Live from the Battle of Seattle
The No WTO Combo
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Tuesday, November 21 2000, 1:37 PM
When the Bad Subjects' reviews editor gave me the advanced promo version of this album, I told him "I don't want to write about this one. It's only part of the album, and you need the whole album for a review."
"That is the whole album," he answered.
"Holy shit! Is that true?! Only five tracks is a full album? They are taking full price for this in stores? Oh my god!"
My naivete about record companies was showing through again.
This album was released last May and it has now been sitting on my desk awhile. Given more recent anti-globalism events in Prague, this is a good opportunity to revisit it. The thinness so palpable in 'Live from the Battle of Seattle' album speaks towards how little anti-globalism informs aesthetics or artwork in the United States.
To begin with, does this issue at all matter to American artists? Jello Biafra is the only one of this trio with any consistent political presence; guitarist Kim Thayil, late of Soundgarden, and bassist Krist Novoselic were along for the ride. They rock just fine throughout this brief album, and ramp it up to satisfyingly full volume. But the No WTO Combo is a one-time formation created for the occasion. As a group, the combo does not develop or expand any significant musical response to the formative presence of economic globalism in daily life. The group went their separate ways immediately afterwards, and two seasons after release, this album is just another sluggish item on the shelves. It is difficult to think of another American group that specifically engages with opposition to global capitalism or what that might mean to a musical aesthetic (maybe Chicago's Latino hardcore vets Los Crudos, but they're long-gone. Unfortunately current MTV king Ricky Martin might be more appropriate, in an ironic sort of way).
To the contrary, what is vastly more evident is the overwhelming embrace of globalism by American musical aesthetics. This does not refer to the slow-selling section of World Music that occupies a corner of the local Tower Record store, krautrock imports, or the neo-Batista retro aesthetics of the Buena Vista Social Club. This is globalism as consumption regime, whereas what needs specification is globalism as a site of aesthetic production. It is the most commonplace observation that the American music industry is a central beneficiary of economic globalism and its intellectual property regime. An aesthetic or style, as even the dullest art history student realizes, almost inevitably bears an intense relationship with the economic environment from where it emerges. There is no particular stretch required to reflect on the extent to which globalism --- in the sense that an artist performs with manifest consciousness that their audience is global --- inflects American music. Examples are too numerous to mention. For an artist to record for a major label in the United States today, or even a good number of smaller labels, is to accept participation in a paradigm of global capitalism.
So it is hardly a surprise that the recording industry horizon is devoid of artists who carry messages that emphasize local economies, anti-capitalism, and opposition to the exploitation of international labor. Even local and regional musics become global products under transnational capitalism. When I stand amid the World Music racks poking about, there is a prevailing sense of commonality that transcends geography and musics, a sense that a First World consumer like myself has become the definition of international success. The market is where the money is, not where the people are.
Our intercultural aesthetic has become as combinatory as any WTO committee meeting, with prevailing styles adapted to the international market just like economic ideology. French hip-hop albums; Greek compilation albums marketing a pan-Mediterranean musical corpus; Nigerian export-only albums. The Six Degrees Travel Series albums emphasize a conscious hybridization that makes them hard to locate within national rubrics. We music consumers are being trained to become mini-WTOs, individual gustatory empires created by prolonged globalized music consumption.
The test of the No WTO album lies in continued daily engagement with the issues of globalization: that album -- not at all bad when it rocks on past Jello Biafra's preaching -- is no more than an historical moment. A music about transnational labor exploitation and the production of poverty is still emerging, and we have hardly begun to hear it.
Live from the Battle of Seattle is available from Alternative Tentacles Records