 1940 –
By Jacopo Tomatis (Università di Torino)
Few figures are as representative of the cultural history of late twentieth-century Italy as Mina, and only a handful were able to embody it as celebrities, combining public success with critical acclaim, and achieving the status of the true “pop icon” (Spaziante 2016). The uniqueness of Mina’s artistic career and, at the same time, the “multiple identities” (ibid.) which the singer has embodied during more than sixty years of her singing career make it impossible to understand her with the usual critical framework we employ to read the history of the Italian song. Mina is not a songwriter, but her role was fundamental in affirming the Italian canzone d’autore, thanks to her interpretations of songs by Gino Paoli, Fabrizio De Andrè, Ivano Fossati, Enzo Jannacci. She is not a jazz singer, but has worked with leading Italian jazz artists, even recording famous standards. She is not the typical “Italian”, lyrically trained voice, and has only participated twice in the Sanremo Festival (both times reluctantly, in the early years of her career); yet she contributed greatly to the canon of Neapolitan and national popular songs, performing the classics on television and exporting them to a global audience. She never took explicit political stances, but became an inspiration for feminists and – from a certain point onwards – even a gay icon. She was a columnist for a daily newspaper (“La Stampa“), an anchorwoman in elegant and refined RAI TV shows, a celebrity endorsement for the historical carosello (TV commercials) of a famous pasta brand, and the disembodied super-pop voice of twenty-first century advertising jingles, a music businesswoman, an actress for youth films … She was—and is—for almost everyone, simply the greatest Italian singer ever.
Mina’s public career from her debut to her definitive disappearance from the “physical” scene covers exactly twenty years, from 1958 to 1978. It is not just any twenty years: her presence on media coincides with a period of greatest liveliness in national popular music, within the framework of a general process of modernization of Italian society which affects the practices and consumption of the entire population.
Mina began her career when still in her teens (she was born in 1940 in Busto Arsizio, but soon moved to Cremona) in the emerging line of urlatori (“shouters”), the first imitators of American rock and roll. At the end of the fifties, the youth music market in Italy was still under construction, and Mina recorded songs in both English (with the pseudonym of Baby Gate) and in Italian. 1958, the year of her debut, was also the year of Domenico Modugno’s triumph at the Sanremo Festival with “Nel blu dipinto di blu“. It was a time of profound rejuvenation of the national musical offering, especially thanks to the introduction of the juke-box and the 45 rpm record. Precisely these new devices and media were destined to become objects of privileged consumption for the nascent youth community (Tomatis 2019): Mina was one of the “new” voices and bodies that would ferry Italian popular music into modernity (Valentini 2017). Suffice it to observe her in one of her first appearances on the screen, in the film Urlatori alla sbarra (directed by Lucio Fulci, 1960) to measure the great distance between her and the divas of just a few years earlier: Mina, with short hair, in trousers and a tight black shirt that shows her shoulders, sways while singing “Nessuno” (“Nobody”). She is accompanied by Adriano Celentano (Prato 2014), as she sings marking the “u” in an American accent, but at the same time already showing the originality of her voice timbre and a way of keeping time that is hers, and hers alone.
The fame of the “juke-box singer” which accompanied her in these early years is nevertheless limiting, despite the fact that Mina had contributed like no one else to define the boundaries of new youth music. Her version of “Il cielo in una stanza” by Gino Paoli, again published in 1960, already points in another direction (Fabbri 2017): with the affirmation of the songwriter genre—mostly dominated by male figures (Tomatis 2016)—Mina actually encodes a parallel and complementary genre within Italian song. This “sophisticated song” (Fabbri 2008, p. 113), of American inspiration, makes its mark on the general public thanks to the singer’s many appearances on national television (Studio Uno in the early sixties; Sabato sera beginning in 1967); and—a rare case in the history of Italian song—she also finds favor with critics and intellectuals (Fabbri and Pestalozza 1998; on Mina and the Italian television, see Haworth 2015; Mosconi 2014).
The sixties definitively consecrated Mina at an international level, thanks to tours all over the world, from Japan to South America (Haworth 2018b). Her fame survived her temporary estrangement from RAI after the 1963 scandal of her relationship with Corrado Pani, a married man, and her consequent pregnancy (Haworth 2017; 2018a). If this story shows how conservative and moralistic was the Italian society of the time, it nonetheless helps to strengthen the image of Mina as an independent, strong, and modern woman.
In 1967 she took an important step of emancipation from the dynamics of the Italian music industry by founding, with her father, the music label PDU (Platten Durcharbeitung Ultraphone; Vita 2019, pp. 212-218) in Lugano, Switzerland, where she would later move permanently. This newly achieved artistic autonomy did not significantly change her music style. On the one hand, Mina remained in tune with national and international musical trends, interpreting for example the songs of Lucio Battisti and following an eminently pop logic in her choice of repertoire. On the other hand, starting in the second half of the decade, popular music was beginning to go through a profound revolution, in the wake of the affirmation of the long playing (LP) album as a privileged listening format and the process of “artisticization” of rock music triggered by the Beatles (which Mina would later cover) and other British and American musicians. Mina, while maintaining a solid audience base (strengthened in the seventies by other television appearances, for example Milleluci with Raffaella Carrà; Mosconi 2019) is now an exponent of the “old guard,” the refined diva who sings to an adult audience. Despite this, her star does not seem to fade like that of other celebrities of the previous decade: Mina is now the Italian voice par excellence, the familiar face of public television; her musical corpus has now reached the status of an unquestionable “classic”.
