Mainstreaming Music 2: Whatcha gonna do?

Say the assertion that pop music of the third world is approaching a convergent style is correct. Well, then, shouldn't we be hearing pop music from all over the world in mixes and eventually the hit lists right about now? Well, it doesn't really work that way, and one place this becomes apparent is in the mixtapes, DJ sets and blog posts of the insiders in the global ghettotech world.

If a lot more of the musical resources in the third world - at least in the forward-looking parts of various cities and countries - are being channelled into producing "mainstream-pop-sounding" music, then this certainly doesn't reflect on the output of western DJs, for perfectly understandable indie reasons. But it presents an interesting question: if the music of the world's urban centres is going out as it changes, what's coming in instead? What new sources of music are western DJs turning to as the normal output goes more mainstream?

As I read it, there are three concurrent trends in types of music that, if you want, can be somewhat attributable to the (possibly) increased lack of non-mainstream popular music from the developing world.

1. The traditional

One type of genre that has always been resistant to trends, by definition, is the traditional, conservative one. These used to be consistently shunned by the always teleological fans of bass-oriented city music - you'd never hear any, say, bachata in mixtapes five years ago - but seemingly not so any more. Two genres in particular that focus on acoustic instrumentation and unbroken traditions going back decades have had a major resurgence in the global ghettotech community: cumbia and funana, both of which have been featured in very straightforward old-fashioned forms alongside newer derivatives.

Some types of traditional music has always had a popularity in local communities, including the two above, so right now this seems more like a positive expansion of the definition than anything problematic. But there's always the chance it might lead in the future to the kind of west-imposed "tradition" that World Music used to peddle, so watch out.

2. The cosmopolitan

The educated middle class has always been extremely adapt at extending the shelf-life of dead working-class genres - boom-bap underground hip-hop is but one in a seemingly endless series that springs to mind. Combined with the middle-class propensity for "fusion" and "neo-folk" cosmopolitanism it's almost a surprise that global ghettotech stayed committed to the urban poor as long as it did. Now, it seems, middle-class producers with good access are as much the order of the day. DJ Umb, in particular, has been pushing completely delocalised, cosmopolitan variants of dubstep and other previously geographically constricted musics, often fused with a local flavour.

Again this is probably a good thing as long as it's actually an extension - I heartily dislike the stereotype of the third world as a mass of anonymous poverty. On the other hand, it risks overshadowing the music of actual marginalised groups and individuals, being easier to access and ethically straightforward. We still need to put in that hard work to find music that doesn't have immediate access to the blogging world, or we risk tilting the stereotype the other way.

3. The fake

And obviously, if you can't have music that sounds appropriate from the third world, you can go ahead and make it conform to the right stereotype yourself... This is another explanation for the ascendancy of tikitech and faux-"African" imagery, that the real Africa is no longer African enough and needs to be augmented.

A milder, not necessarily bad version of making music more "local" while being an outsider exists, of course. As if to prove a point, after reading my last post on the subject (!), Canalh went ahead and cumbified the Kreyol hip-hop track I used as an example of mainstreamness, adding a layer of faux-local onto the international! And you know what? I kinda like it! On a conceptual level not least because, as Jace so eloquently put it, it's the white men wearing the red thongs and body paint and the black guys who wear the jeans. And that, surely, can't be all wrong.


Sex and the Lebanese pop singers

I used to know this muslim convertite woman who loved middle eastern pop, but complained about the immoral nature of the way the female singers would dress. "But at least," she'd say, "they don't dress up like Britney Spears or Shakira. Look at these album covers - this which is considered a normal top in the west is considered highly sexualised in Egypt!" She showed me a picture of a woman in a fairly modest top, covering the top of the arms.

In retrospect I shouldn't have believed her. Another friend (lebanese-finnish-american) showed me some lebanese pop videos a couple of months ago and I was fairly surprised to see just how sexualised lebanese pop is right now. Certainly more so than a lot of western pop (!) and totally against stereotype for a majority-muslim country. In that respect it's much like Indonesian dangdut seksi.

