“World”-labelled music, “Punk”-labelled protest, “Student”-labelled journalism

I flipped the switch to CBC Radio on the way to work Wednesday and caught a spirited debate between British writer Ian Birrell and Toronto-based producer/director Derek Andrews on the subject of “world music.” Namely, the subject was “is this a useful term anymore?” and “might it be that this term is even just a tad bit offensive?” Birrell says “yes.” Andrews says “no,” although his argument seems pretty vague other than a rather half-hearted “how else are you going to describe (Artist A)?” near the end of the interview.

Birrell’s argument is a little bit of the old, a little bit of the new. For the old part of his argument: the “world music” term colonializes all that is not American (or alternately, Western) and essentially exocitizes all music is that isn’t the familiar “4/4 intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-lead-verse-chorus-outro” as some foreign “other.” It’s a fairly racialized concept: as white is the “default” setting, so too American and European music essentially become “default” when we place anything that Westerns remotely find “exotic” into a world bin.

In an oft-cited 2000 essay on the subject, ethnomusicologist Steven Feld captures much of this angst towards the “world music” label and even takes issue with the fact that I would categorize him as as “ethnomusicologist Steven Feld”:

“The relationship of the colonizing and the colonized thus remained generally intact in distinguishing music from world music. This musicology/ethnomusicology split reproduced the disciplinary divide so common in the academy, where unmarked “-ologies” announced studies of normative Western subjects, and “ethno-” fields were created to accommodate the West’s ethnic others. Even if little of this was terribly contentious in the academy of the 1960s and 1970s, it is nonetheless remarkable that the valorized labels ethnomusicology and world music survive with so little challenge at century’s end.”

Furthermore, he argues the term allows for global music to be neatly subsumed into the “market logic of expansion” and that “the dream desires of technological and artistic elites are jolted by market cycles of agitated wakefulness. Then, blanketed in promotion, they are once more cradled and lulled on a firm mattress of stark inequities and padded mergers, and nurtured at the corporate breast.”

The newer part of Birrell’s argument– and one that inadvertently compromises Feld’s argument– is that we “live in such a mashed up world” that what we understand as contemporary Western pop music is wearing the influences of what “world music” was coined to describe many eons ago (K’naan occupying much of this particular conversation), so what’s the use anymore? All this label is doing, he maintains, is steering people away from what could easily pass as a pop hit because it’s that “other,” it’s world music.

I’m a bit torn because my first instinct as a cultural critic is to completely support Birrell (and Feld) and say “hey, this ‘world music’ term isn’t just colonialist orientalism, it’s flat-out outdated.” However, I can’t help but feel that Andrews left out a pretty good counterargument, which is that there is some validity to seeking out a world music experience. Getting rid of “world music” might get rid of the “other,” but might it also be a “padded merger” of our listening experiences into something akin to “ah, it’s all just pop music?”

Ethnic Studies professor Roshanak Kheshti is critical of the “culture-vulture” fears surrounding “world music” labels describes “world music” as more of affective phenomenon than a tangible music genre. Is this the intended fantasy effect of a culture industry? Perhaps, Kheshti concedes. However, she also argues that to give up “world music” would be also to give up the aural imaginary pleasures the genre provides:

“There is a tension here that I am unable to negotiate between the pleasure offered by listening to the musical other, performing the musical other, and the discursive, imaginary, and political-economic formations that have structured me in relation to that object and the pleasure it affords…scholarship on world music, then, should aspire to not only critique the social structures that distinguish the bodies who produce affective labor from the bodies who consume it but also elucidate the psychic and affective processes that draw the bodies together in the first place.”

Kheshti’s idea of “touching sound” might be too estoeric to really sway Birrell but there is some validity to the idea of an aural imaginary. After all, music is so ridiculously subjective that you can’t deny the imaginary’s impact on how we receive it. Think of those terrible pop hits from your high school days that you “know you shouldn’t like” and that you’d probably hate if they came out ten years after you graduated…you like them in no small part because of the imaginary (but once real) world you’ve constructed around them. By removing “world music,” we may nobly avoid orientalizing the music of Asia, South America and so on and so forth, but we might also completely disassemble all of the different places in our mind that music can take us. After all, if the only imaginary we can construct around ANY music is a North American dance floor ready made for Feld’s “corporate beast,” are we any better off?

