Monday, October 21, 2013

Michael Jackson was a Cultural Imperialist

Michael Jackson was a cultural imperialist.  No, really!  This idea occurred to me while reading a recent post by my friend over at Africa in DC which came as shortly after a lengthy debate I incidentally initiated over Facebook.  This has got me thinking a lot about the nature of art, culture and what people listen to, particularly in the age of wildly proliferated communications technology.  Music obviously means a lot to people, however most people do not put a lot of thought into the music that they listen to.

The issue raised by my friend over at Africa in DC is that there is a lack of diversity in what people listen to here in DC and what shoes they go to, particularly when it comes to African music. Listeners are segregated.  Contemporary African Pop music features a small, largely African ex-patriot audience, while older African genres, like the afro-beat pioneered by the late Fela Kuti manage a healthy white audience through DJ shows and the like.  A lot of this appears to be come down to a type of consensus within peoples listening habits established through media outlets like NPR and Pitchfork Media which often drive exposure, canonize certain acts that fit the aesthetics of both outlets and ultimately determine cultural preferences.  I agree with my friends assessment to some degree here, but find three additional points of interest: (a) pop music is in itself a form of cultural imperialism, (b) what is canonized is rarely "serious music"and (c) increased access to information technologies is creating a global monoculture that is narrowing rather than widening listeners' musical palates.

To begin with, there is absolutely nothing morally abhorrent about liking pop music. I like pop music and as a record collector, I own quite a bit of it. Pop songs can speak to us and move us sometimes more readily in ways that more serious art does not mostly because it works largely on the subconscious.  It's easy and it's pleasant - by definition it largely does not challenge the way more serious art does - hence: pop. Where pop music runs into problems is when it is exported internationally and begins to change existing cultures.  In some cases, as with Thai Molam music, which saw the blending of traditional rural Thai folk music idioms with the soul and rock and roll records brought over by US GIs during the Vietnam War, this led to the creation of interesting new hybrid forms.  A lot of these forms are interesting because they were downright weird and often didn't quite work.  The more formulaic Molam became, arguably the less interesting.

Often times though, the export of Western popular music results in replacement of existing ethnic musical forms.  A lot of this process started int he 80s when, Western record companies, looking to capitalize on overseas (and thus larger) markets for their super acts started pushing Michael Jackson records and the like down the rest of the world's throat.  Now, there is nothing wrong with Michael Jackson's music (his personal life, being another matter) however, many of the places that Thriller and the rest were exported and heavily marketed had their own vibrant musical traditions and ideas.
The ascendance of Hip-Hop of course further changed everything by further driving interest away from the instrumental, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic parts of the music and placing the emphasis increasingly on lyrics.  This trend seems to have begun with 60s singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan but with hip-hop, this became the case with African American musical forms as well.  No longer did anyone have to write an actual tune, now all that was necessary was a hook and a beat.

In the end, this process seems to be actively impoverishing a lot of contemporary African music.  While hybrid styles like Hip-life claim to blend the musical aesthetics of highlife music with hip-hop, the outcomes are, for all extensive purposes, indistinguishable from contemporary Western Top 40s radio hits.  While this strengthens the point made on the Africa in DC blog that it is bizarre there isn't a bigger audience for contemporary African music from white people with an interest in Africa (especially as the music in question is hardly radically different - in fact it's pretty close to the Western pop music they may already be listening to) it also represents music that is, ironically extremely un-African. The African music tradition has always been reliant on polyrhythm and intense rhythmic complexity. Much of this is rhythmic complexity is culturally inherent, as anthropologist John Miller Chernoff argues in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility.  As James Gleick further elaborates in his book on information theory The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, a lot of this rhythmic complexity was linguistically present in the tonal languages spoken in central Africa and carried to drums as a means of long distance communication. Thus, in much of Africa it is innate to communication.  This polyrhythmic sensibility was later exported to the West (through forced relocation of Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas via the slave trade) and makes up the basis for a lot of latin as well as jazz music.

Thus to hear contemporary African pop music built around stagnant 4/4 rhythms in order to more fully line-up with the aesthetic of hip-hop indicates not only a serious cultural loss, but also the clear emphasis of the domination of American cultural exports.  Just as Hollywood has pushed its conventions upon other countries film industries, American popular music has undermined a lot of what made traditional popular music forms culturally relevant.  It drives a sort of internationalized, sanitized lowest common denominator consumer culture.  The exception to this rule appears to be the Bollywood Film music coming out of India and the Tamil Film music of Sri Lanka.  Sure it borrows from Western musical traditions, but then again, Bollywood has always borrowed from a lot of different sources and remains incredibly creative.  (Legendary Bollywood composer, R.D. Burman, appears to have have long absorbed not only the entirety of the Western and Indian musical traditions, but also far Eastern, Latin and African at the same time that the Beatles were just starting to mess around with sitars. Burman isn't the only one.  His closest Western contemporary is probably someone like the ever inventive, ever open, Ennio Morricone.)

