All That Is Solid 07: Eclecticism Use Your Illusion

All That Is Solid is an attempt to examine the relationships between popular music and global capitalism. Click here to access the archive.

I used to boast about the breadth of my music collection, defined more by variety than by quantity. I would have wagered that, for any challenger, I could find at least one song/album in my collection that they adored, and at least one that they despised and loathed. I delighted when setting my library to "shuffle" and seeing ideological enemies pop up side by side: Fugazi preceding Madonna, Wu-Tang Clan following the Brandenburg Concerto, Giorgio Moroder back-to-back with the Stooges, Cam'ron leading into Bikini Kill. I used to think this was evidence of intellectual dexterity -- look ma, I can absorb opposite value systems simultaneously! -- until I realized that most of my peers could accurately claim an equal level of eclecticism. The humorous trope of indie nerds going out of their way to like music of as many genres as possible certainly applies to me (I like Gamelan! And Algerian pop songs! And free jazz! Whee!), but it seems to apply to everyone -- even non-nerds, to a debateable degree. These are shallow metrics to be sure, but witness the many Facebook/MySpace profiles that claim to enjoy "all kinds of music" or "anything good" (I've noticed a high correlation between those traits and "favorite artists" lists that include Coldplay, U2, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Radiohead, and Jack Johnson; draw what conclusions you will), the widespread enthusiasm for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, the not-so-cult success of "Dragostea din tei," Top 40-type stations that heavily rotate country and rap hits alongside pop/rock staples, or the popularity of Bob Marley among the frat-boy set.

Of course, each of those examples belie a very cursory level of engagement with "outsider" music (as in, how many CD collections that contain Bob Marley's Legend contain any other reggae records?), but we aficianados may not be so different. Among the more discriminating set of TMT readers, hands up if you generally like alt/indie rock but have a few favorite microgenres (Stax/Volt? Black metal? Hyphy/B-More? Sun Records comps? The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music? Garage/dub/2-step?) that thinly mask a superficial, secondhand level of engagement (I love me some Morris Day and Chaka Khan, but how immersed am I really in the world of early-'80s electro and R&B?) -- yep, those are my skinny fists lifted skyward like antennas to heaven. Okay, so most of us believe our tastes are eclectic, which is more important to me than the degree to which it's true. This makes me worry about my sanity and my spine because, to reverse the cliche, if you'll fall for anything you stand for nothing.

One of the most critical facets of our geopolitical system is how we discuss and problematize multiculturalism. The Tony Blair/Bill Clinton (Barack Obama?) liberal-democratic model of statesmanship, as well as the Reagan/Thatcher/Bush model of populist xenophobia, centers around the idea of Tolerance: whether or not and to what degree we should permit and ‘tolerate' others. Globally, the left and right both seem to agree fundamentally that we are facing a Clash of Civilizations -- the Muslim world vs. the Christian world, Fundamentalism vs. Democracy, etc. -- and the spectrum of the conversation is centered around tolerance, with the left preferring more, and the right preferring less. This conversation becomes grotesque the moment we consider how civil rights leaders past might respond to contemporary debates; it's absurd to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. arguing passionately that whites should be more ‘tolerant' towards African-Americans, or Ceasar Chavez trying to ‘spread consciousness' on the plight of immigrants so that American society at large could grow to be more tolerant of Mexican workers. These men recognized that the real struggle is political, not cultural -- the goal of Birmingham was not to make us more ‘aware' of each other but to grant political and economic rights to those who don't currently enjoy them. The ideological goal of Capitalism, on the other hand, is to transform problems that stem from class conflict and economic struggle -- that is to say, access to the means of production -- into problems of culture, race, and orientation. Call it the Epcot approach, if you will -- the idea that we should just learn to get along and acknowledge/celebrate our differences, without fundamentally disrupting the current relationships of power. This is a deliberate move. For example, by focusing on race instead of on class, we learn to disavow our assumptions about black people and forge an uncomfortable relationship with the "n" word, without discussing the fact that people of all races and orientations have divergent access to quality education, healthcare, housing, employment, and political efficacy based on class. If we recognize the true antagonisms at the heart of our so-called "cultural" conflicts, the whole world order of global capitalism comes under fire.

All right, I hear you say, what does this have to do with my iTunes library? I claim that most of us approach musical ‘others' in a fashion that strongly echoes the Epcot model of engagement, with a strong deemphasis on politics and history. So we listen to Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" without considering the plight of the real Buffalo Soldiers -- or worse, if we do think about the historical antecedent, we see a distant, parochial racial conflict instead of an enduring political one with which we can actively identify (the oft-repeated scenario wherein many of the most brutal acts of Imperialist regimes are delegated to those who are themselves the victims of colonization -- the raj in India, the Muslim slave-traders in colonial Africa, the black regiments of the American army deployed to fight Native Americans, etc.). M.I.A.'s politics are a sort of cute accessory to most ears (Andre 3000: "y'all don't wanna hear me though, you just wanna dance"), and it often feels to me like we've arrived at a point where the political and social ideals that made "indie rock" coalesce in the first place are only taken seriously at the margins. Hell, many of us even like punk rock in spite of its political thrust, which in my mind misses the point entirely. We arrive at the paradox wherein our "tolerance" of Others actually renders mute the political and economic concerns their music carries.

I want to emphasize here that it's perfectly fine if you don't look to music as an avenue for political resistance, but again I claim the essential foundation of alt/independent media is that it has the potential to serve that function. We believe that independent media offers something more, something better than a way to pass the hours; we believe it can and should be transformative on a personal and political level. If that's the case, let's use our "eclectic" tastes to recognize that, among every large group of people, there exist certain common antagonisms. So instead of listening to gangsta rap and thinking "this narrative is so far removed from my own milieu, I can't possibly relate to this even if I enjoy it," we should be identifying with conflicts between the individual and the state, between justice and law, decision-makers and those whose decisions are made for them. These conflicts run through every society, through every subculture, and form the basis through which we can develop and articulate our common struggles. If we take this approach, we can also avoid falling into the trap of "how can I truly understand or relate to you, how can I know I'm not imposing my beliefs on you by assuming you mean such-and-such when you say this" that I have seen bog down so many would-be world-changers. The real basis for cross-cultural conversation is common struggles, common antagonisms, and music can be a great way to uncover those. I choose solidarity over tourism any day.

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