Mina’s public trend ends in 1978 with a series of concerts at Bussoladomani, in Versilia, where she recorded a successful double live album (Mina Live ’78) exactly ten years after Mina alla Bussola dal vivo, a celebration of the first decade of her career. From this moment on, the singer chooses to retire from the scene, no longer appearing in public, neither live nor on video. It is certainly not without significance that this “disappearance” occurs concomitantly with one of the periodic nodes in the history of popular music (and of Italian culture as a whole), or rather at the peak of the anni del riflusso (“years of the ebb tide”), the symbolic threshold of the eighties, marking the definitive collapse of the post-’68 alternative circuit as well as the profound redefinition of the profile and the actors of the national music industry, with the end of the RAI monopoly and the emergence of private radio and television (Tomatis 2019).
Although “absent,” Mina actually continues to produce records in a continuous cycle, keeping the pace of one album a year, with few exceptions, to this day. Throughout this period she entrusted her image to a few official photographs and album covers, often the work of photographer Mauro Balletti, in which, rather than seeing we intuit her presence, behind dark sunglasses, distorted, or with an androgynous, bearded look (Salomé, 1981; Rane supreme , 1987), or as a hybrid mechanical being (Sorelle Lumière, 1992), transformed into a painting (Ti conosco mascherina, 1990; Caterpillar, 1991) or into a comic strip (Mina Celentano, bestseller of 1998). However, Mina’s “absent presence” contributes significantly to the definitive consecration of her as a pop icon: forever frozen in the television image of the sixties and seventies, Mina’s body does not age. Unlike her “rival” divas—Patty Pravo, Ornella Vanoni, Milva—her public image does not have to confront the weight of the past, new generations, or the signs of age. Her voice, on the other hand, does not seem to lose its enamel—as confirmed by her latest productions, namely the album paired with Ivano Fossati (Mina Fossati, 2019), a new songbook of national classics (Italian Songbook, 2020), and the ubiquitous TV commercial for the telephone company Tim. And if her voice, more than anything else, maintains a link with her physical body (even as the site of sexual tropes: Middleton 2006), we can understand the semiotic power of Mina’s “disappearance.” She is forever a classical diva, eternally young, who leaves only a simulacrum available to the public—the “incorporeal” voice of Mina’s body, absent and revolutionary.
– Fabbri, Franco 2017, «Il cielo in una stanza», in L’ascolto tabù. Le musiche nello scontro globale, il Saggiatore, Milano, pp. 181‐198 [prima versione in Fabbri e Pestalozza 1998, pp. 23-40)
– Fabbri, Franco e Pestalozza, Luigi (a cura di) 1998, Mina. Una Forza Incantatrice, Euresis, Milano
– Haworth, Rachel 2015, «Making a Star on the Small Screen: The Case of Mina and RAI», Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, 3(1-2), pp. 27-41
– Haworth, Rachel 2017, «Scandal, Motherhood and Mina in 1960s Italy», Modern Italy 22(3), pp. 248-258
– Haworth, Rachel 2018a «Scandal as Medium of the Celebritization Process: Exploring the “Mina as Mother” Image in the Context of Post-War Italian Culture», Mediascapes Journal 11, pp. 29-41
– Haworth, Rachel 2018b, «Mina as Transnational Popular Music Star in the Early 1960s», Modern Languages Open 1, pp. 1-16
– Middleton, Richard 2006, Voicing the Popular. On the Subjects in Popular Music, Routledge, London‐New York.
– Mosconi, Elena 2014, «Mina: la forza di una performer audiovisiva», in Roberta Carpani, Laura Peja, Laura Aimo (a cura di), Scena madre. Donne, personaggi e interpreti della realtà. Studi per Annamaria Cascetta, Vita e Pensiero, Milano
– Mosconi, Elena 2019, «Milleluci per due star della televisione italiana. La strana coppia Mina-Raffaella Carrà», in Arabeschi 13, pp. 190-197
– Prato, Paolo 2014, «Virtuosity and Populism: The Everlasting Appeal of Mina and Celentano», in Franco Fabbri e Goffredo Plastino (a cura di), Made in Italy: Studies in Italian Popular Music, Routledge, London & New York, pp. 162-171
– Spaziante, Lucio 2016, «Mina, l’icona mutante», in Icone pop:identità e apparenze tra semiotica e musica, Mondadori, Milano.
Tomatis, Jacopo 2016, «Rediscovered Sisters: Women (and) Singer-songwriters in Italy», in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place, a cura di Stuart Green e Isabelle Marc, Routledge, Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series, London and New York, pp. 79-91.
– Tomatis, Jacopo 2019, Storia culturale della canzone italiana, il Saggiatore, Milano
– Valentini, Paola 2017, «Mina: Narrative and Cinematic Spectacle of the Italian Woman in the 1960’s», in Virginia Picchietti e Laura Salsini (a cura di), Writing and Performing Female Identity in Italian Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 81-104.
– Vita, Vito 2019, Musica solida. Storia dell’industria del vinile in Italia, Miraggi, Torino.