Mainstreaming Music 1: How Decreasing Diversity May Be A Good Thing

One of those supposedly unchallengeable truths about the development of music in the past three decades is the idea of fragmentation.

Music, the thinking goes, has undergone a process whereby previously unified groups of people (say: all the consumers in a country) have split up into ever-smaller fragments, listening to localised, community-based music to an increasing degree. Within each faction, in turn, there are myriads of little facets, each with its own named genre, and there's absolutely nothing any more that even vaguely unifies whole countries, let alone the whole world. This is then explained by a bunch of fancy theories involving post-modernism, long tails and so on.

I think it may be time to challenge this view, which I've definitely held myself. Because it seems to me that with the increased production values in so many parts of the world, and with the unified contemporary aesthetic covering all chart pop, we're hitting a time where, indeed, a lot of music is starting to sound pretty much the same. And for me, right now, that's a good thing.

The videos above are from Nigeria, Kenya and Haiti respectively. Different genres and backgrounds, yet they're all pretty much some sort of international pop, produced up to extremely high technical standards and with quality videos that could, for the most part, pass unnoticed on any MTV channel. For the first time, recording technology has progressed to the level where artist from the "third world" can make music that sounds just as good as any "western" pop, and they're taking the opportunity. In droves. And it's super-popular, racking in fans and awards.

Diaspora and minority populations are certainly following suit. Like bhangra? Well, the subcontinental diaspora increasingly favours RnB-soundalike urban desi instead - and so, seemingly, do the rest of us. And if urban desi is indistinguishable from other pop, it's got nothing on how much mainstream "black" and "white" music has melded completely into one genre. The biggest smash hit this year across almost all charts (including the latin one) defiantly crosses all gaps, racial and geographical, in melding what is very clearly one world pop - a multi-ethnic band with hip-hop roots doing a guitar-driven number produced by a French DJ, hitting number one from Brazil to Japan.

And this development is good, I think, in all sorts of ways. One very obvious consequence is that we're less likely to think in terms of us and them if it's all the same. Both traditional world music and global ghettotech has been extremely good at defining what The Other does as something radically different from "the west", but what happens when the music becomes so indistinguishable? Does it signal a chance to see beyond some of the steotypes, and perhaps embrace the diasporas and the rest of the world on more equal terms? That's gotta be good, right? (Next post I thought I'd have a look at global ghettotech's response.)

But I also think it can be good creatively. By my reckoning what we're seeing in terms of coming together right now is perhaps most comparable to the so-called rock'n'roll era of the 50s, where all over the world people of different ethnicities made similar-sounding music. Was that a bad thing? Not at all! The 50s are considered one of the most explosively creative periods of all time, when "black" and "white" completely came together and kept churning out great material. What's to say we won't see the same now?

Music trends move and waver back and forth. Every time and style has its own greatness and worthy moments. Yesterday may have belonged to local genres, while today even the subcultures are defiantly cosmopolitan. Perhaps, for those stuck in the metaphorical hood, it is time to think about what we can all accomplish together?


Canalh said...

hi johan, really like your post ! And what about Knockout, what a great track !! I had post some creyol Hip hop on my blog as well; some tracks it definitly rocks !!

Canalh said...

Hi !
did a cumbia remix of "knockout"...
Cheers !