In this video, the singer plays footsie with a man's inner thigh while chocolate sauce suggestively runs down icecream, catches a flying champagne cork between her teeth, strips off her dress and the man's t-shirt, all while displaying her cleavage:

Name one recent western music video so explicitly about sex! Meanwhile, in the scantily-clad department, there's the first sequence on the boat in this video:

And so on. Plenty more on Melody TV's channel, where there's a lot more female pop in this vein. Honestly don't know what to think about it, but at least the prudish Arab stereotype should be well smashed, if anyone still believes in it.


Avatar from inside a feminist debate

From the perspective of this blog, James Cameron's film Avatar shares a lot of qualities with traditional "world music". The way imperialism is portrayed not least, primarily as the replacement of (very literally here) roots culture with "light beer and blue jeans" shares a whole deal of qualities with the rights and wrongs according to the world music paradigm. But what really clicked with me while watching the film was how well it paralleled one of the classic central debates within feminism - and that a critique of it from that perspective is valuable for further world music debate as well.

There are a lot of possible readings of Avatar that will portray it as racist in various ways, but on the other hand it portrays the native Na'vi in an extremely positive way. They are made beings of almost saintly qualities, and even just humanising character traits like (legitimate!) jealousy are played down to almost nothing. What more, their positive qualities are greatly accented by making the (dominant, powerful) humans stupid, insensitive and brutish, except for a select few that nevertheless are much less perfect than the lofty na'vi. Humans and na'vi exist as opposites and contrasts to each other, to a very large extent.

Portraying inequalities like this is within feminism the domain of the now-unfashionable difference feminists. According to their thinking, men and women are fundamentally different from each other, biologically, and the qualities of of women are vastly better and are only repressed because the world is run patriarchally. Interestingly, these qualities are in many ways similar to what Cameron portrays as the positive qualities of the na'vi: deeper connection to nature and life, caring, spirituality over cold rationality, collective mutual responsibility over individual competitiveness, equality and consensus over hierarchy and rhetoric. (A difference, in a somewhat bizarre way, is the strangely warlike nature of the na'vi. This, on the other hand, is what several commentators find most problematic...)

A cynic could possibly read a general critique of civilization into difference feminism, when looked at this way. Or maybe the opposite is true, and the na'vi are, as it were, feminised, with their female spiritual leaders and flat gender structure in the hunt? Cameron has expressed feminist sentiments in the past. Whatever the case, it emphasises the fairytale nature of the story: in real life, women continue to be caught in a patriarchal system, and badly-armed locals don't beat high-tech helicopters and guns. Precisely the qualities espoused as positive are the ones that don't succeed in a capitalist-patriarchal society, instead dominated by the "evil" ones. Which, of course, a difference feminist would say is precisely the point.

A worse accusation against difference feminism is its locking of individuals, with various different characteristics, into a strong binary dichotomy. From a queer perspective, the opposition to uncertain gender identities and transsexualism is as bad as any patriarchal dominance, and any individuality is suppressed into essentialist collectivity. And here's my main problem with Avatar as well: the movie has precisely the same problem. Both humans and na'vi are derisive and exclusionary to the other, categorising into a very strong us and them; especially the latter group has a complicated ritually maintained community model designed to exclude any outsider from the inner circle. The avatars, potentially queering and deconstructing the binary, are distrusted by both humans (represented by Colonel Quaritch) and na'vi, the latter considering them positively demonic.

It is notable that the movie's protagonist/transsexual/na'vi trapped in a human body, Jake Sully, is not allowed to stay in his, as it were, pre-op state, but is forced to end up a full-on na'vi in the final scene. For all the cyberqueer possibilities of the avatar characters, any mixture or playful role-switching is discouraged, and only studious and reverent acceptance of all the attributes of one side leads to being included in the desired in-group.

Where this analogy halts a bit, of course, is that Cameron idealises the fairy-tale, dichotomised other from the position of an outsider himself. In this respect he's very much like world music fans, whose own dichotomies lead them to aggregate a lofty other to adore, one that no longer includes individuals but merely the whole world. And like James Cameron they give this collective qualities that will ensure its continued subjugation in the real world, and discourage any single person trying to use their agency to be something different.