Thursday, September 13, 2007

89. Music and Commodification

Peter Jones' latest contribution to our dialogue moves our discussion forward in a meaningful way, but also contains some misunderstandings that I'd like to clear up. Since all this ethnomusicology stuff is new to him, it's understandable that he might get a bit confused as to who is advocating what. The debate is confusing, no question, and I probaby failed to make my position as clear as I could have. Ultimately, as he realizes, all these nuances don't really matter all that much anyhow, since the heart of the issue is not primarily about what (or who) is right and what is wrong, what is "truly authentic" and what isn't, but the nature of the reality we are faced with and how we can deal with it in a manner that respects the importance of "equity," in both senses of the term.

Nevertheless -- to clarify my position with respect to the examples I cited, Rebekah Moore celebrates a type of music that I (not she) would regard as "commodified," and, in a twist of logic that is by no means easy to grasp, seems to be actually arguing for this "commodified," watered-down, amateurish (in my view), "world beat" style as itself an expression of "indigeneity." In other words, far from questioning such music as a compromised, commodified product of Western imperialism (as I might very well do), she is presenting it as a model of how young Saamis are actually asserting their indigenous identity. Similarly, the Ethnomusicology Society's panel on "Global Rock" celebrates the power of rock music to advocate for "marginalized voices" rather than holding it accountable for its complicity with the marginalizing, hegemonic forces of global capitalism.

It's easy to see how Peter could get confused, because this is not the position one might expect from people deeply involved in the study of musical traditions, as one would assume ethnomusicologists to be. There is a long history here, during which as I see it, the field has begun to lose its center, led astray by the same complexities of post-modern pseudo-philosophy that have led so many others astray, precipitating an unfortunate backlash against the whole notion of indigeneity as a hopelessly romantic essentialization of the "underdeveloped" third world and its peoples. (For more on this issue, see my earlier posts on the Kalahari Debate.)

As I hope I made clear in post 86, I have no serious problem with any type of music per se, certainly no problem with hybrid music, not even the most amateurish and/or "commodified," so long as it is valued by some segment of the human race; but also: so long as it makes room for all the other types of music that are also valued. In this sense, Peter is perfectly right in characterizing me as "an ethnomusicologist who is interested in all forms of musical heritage; he does not seem to accord more cultural equity to so-called “traditional” forms of music than hybrid or modern forms." What bothers me, however, as it did Lomax, is the tendency of the commodification process to promote a very narrowly defined and limited musical paradigm at the expense of all other types of musical expression, including the most traditional types associated with certain localized, regional, and/or indigenous cultures.

In his last two paragraphs, Peter makes clear that we are, indeed, in agreement on what is essential. Which returns us both to the issue I left hanging at the end of post 85, the issue of the rights of young people with respect to both the traditions of their elders and the "call" of modernity in the form of global culture. In Peter's words:
The question that remains to be tackled in the next post is how we are to view and understand cultural equity in the contemporary world. How are we to grapple with the fact that “culture” no longer carries its historic meaning of pseudo-objectivity, but rather now refers to something that is diaphanous, ephemeral, non-local?

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