Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Globalization, "Napsterification" and World Music

Is “Globalization” a dirty word? A brief survey of google.com cites over 19 million web pages devoted to the scrutiny and discussion of this topic, proof that even if no final verdict had been issued regarding the subject, then at least it has been the grounds for much heated debate. “Globalization” as of today is still a young term, a neologism that gained rhetorical value in the 1980s through the work of various socio-economists attempting to re-theorize the effects of late modernization and capitalism. Most famously, globalization theorists assert the miniaturizing features of the modern world, claiming that the world is essentially “shrinking” due to advances in transportation systems, info-communications and the international compatibility of mediums of dissemination and reproduction (such as the internet, satellite phones et al) which seem to transcend national borders. “Seem” is the right descriptive here, since, as Allen and Hamnett remind us, globalization tends to ignore the fact that not all global communities enjoy equal access to these technologies of interconnectivity. Even “liberal” mediums such as the (once called) world-wide-web tends to be not-so-world-wide, considering the fact that a major proportion of the world’s population still live without access to the internet. Most recently a spate of editorials has further explored issues net-surveillance and censorship which enforce virtual state-specific boundaries, curtailing this so-called transgression of local constraints.

Charting the history of new media technology and its complementary political modes of surveillance would be complex terrain; one could easily get lost and wrongly assume logics of causality. Take the Napster case-study for example, a highly popular peer-to-peer file-sharing program that sent music industry giants into sweaty panic. Created by an enterprising 18-year-old who went by the name of Shawn Fanning, Napster was initially birthed as a student-to-student collective. What was refreshing about the application was the way in which:

“[Napster] collected and provided a centralized list of the music that most students had on their hard drives, and a convenient way to search that list. Using Napster, people could easily search through what amounted to a giant shared music collection, taking whatever they wanted ... for free, instead of [US] $15-20 per CD”

Symbolically, Napster embodied the ideology of a universe of free information, granting its virtual participants a passport to freely “own” whatever other participants had placed on the file-sharing network. Of course, Napster fell short of its near-hippie liberal wonderland goals: in December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit against Napster. Liberal Disneyland became discredited as insouciant piracy, and Napster was forced to close, though not without making a terrific splash in the press. The end of the story is an equally paradoxical one; even though the “free” ideals of Napster were ruthlessly truncated by copyright laws and legal issues of intellectual ownership, the formal popularity of a “Napsterian” interface spurred already-rich media corporate giants such as Apple to formulate their own peer-to-peer systems: Napster was given a (white) facelift and emerged as I-tunes. But we rush ahead of ourselves. How did “music”, a primarily embodied, “auratic” (as Walter Benjamin describes it) praxis develop into a few megabytes of information? A historical trajectory would attempt to chronicle the rise (and fall) of gramophone technologies and records, the emergence of the radio, the “cassette revolution”, CDs, DVDs, and computers. But does “music” remain ontologically unaltered by its Darstellung? Furthermore, does the rise of recombinant media products such as Music Videos suggest different modes of perceiving and conceiving music?

Another problem seems to loom overhead: if self-recorded musics unbound by intellectual copyrights were, too, circulated on Napster, did they ultimately fall under the same laws that governed artistic and corporatist ownership – is it acceptable, perhaps even ethical to assume that all sonic traces that lent themselves to aural reproduction through technological Darstellung shared the same ontological status as each other? Any respectful religious Muslim would attest to the fact that the “melodic” chanting of the Koran is not music. And yet, years ago when participating in a choral music festival in Bandung, Indonesia, the heavily mellismatic chanting of the Koran could indeed be heard at daybreak, amplified from the speakers atop a nearby mosque. Though channelled through the same mediums as other commodified aesthetic products, different cultural and ethnic groups’ conception of “music” differ from each other. What should be made clear, then, is the way in which media’s blind (or deaf) processing of sonic entities open up new pathways of misrecognition, misappropriation and misinformation. In the afternoon, speakers in a neighbouring public park begin to blare Indonesian “popular” music: are these two products of the otological mode of reproduction therefore ontologically alike? It is not difficult to imagine how they could be mistakenly assumed to be so.

Thus, although transnational medias and technologies have brought us closer in (virtual) proximity in which “to connect presence and absence”, what has to be queried here is virtual “relations between ‘absent’ others” that displaces face-to-face presentism with an illusory one. For Anthony Giddens, this new proximity is a “phantasmagoric” one, which, like the case of amplified Koran chanting, appears to speak a ‘neutral’ language while masking complex differences, or latent relations of power. There is another word proposed for this ‘missed’ encounter, what Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo call “de/territorialization”:

“There is no dislodging of everyday meanings from their moorings in particular localities without their simultaneous reinsertion into fresh environments. You can’t have one process without the other. It is a matter of both at once. It is a matter of de/territorialization.”

De/territorialization also refers to the stripping and eventual re-accruing of meaning of certain cultural practices once they are uprooted from their originating geographical location and “grafted” into a new culture through diasporic communities. De/territorialization should, in extension, remind us that the cultural meanings of technologies and medias may not be innocent or equally shared across national or continental boundaries. Concepts such as “authenticity” or “originality” are hence problematic when they are used to describe large communities, disregarding the possibility that these cultural objects, such as musical practices, have been themselves subject to evolution through the encounter of Others via communicative technologies. In other words, such narratives assume a “hypodermic” model of passive reception of the Other’s cultural products, without undergoing “local” reinterpretation or meaningful transformation. Xavier and Rosaldo, for example, point out the ways in which Indian film songs are borrowed by religious singers who change the words to sing praises to the Prophet Mohammed in northern Nigeria. The appropriation non-western popular culture in Hausa, as Brian Larkin suggests, is predicated on a specific strategy that bypasses difficult colonizer-colonized power-relations to “envision new styles of fashion, beauty, love, and romance”. For Larkin,

“Indian films [and songs for Hausa viewers] offer images of a parallel modernity to the West ... but rooted in conservative cultural values. [...] Moreover, when Hausa youth rework Indian films within their own culture by ... copying the music styles for religious purposes, [...] they can do so without engaging with the heavy ideological load of “becoming western”.”