That said, this leads to a lot of questions about who is the gatekeeper for international music for Western culture.  This appear to have largely fallen into the hands of National Public Radio (NPR) and the "indie" music website Pitchfork Media.  (A nuanced critique of both sources can be found here and here.)  What both overwhelmingly do, in their gatekeeper rolls is to create an extremely lazy, incurious white mono-culture that predominates a lot of people’s thinking, particularly when it comes to other cultures artistic outputs. What both elect to anoint as canonical are usually a lot of old safe oldies or gimmicky newsworthy acts (i.e. K'naan) while ignoring a great deal of what people actually listen to within the cultures being studied. This mono culture pretends to be reasonable but never really allows its own assumptions be challenged. It also feeds back what is "commercially viable" in the West to those cultures, further driving an internationalized mono culture.

So, given that a lot of pop music may serve as a form of cultural imperialism, the NPR/Pitchfork Media consensus does nothing to acknowledge this and instead pushes itself as a gold standard of cross cultural awareness, despite having an extremely narrow focus and positively dripping an non-acknowledged Orientalism. This Orientalism though is careful not to go too far. A little exotica is fine, too much of “the other” makes people feel uncomfortable.  Orientalism is not in and of itself a bad thing.  I think in engaging with other cultures, it is almost impossible not to project onto or fetishize "the other" in some way.  That said, some musicians are able to play on this notion of Orientalism and use it to their advantage.  The guitarist Sir Richard Bishop (a favorite of this blog) takes on a lot of the negative Orientalist stereotypes and appropriates these as virtues, actively incorporating them into his own work.  Richard Bishop, however is a serious artist with a strong interest in music who has been ignored (due to the marginal nature of his work) by NPR while Pitchfork has tended to condescend in their reviews of his work, speaking of his "impressive amount of skill" as though this were somehow a bad thing.  It has also, similarly condescended in reviews of Jazz musicians, a genre that NPR has instead elected to treat as some sort of venerated museum piece, something to be wheeled out and "recognized" as important rather than as an actual living genre full of still-living practitioners that could be, you know, actually listened to.  To its credit, NPR occasionally takes risks promoting more difficult music, but always in back alleys of its website and only after that work has received wider cultural acclaim.

This is especially telling when contrasted with the Americana derived roots/ folk rock that both NPR and Pitchfork have been in lockstep as being the work that speaks to our times. The gentle, guileless work of Wilco or Mumford & Sons or the retro rehashing of The Arcade Fire and Phoenix.  None of this work is terrible, it is all perfectly 'pleasant'.  It is more that none of it is particularly novel, most of it is quite disposable popular music which, because of lyrical stance, is now canonized as new classics that will stand the test of time.  NPR and Pitchfork readers see themselves as being part of two very different sub-strata yet they seem to be largely in lock-step when it comes to "recognizing" work. NPR, the more conservative middle of the road source perhaps a bit slower on the uptake.  So we have a situation in which arguably the two most active, determinant and influential sources are both affirming a particular style of (limited) music as being great art (which arguably it isn't: instead it's pop) and feeding this back internationally by limiting channels of exposure.  Thus, the selections made by these sources become self fulfilling prophecies and we have variations on the same works.  Add to this the odd endorsement of international music and hip-hop (in order to demonstrate that both sources are "cultured" and lather, rinse, repeat.

These ideas are then spread online through the endless cycle of posting and reposting on social networking sites, twitter, internet radio (which effectively creates echo chambers by broadcasting 'similar' works to listeners to help them discover 'new' music) taste and review aggregation and the like.  No one ever really stops to question the wisdom or agendas of those making decisions about what is popular, but what is remarkable that, despite the incredible variety of music available and one-click through the internet, everyone seems to listen to and watch the same things.  Critics lament the lack of a shared cultural background as a result of internet stratification, but this could not be further from the truth.  Instead, there has been a remarkable shift of the non-threatening, canonized classics and semi-pleasant pop music through repeated self-reification, with limited questioning.  This tendency is now becoming internationalized.

So yes, this does result in a de facto segregation of work, however it is ironic that much of this work not being listened to should be accessible to people across the spectrum of “pop music listeners” because feedback mechanisms have already prevented it from being genuinely challenging, culturally specific or different. It is as much a failure of telecommunications technology to actual broaden people’s scopes as much as anything else.