I do know that this interview has compelled this steak-and-potatoes college radio guy to seek out Tribe Called Red.

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Speaking of music, terms describing it and those terms’ implications…

I was intrigued by Melena Ryzik’s NY Times piece on the movement to support the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Ryzik immediately touches a chord in rock fans by bringing up the whole “when did punk die?” trope which is pretty much a rite of passage for anyone professing to be a fan of loud music that starts with a ruffian screaming “1-2-3-4!” A prerequiste for many punk purists is that the music being played carry with it a certain sense of danger, a certain sense of unrefined amateurism, and a certain sense of agitation: we will disrupt so that something might change because of this music. And that last part in particular is what Ryzik argues has been missing from anything claiming or claimed to be punk…until now.

Ryzik is right about this much: Pussy Riot’s actions certainly were calibrated to be punk as defined by the aforementioned terms. There was an instant sense of danger as authorities descended upon them to prevent their actions. The music was loud and certainly required practically no training to perform. Most importantly, it was a blatant agitation intended to create change.

There’s no denying the disruption of this performance, which puzzles many that are critical of the outpouring of support. The most disruptive element of the performance is that it pretty blatantly violates the freedom of religious assembly frequently defended and cherished in the Western world. Its true disruption, however, is indicated by the punishment: if you broke into my church and disrupted service, I’d reserve the right to kick you out…you might get charged a fine for petty disruption. Not two years for hooliganism.

That last bit of sentencing detail is why columnists such as Rachel Marsden miss the mark on the whole Pussy Riot affair. Marsden writes “The longer game of subversion would have required them to spend years working to get into a key position within the power structure, then influencing and subverting the system to change what they don’t like. The effects of such an effort would have been more organic, credible and durable.”

Well, that wouldn’t be very punk, would it? Most subculural scholars agree with Dick Hebdige’s assessment that “Subcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media. We should therefore not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.” Pussy Riot was out to make noise and they made it; I’m not sure that anyone– critic or supporter– is “duped” by any of this.

Marsden further remarks that the band would have gotten further if “they intelligently addressed Mr. Putin’s policies without breaking any laws, or associated themselves with a larger group of activists known for flaunting it relentlessly and treating it as a joke.” This is familiar railing against the “carnival of protest”. I’m critical of when the carnival takes over for any valid political discussion but the fact that Pussy Riot’s actions have raised a spolight on the issue of censorship in Russia is, in and of itself, a sign that their critics are wrong. Surely there are some in Russia that are working within the power structure for the aforementioned gradual subversion, but expressions of “noise” often provide the spark that allow those on the inside to instigate change.

And it also continues the great punk tradition, which I would argue predates the term “punk” in the musical sense: demystifying the process and telling kids not to be intimidated by those that say you can’t. As the late Martin Rushent once said, “Go up there and make a hell of a noise. And make sure you play music your parents don’t like.”.

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It looked as though the Red & Black furor had reached a comfortable detente (and victory for the students). I was heartened to see the students stand by their adviser Ed Morales, someone who is well-respected and liked in the adviser community, and the general consensus those students had was “this wasn’t Ed’s idea and we know he supports our journalistic freedoms.” The Red and Dead website issued a “final statement” on Monday which seemed indicate that this was the end of it.

Yet it’s evident there are some bruised feelings– no longer from the students, but from some of those that sit/sat on the board. Board members are resigning and it’s not entirely clear why– unless it’s because they’re uncomfortable with the students having final say over the content. I’d like to think that’s not the reason. Ed Stampler’s resignation at least seemed thoughtful…almost an apology-resignation hybrid with a bit of recognition that stepping aside would be right for both him and them. However, Charles Russell’s resignation is a bit more cryptic, referring to something that the paper “is about to do” moreso than what it’s done.

It’s good news that the students’ grievances were addressed so quickly, especially when it’s considered a flagship for what student journalism should be. It’s bad news if any lingering ill-will should overshadows and/or extinguishes the ultimate lesson: Letting the students have their say is a good thing.

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