Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind

June 21, 2008

Around the neoworldmusic/”global ghettotech” (Wayne, I confess to disliking this term) blogosphere and beyond, ethics of consumption remain a high priority. This is the commandment of self-reflexivity upon one’s subject position taught in liberal arts programs amongst other places: think about your subject position (class, race, gender) when engaging in critique and analysis, and results in a lot of intellectual labor devoted to the divide between the privileged position of the educated middle class listener/writer and that of the producer of the music: poor/ghetto/third-world. I’ve certainly done plenty of soul-searching about my own relationship to enjoying reggaeton or funk carioca or merengue de calle or whatever, though that usually comes after the thrill of initial engagement and discovery, and is usually far less enjoyable. It’s penance though, right? The price I pay for free music from people I will most likely never meet (though I feel less inclined to pay this price for downloading Justin Timberlake mp3s, and I’ll probably never meet him either). 

There’s really no shortage of “UR DOIN IT WRONG” examples of engaging with world music, and you’ll see the specter of the tourist (an increasingly perjorative term among the cultured) lurking in the shadows. “[A]t best a musical tourist” Eric Grady inveighs against Diplo, who has been the poster-child for UR-DOIN-IT-WRONGitude for so long he’s had to form an NGO to keep the booty-bass-intelligentsia at bay. The often-excellent Greg Scruggs calls him out along with serial offenders Sublime Frequencies for scrubbing out the names of artists on their mixes.

“If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why.”

SF aren’t explorers, they are vaunted musical tourists, giving us a mere snapshot of the favelas, forcing us to provide our own contexts based on our own prejudices. Over at Dutty Arts, gex reminds us once again that we should translate the lyrics of what we hear if we are to listen (and DJ) in good conscience. We should be active listeners if we are going to travel into the third word internet, instead of being passive tourists who rely on paid bilingual intermediaries — tour guides — such as Diplo and SF. Ethnomusicology, a heavy influence on the global ghettotech discourse, has been hating on musical tourism for years now.

Which brings me to this interesting post on tourism as a particular mode of consumerist existence, broadly put as “a certain nostalgia for objects, coupled with a strange identification.” Cultural logic of late capitalism, y’all! This is of course what most of us word music consumers steeped in the liberal arts tradition want to avoid: we should be anti-tourists, cultivating a fair, ethical, meaningful relationship with music. But there are problems with this stance as well, things that niggled at me before Traxxus’s post crystallized some (and I do mean only some) things for me. It’s a desire to be the “heroic exception” to mindless consumers looking for the next cool thing (*cough* hipsters *cough*), but one that’s highly problematic in the academicky parlance of our times.

“Incurable observers who run up against their own limits respond, like marketers, with another absurd fantasy, that newness depends on the rearrangement or rejection of old categories (which were impositions to begin with), or that we need to ’stop being’ tourists, critics, adventurers, consumers, and replace them with something new and improved, though assembled from their remains, that the future is determined aesthetically by committee. Oblivious to the creativity it pretends to value, this brand of criticism kills the living and mystifies the dead.”

We try to shuck our inherited identity as tourists or consumers or Orientalists or neocolonialists, and build new identities in their places. Ethical, authentic identities that will assure us that our musical choices match up with our liberal politics — no Boom Bye Bye, no simple indie/thirdworld mashups, no missing tracklists, no mistranslations, no middle class appropriators. But this faith in the progressive power of self-fashioning is itself part of the problem, and anyway, we are all tourists now.

Calling Diplo a “neocolonialist” is missing the point. Diplo is not occupying any foreign countries, installing client regimes or coercively extracting resources. That he got big off a bunch of music made in the favelas is a symptom of neocolonialism, not a cause, and becoming ethical consumers isn’t going to change it (I’m actually more skeptical of the NGO angle). Sublime Frequencies certainly exoticizes its subjects (and I would love tracklistings on several of their releases including C.V), but they don’t actually have much effect, good or bad, on the music scenes they (inaccurately) document. Spank Rock doesn’t have much sway over the sounds of Baltimore’s clubs, and the favelas aren’t rocking Bonde do Role. The case could be made that they help provide a small part of an ideological screen to an influential class of Westerners which allows Western governments and corporations to continue to exploit the places where this music is made. But I wonder if castigating the middle class appropriators is rooted more in a desire to fashion ethical identities for ourselves than in correcting inequality. The increasing appropriation of the third world in music of all levels of popularity reflects our neoimperialist economic situation, in which Western (musical) economies are propped up by the exploited (creative) labor of the Global South, but I’m not sure to what extent it causes or creates it.

I’m not sure if I have some overriding point or position, more like nagging thoughts I tried to collide in a way that would help me make some sense of this. I agree with the sentiments of the bloggers mentioned above, and respect a lot of their writing. I don’t want to help reproduce exploitation or exoticization, I want to understand where the music I like comes from, what the lyrics are (even if most of them are about sexy girls), I want struggling artists to be compensated for their work. I want music to support the political causes I value. But I also want to be realistic about the limitations and pitfalls of the ethical consumerist approach to political problems. And hey, maybe get rid of some of this anxiety around one of the chief pleasures in my life.