Monday, October 19, 2009

Post-Colonial Popular Music (or "In Defense of the Idea of Vampire Weekend")

These days, it seems fashionable to toss around accusations of "musical neo-colonialism" towards (predominantly white and privileged) American indie rock bands drawing from the indigenous and traditional folk musical styles of other cultures.

Essentailly, the line of thinking goes as follows: because the members of these bands came from a socioeconomic group that has benefited from the economic exploitation of other lands, it is inherently unjust for these musicians to experiment with instruments, scales, beats, and melodies "belonging" to cultures they weren't born and raised in - regardless of their own role or influence (if any) in the current global economic system and subsequent wealth disparities.


However, a brief look at a few musical developments since the fall of Western colonialism shows that the "logic" behind this attitude is, at best, selectively ignorant of the last several decades of popular culture to the point of absurdity:

- Bossa nova emerged from Brazilian samba and American Jazz (both genres themselves evolving out of African slave diasporas in their respective countries).

- British and state-side rock bands affiliated with the term "punk" flirted with Jamaican Reggae and Ska during the 70's and 80's, and in turn, influenced later popular American "rock" bands.

- A cross between Japanese sound synthesis technology and a pre-recorded snippet of experimental 70's German keyboard-driven rock helped launch Hip-Hop and inspire the development of Techno - which are now two of the most popular musical genre families worldwide.

- And even the most beloved and well-dressed example of Western pop dabbled in the centuries-old music of the former "Crown Jewel of the British Empire"...not to mention the more recent "cultural appropriation" of non-Western musical motifs by Jay-Z and 50 Cent (both of whom represent the cultural, historical, and aesthetic antithesis of Vampire Weekend, along with having far more radio and television exposure).

This basic fusion of European, African and occasionally other musical and cultural sensibilities within the landmasses we now refer to as "the Americas" has been covered (in a much better fashion) by numerous people before me - and none of the previous examples even account for the expansive influence of Latino cultures and musical styles on Western popular music as well.

I'm not saying you have to like Vampire Weekend's polo shirts, Ivy League degrees, or use of sub-Sarahan African-influenced guitar riffs to sing about punctuation marks you're not quite sure when to use. Dismiss them as pretentious or patronizing of other cultures if you must. Point is, if your criticism of Vampire Weekend and their ilk has to do more with the perceived connotations of their image, rather than the merits of their music, just shut up, enjoy the songs, and wear a blindfold if you have to.


theSpaceRay said...

I think the problem goes further than you let on. It is not just that if we want to criticize these artists for some form of cultural appropriation that we must also criticize many artists we generally don't think of as being 'cultural appropriators'. Far more problematic is the fact that such a logic ultimately implies that there is a group of people who have some essential characteristic that makes certain cultural practices theirs.

This is a particularly dangerous, normatively counterproductive, and ultimately wrong intellectual viewpoint.

Paradoxically, many of the people who hold this view object to the way in which they believe former colonial subjects were essentialized.

JP said...

Mike, you nailed the point I was trying to imply. However, while I do think that you are correct in theory, people can and do feel possessive towards aspects of their own perceived culture (be it style, language, music, art, and so forth). I'd elaborate further, but I think I'll expand on this in a future post instead.

theSpaceRay said...

Oh they feel possessive for sure, but it doesn't make it logically consistent to insist on not being pigeonholed/essentialized by the colonizer/inheritor to colonial privilege on one hand and then insist that some cultural practice is only allowed because of ones 'cultural heritage' as if it were some essential fact.

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