Whose World Is It, Anyway?
By Adam McGovern
We aren't the world, or so marketers would have you believe. Everything from Indian classical to Zulu pop, Native chant to Central Asian throat-song and beyond, can be found -- if at all -- in the "world music" section of metropolitan record stores, and this perfunctory generalization of music
outside the U.S.'s geographical or aesthetic borders is a declaration of world war to some.
And they do have some genuine provocation. "World" is of course a way too sprawling category conjured by American packagers for all music which doesn't meet the manufacturing specifications of generic global pop -- not just "non-Western/nonwhite" music as per a recent New York Times rant, but simply non-English language music as well (Cajun, Zydeco, and a good deal more from
within the States comes under the "world" umbrella), and indeed Anglo music with any distinguishing ethnicity (i.e. much in the Celtic canon). Even those who would adopt the shorthand as a badge of honor rather than an EZ-Pass to obscurity navigate a gray area in which they run the risk of broadly ghettoizing the very musics they mean to single out for praise.
As this dilemma shows, right under the surface of the oversimplification lies a vein of rich ironies -- another of which is that the foes of American cultural hegemony and global pop homogenization who decry the "world" rubric are likely the same sentinels who pine for the loose-format days when artists from Sly Stone to the Allmans were all considered "rock." Of course, in those days, hipsters could comfortably exclude many of the forms of music now re-encroaching on the popular imagination, from orchestral to lounge. The "fragmentation" of the contemporary music marketplace actually lets more styles make it to the table, and the pop-chart coexistence of neo-swing and
rock-rap and teeny-bop signals not a rise in social disunity but a decline in corporate-decreed unanimity. The situation suggests we need to label more music, not less, and the defining stricture of "world" can in the short term be an advantage for music seeking to identify itself on the expanded consumer menu.
It is possible to, for the sake of argument, accept the marketplace's terms as a prelude to casting attention on specific areas that marketplace typically excludes. Luckily, in a decade in which it is common for oppressed social groups to reclaim and neutralize the epithets used against them, and
in which a prominent veterinarian's exhortation that pet owners be called "animal guardians" is scoffed at even while strides are made in anti-cruelty attitudes, we're witnessing the liberation of terminology from strict meaning. You can't squeeze the world into a word, but you can still know it when you hear it.
(Adam McGovern is the editor of MusicHound World (Visible Ink Press), a comprehensive guide to world music available in stores and online, featuring biographies and album buyer's-guides on some 1,000 artists; reviews of some 300 compilation disks; and many sidebars on cultural background; with photos by Jack and Linda Vartoogian
See forewords written by Angélique Kidjo and David Byrne
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