Or, we can also just blame Michael Jackson, because this tendency seems to have started with him.  Go on, he's an easy scape goat.


Anonymous said...

African popular music has long incorporated aspects of western popular music. Its kind of pompous of you to suggest that African performers are somehow being brainwashed, when they are as capable of choosing influences as Sir Richard Bishop is.

Alex Deley said...

Anonymous, I think you missed the point.

Alex Deley said...

There is a very clear difference between being influenced by western music and giving over the core of your work. If African music stops sounding like African music and starts sounding like American top 40s, does where it comes from even matter? Is there anything culturally determinant about it anymore?

Anonymous said...

The most creative sounds will always have unique aspects representing where and whom they come from. While the internet and the world economy are making certain aspects of culture everywhere more similar, there still seems to be musical differences. In addition, there are likely older musicians in many African countries keeping older musical traditions alive, even if their music is not popular with a younger audience. You say "If African music stops sounding like African music, " but you don't define what you mean. Are you saying that late 1970s Nigerian musician William Onyeabor should have tried to sound just like early 70s music by Nigerian musician Fela?

Alex Deley said...

Of course not, but when, say 2Face of Ice Prince manage to sound identical to Top 40s American radio, there is a problem of very real loss of cultural identity The whole argument is that what is commercially viable is either (a) identical to what is going on every place else in the world and the product of cultural colonialism or (b) reissues of old stuff that, while great, has largely been picked because, say NPR, decided that this was some cultural treasure trove that needed to be explored.

There is a lot of great contemporary African pop music, particularly that coming out of Tuareg regions, that manages to both sound modern and have a strongly culturally determinant features.

Anonymous said...

I do not think 2F whose performance with Ice Prince you dislike, sounds identical to American top 40; and anyway, the guy is very popular in Nigeria and I think you have to accept that in 2013 in Nigeria and in the US there is room for people who make music that resembles r'n'b or hiphop , as well as people who make music that more strongly resembles traditional cultural sounds.

Alex Deley said...

I don't like or dislike them - I'm just noting a lack of cultural identification and its replacement with a US led mono culture. I think its a problem from a multi-cultural perspective, but obviously, people can like whatever they like.

Alex Deley said...

My tastes skew a bit weird anyways. For exmaple, check out:

Anonymous said...

I like Sublime Frequencies releases too, but your claim that 2Face and Ice Prince lack "cultural identification" shows that you are not aware of a portion of the culture that exists today in parts of Africa. You're welcome to like African music played by people on guitars and ngonis better than music created using digital technology, but spare me the cultural superiority argument.

Anonymous said...

As for the "US led monoculture"

Rap and r'n'b and pop created using digital technology has existed for decades now, and such technology and approaches to music have been international now for ages--have you heard Jamaican dancehall; various British styles; South Asian bhangra; etc. Also, I have read various articles about Malian musicians wanting to start music schools to keep ngoni and kora playing skills alive plus an article on how music in Niger is hurt by the lack of safe electrical outlets to plug in guitars and such. And of course there have been many articles written on the lack of music/arts programs in urban American cities and how it became easier to rap than to form a band. Your piece however does not address any of the complexities of the issue.

Alex Deley said...

Oh I like a lot of contemporary African electronic-based music too. I think "The Very Best" are great. I also really enjoy a lot of the "Music From Saharan Cell Phones" releases that Mississippi Records did. It was the music I wished I had been able to find when I was a PCV in the Sahel. I even understand a lot of the stuff coming out of Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere today, even if its not my favorite. Like I said, I just really wonder when it all starts to sound like American Top 40 radio.

I certainly experienced a lack of safe electrical outlets (when there were electrical outlets at all), but at base, I am just responding to my friend over at Africa in DC and raising some further considerations, notably what feels like a form of globalized American cultural imperialism. We already have that in the film industry through the ubiquitousness that is Hollywood (with the popularity of the Nigerian film industry in African being a notable exception) and I think we are beginning to see it in popular music also.

To me, there is nothing wrong per se with shifting tastes, etc. Hip-hop certainly has an appeal I just worry that we are losing. I would like to learn more about attempts to keep some of the more traditional musical forms alive. I hope it does not take the form of turning these into conservatory arts, as we see with jazz music in the United States, because I really feel that this tendency has really stultified jazz. I also think it has something to do with people genuinely being scared of a lot of the free jazz coming out in the late 60s early 70s that was strongly linked to American black nationalism, and as Valerie Wilmer pointed out in her book on that music "As Serious As Your Life" an unwillingness by the United States to recognize black genius.