Though the de/territorialized encounter and appropriation of Indian popular song for local purposes, the Hausa example reveals the ways in which seemingly innocent cultural objects of exchange become embedded in a wed of meaning, sometimes meanings quite distinct from their reception at their originating scene. “Hybridization” is another such concept to track the mutation of cultural products within differing receptive and semiotic spheres, although one holds reservation for the term, as “hybridization” all too often stresses the plurality of the final product rather than real systems of power and domination that are wired into the figuring of the final article. Most alarmingly, however, under the purview of narratives regarding the music industry and Capitalism, these power-struggles achieve another level of complexity altogether. Take for example the popularization of “Reggae” in the West, which success, as John Connell and Chris Gibson point out, can be traced back to colonial power binaries of the colonizer/colonized whereby the exoticized product (colonized) performs for the gaze of the purchaser (colonizer). The case is further problematized in the case of so-called “World Music” where “authenticity” and “originality” is prized as an exotic commodity to excite the (colonial?) imagination of the West. Of course, sonic realities of “authenticity” are ultimately constructs, fabrications to the extent that truly “authentic” music sometimes becomes significantly altered to appeal to the consumer’s idea of authenticity. Amidst many examples, the Real World music company’s recordings of qawwali were heavily criticised for ignoring “the crucial religious and socio-critical elements of the music,” attempting “to reduce the music to an aesthetic form”.

Furthermore, by articulating the idea of “world music” as a distinct “marketing term”, “world music” fosters an internal paradox whereby “third-world performers ... gain more effective access to global markets” based on marketability. The question “who is listening?” becomes deeply embroiled in acts of performative agency, for, to succeed in the international “world music” market, one must play by its rules. “International success”, Connell and Gibson opine, “required artistic compromise”. Xavier Cugat, for instance, recalls the paradoxical move he had to take in order to please the musical tastes of (foreign) mass markets: “To succeed in America I have the Americans a Latin music that had nothing authentic about it ... Then I began to change the music and play more legitimately.” “Authenticity”, seemingly, is in the ear of the beholder. The difficulty of shoehorning radically different musical worldviews into the neat economic category of “world music” means inevitably contorting the cultural significance of differing musical ontologies upon a single, marketable, commodifiable – hence selleable – plane. This is the troubling question which Steven Feld attempts to unpack, zooming in on the cultural and capital politics at stake in Deep Forest’s use of pygmy tracks for a mix-track in a 1992 album, backed by UNESCO.

Feld’s essay “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” is a complicated romp through the politics of ownership and musical ethics in Deep Forest’s contested digital sampling of a Baegu lullaby from Northern Malaita. The sample, which appeared in Deep Forest, was then used by Jan Garbarek (a Norwegian saxophonist) as raw material for his ECM CD entitled Visible World. Since Deep Forest failed to reproduce the origin of the lullaby, Garbarek misapprehended its origin to be an “African traditional melody”. When Feld attempted to point out these misappropriations and possible power-inequalities (in what way was the singer of the lullaby credited?) apparent in this cycle of borrowings, a messy fiasco of point-and-blame ensued, and Feld was eventually accused of wrongful defamation. But the primary question remained unanswered: in what way did either company or artist respect the originating context of the lullaby? Afunakwa’s name (the singer of the recorded lullaby) hardly surfaced in the litany of accusations, with Deep Forest representatives and Garbarek adopting angry, reactionary polemics defending the integrity of their “original arrangements”: another way of jokingly calling something an “authentic replica”. “World music”, therefore is far from symmetrical in its structures of accrediting and respectful artistic license. In no way was the community to which the lullaby was attributed to contacted or consulted; instead, heated exchanges were held over board-room tables and manager-to-manager phone calls. Perhaps “world music” corporate protectionists hoard exclusive telecommunication pathways while bypassing the very source of their revenues.

Media has simultaneously made the global flow of music (as a cultural capital) easier, though not symmetrically. Copyright and intellectual property laws continue to curb the disseminative power of these technologies – virtual space is not as liberal as McLuhan’s utopian “Global Village”. On the other hand, the increased mobility of music has led to those of privileged access to new and vast territories of musical encounters. A quick entry into google.com or youtube.com opens hundreds of pathways, allowing one to sample cultural products, or to construct assemblages of wide-ranging musical tastes. Yet, beneath this veneer of mobility lies the complicated and sometimes contradictory mechanisms of the consumer industry to which music (to be enjoyed via medias of reproductive technology) is increasingly bound to. These are, in turn, mediated by marketing conceptual frames of (sometimes) breathtaking triviality such as “world music”, which potentially threaten to reduce musical value to a single barometer of loss and profits. But de/territorialization and “live” musical practices do trouble the hegemony of the international music-industry circuit, often creating intersections of productivity where new musical lives flourish.


Nico said...

you are spot on my friend. thank you for all this- especially the part about authenticity being in the ear of the beholder, I said that to someone myself yesterday!

HT, with T for Teh said...

Thanks Nico! We tend to think of authenticity as something perilously subjective, always at the precipice of an encounter, yet it's somehow bound to the organization of metaphysics, an aesthetic mode of production. I wonder to what extent we can identify - or at least attempt to articulate - the structural positionality of authenticity in the margins of the global.