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The events of Sept. 11 left a lot of people looking clueless or insensitive, including some in the pop world. Members of hiphop group the Coup hastily ditched cover art that showed them about to blow up the World Trade Center, Velvets-redux quintet the Strokes pulled an anti-NYPD song off their about-to-be-released debut album, and Burning Airlines authorized concerned club owners to advertise the band as “B. Airlines.” It also hasn’t been a good period for world music, for both logistical and ideological reasons. Which means that late September wasn’t the perfect moment for Time magazine to publish a special issue: “Music Goes Global.”
The stories were obviously written and edited before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, although it’s possible that some material was dropped at the last minute. The issue is divided into five geographic sections, and the Middle East isn’t one of them. (Maybe the editors figured that Americans just don’t like Arab stuff, although excluding Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and their European musical outposts from a global-music overview is akin to ignoring reggae or hiphop.) Still, credit Time with a bit of prescient timeliness: One article is about Afghanistan, a country where all musicsave for unaccompanied Koranic and Taliban-praising chantshas been banned.
“Music Goes Global” doesn’t have an overarching thesis, but it does have a perspective, one that comes from gazing at the world from Rockefeller Center. The North America section is the largest, and it includes such mainstream acts as Dr. Dre, the Beastie Boys, and Christina Aguilera. Second biggest is Asia, where Time Asia is widely available, followed by Latin America, whose musical overlap with Anglo-America is well-established. Indeed, two of the “Latin American” stars, Marc Anthony and Wyclef Jean, are New Yorkers, and a third, Shakira, lives in Miami. Time’s idea of an African is Dave Matthews, who spent some of his childhood in South Africa but is basically from Charlottesville, Va. And its featured Japanese teen-pop star is Utada Hikaru, who happens to dwell inyupNew York. Time seems particularly interested in global music when it moves in next door.
This is further illuminated by the issue’s list of “the 10 best bands on planet Earth”: Radiohead, U2, Sigur Rós, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Tarika, Portishead, Pato Fu, Aterciopelados, Brilliant Green, and Orishas. None of them are American, but most have had albums released by U.S. labels, and half of them have played D.C. in recent months. The only ones the average American music fan is unlikely to encounter are Orishas (from Cuba, still technically embargoed, although that may not last long) and Brilliant Green (from Japan, whose pop music is seldom successfully exported).
What Time doesn’t quite say is that there are two world musics. The one that mostly interests the magazine is the global pop-disco-rock that emulates Anglo-American models. It’s interesting, but ultimately insignificant, that Britney Spears and her boy-band cohorts are produced by a Swedish braintrust for a label, Zomba/Jive, owned by a South African expatriate, Clive Calder. After all, Jive is based in New York, and its talent pool stocked in Orlando, Fla. This isn’t the we-are-the-world beat, thoughit’s just the familiar saga of immigrants making good in the U.S.A. After all, wasn’t Elvis’ manager Dutch?
Then there’s the music that doesn’t sound Western, whether by accident or intent. This includes some of the greatest music in the world, music that has devotees in Europe and North America. It also includes some utter schlock, such as the syrupy Cantopop ballads that Hollywood producers usually excise when retrofitting a Hong Kong flick for U.S. audiences. Bad music can be a good story, however, especially for Time, which helped invent the breezy, glancing feature article. So “Music Goes Global” includes a short piece on Cantopop, plus a shorter one on Jackie Chan’s singing career. (It turns out he doesn’t like Cantopop, either.) Chan, of course, is a star, though not for his singing. Whatever the subject, there has to be a commercial hooksave for the nonmusic of Afghanistan, which has a news hook.
“Music Goes Global” has one other hook, however, and it’s a surprising one: pop politics. Bracketed between special-issue editor Christopher John Farley’s introduction, “The Beat of Freedom,” and James Poniewozik’s closing essay on the possibilities of international “rebel music” are a mostly political chat with U2 and an article on West Virginia’s white-racist rock label Resistance. To be sure, these pieces rely heavily on the sort of predigested ironies that characterize the other articles: Mamoru Samuragoch composes musicbut he’s almost deaf! Utada Hikaru is really famous in Tokyobut she goes to Columbia! Bono is a bleeding-heart liberalbut he made Jesse Helms weep with empathy for the world’s poor! Still, Poniewozik’s “Get Up, Stand Up” is an interesting, if glib, overview of the state of protest pop in Africa, China, the Caribbean, and (of course) the United States.
The only anti-major-label act Poniewozik invokes is Ani DiFranco, but he does note that rebel rockers live in an age when “Michael Eisner wields as much power in their world as George W. Bush.” That clause was surely written before 19 hijackers boosted George W.’s stature, and Poniewozik could have mentioned AOL Time Warner instead of Eisner. Still, it was nice of him to notice that music going global isn’t just a marketing story. Mark Jenkins
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