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Music Can Rock, Just Not the World

I've always thought of musicfests as somehow supra-human, mystically transcendent, and radically transgressive. I've come to see them in a different light, of late.

Frederick Luis Aldama

Issue #66, February 2004

Music festivals. There's nothing like 'em for getting the blood pumping and feeling that surge of collective energy. Ever since I can remember as a young teen packed up against other bodies and with monolithic proportioned amps mainlining beats through my veins, I've always thought of musicfests as somehow supra-human, mystically transcendent, and radically transgressive. I've come to see them in a different light, of late.

Musicfests have unfolded across the globe, including in the post-war torn Baltic states. Last summer, Estonians celebrated their hosting of a Eurovision song contest. And in Serbia, there was the "EXIT 2002" musicfest that took place in Novi Sad. Certainly, there's a difference between the former, which unashamedly announces its participation in the glam and glitz of consumer culture, and the latter that announces itself as politically progressive with an agenda of fostering multicultural awareness among its young festivalgoers. Both differ in their lineage, too. Eurovision has had a long history of capitalist interest in promoting labels, and pop trash doesn't need much explaining. The organizers of "EXIT 2002" claim that its rather recent history has gravitated around great social uprising and reform, identifying the musicfests as a site of resistance that, for example, spurred on the uprising that brought the fall of the bloody tyrant Milosevic. In a post-Balkan war, shredded-up Serbia, "EXIT 2002" claimed to unite and renew respect between young Serbians, Bosnians, and Croats.

Eurovision Song Contest Estonia 2002 - Phone card image

Perhaps, however, Eurovision and "EXIT 2002" are more alike than first beats against that tympanic membrane. While a massive number of young, variously ethnic-identified people from all of the Baltic states made the pilgrimage to Novi Sad to participate in "EXIT 2002", most arrived with less a sense of the need to develop and express a post-"ethnic-cleansing" political and cultural sensibility, and more a desire to catch sight of a celebrity D.J. or rock/pop star. In the name of multiculturalism and democracy, "EXIT 2002" and its $1.5 million price tag offered the rah-rah moments of pop fandom as the only sense of multi-ethnic community building — paid for by foreign, corporate, and U.S. tax-dollar money in the name of International Development. No matter the degree of discretion, when all's said and done, both Eurovision and EXIT 2002 fed a corporate music industry's insatiable appetite for dollar profits.

Musicfests, of course, also take place in the center of global capitalism — the U.S. The same month that "EXIT 2002" unfolded in Novi Sad, over 400 African American professionals, ages twenty- and thirty-something, lounged on blankets and lawn chairs while listening to the dashiki-clad singer Khari Gzifa, who announced, "This is how you start a revolution." "This" meaning, I suppose, the big dollar ticket to attend the inaugural "Blackstock" festival that took place just outside of D.C. on a massive stretch of lush, undulating acreage called "AshantiLand", owned by the founder/organizer/bourgeois entrepreneur Kwab Asamoah. The "revolution" would begin once these Blackstock revelers finished their strawberry daiquiris, won their volleyball or badminton tournament, and/or toweled down after some r 'n r in one of AshantiLands's many jacuzzis.

Of course, Kwab Asamoah's "Blackstock" was meant to riff on and revise the historically Anglo-dominated Woodstock of yesteryear. However, while majority demographics differ from one to the other, they surprisingly share much common ground. In the name of protest and revolution, both musicfests aimed to turn many a buck. The 1999 Woodstock in Rome, New York, was a no-holds-barred corporate endeavor out to exploit the mythic presence of Woodstock 1969 in today's Anglo-U.S. mainstream culture. Whether Woodstock or Blackstock — whether in the name of peace and love in '69, total anarchy in '99, or revolution in 2002 — the scene's pretty much the same: each simply has a different set of profiteers, corporate sponsors, and bodies moving and consuming massive amounts of mind-altering drugs.

Woodstock 99 ticketAs Woodstock 1999 turned into a frat party replete with drugs, alcohol, and violent misogynistic acts, big money clicked back and forth between sponsors. Pepsi, pay-TV CFOs, and organizers measured results like a ticker-tape does money-market returns. The festival was so successful in corporate America's eyes — which overlooked the rioting, looting, and raping of women — that TV-cable network owner Alan Gerry, financier of the '99 musicfest, has decided to pump $40 million into developing the Woodstock site into a Disneyfied music/cultural center (with the help of 15 million tax-paid dollars pledged by the state of New York). Perhaps the kickbacks Mr. Geary pocketed from the three-CD Woodstock '99 compilation dried up — as well as the massive revenues generated from 65 hours of pay-per-view coverage — so he intends to create a permanent venue to cash in on some of the "anarchic" talent (Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, Korn, and DMX) that he had already successfully exploited.

In the name of anti-global capitalism and revolution, Blackstock and Woodstock ('69, '99, and '02) generated huge profits — tickets to the '99 Woodstock sold for up to $175 — by providing an escape from the social inequities and political disenfranchisement we face everyday. As one fan's comment at Woodstock 1999 aptly sums up, "Our generation ain't stupid. We're going to get our money's worth, then riot!"

This isn't about one music festival being more "true" to social empowerment and political goals than another. This is about the status of music festivals — and music generally — within corporatized, global capitalist economies. Certainly, these festivals provided local workers with temporary employment. "EXIT 2002" organizers claimed to have employed over 1,500 Serbians, for example. But to greater or lesser degrees, all these musicfests offer only temporary economic solutions to a very localized population of people. All these musicfests sell tickets for festivalgoers to escape their everyday reality. None of these musicfests has toppled governments, reformed Mafia-run bureaucracies. None have fundamentally altered the material conditions of the massive amount of people who suffer from a fundamental lack of democratic rights (right to representation, education, transportation, and so on) whether in a new millennium U.S., a battered Balkans, or a war-ravaged Baltic states.

EXIT 2002, Blackstock, Woodstock, or Whateverstock: none proved to be the revolutionary musical events they promised. Each simply operated within a global capitalist economy that's in the very air we breath. Today, beads and fringed blouses associated with civil rights protests of the 1960s strut down haute-couture catwalks and sell for hundreds of dollars. For $1,500, Yves Saint Laurent's designer line — made famous for its Marrakesh-styled sartorial wear that introduced rich Parisian urbanites to an ethnic chic — sells the "peasant blouse", and for $850, Dries Van Noten's sells a communist-styled straw jacket for that revolutionary look. Of course, the peasant and revolutionary look isn't just for rich urbanites; these same looks can be purchased for less in shopping-mall favorites like Gap and Banana Republic.

Closing Shop on Cultural Studies

Whether manifest sartorially or musically, so-identified resistant (sub)cultures do not exist outside a capitalist, exploitive economy. Though much has been theorized to the contrary, such subcultures are not de facto resistant to a dominant ideology.

Those hailing from Birmingham's famed cultural studies department argue differently, but that department recently closed shop. Cultural Studies scholar Paul Gilroy lamented the shutting down of what had been a center for a New Leftist scholarship since 1964, that created a legacy of thinkers such as Ian Chambers, Graham Turner, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and Raymond Williams. Much of this scholarship, from Hebdige's punk subculture to Gilroy's black Atlantic rap and r 'n b, endeavored to make visible just how disenfranchised communities appropriate, recycle, then resist the dominant hegemony. In their Leftist zeal, however, much class and race romanticizing unraveled. Gilroy's rap and Hebdige's punk do not magically exist outside an all-consuming capitalism; their respective subcultures are commodities — whether appropriated, then recycled — and exist within a dominant consumption/production capitalist paradigm.

No musicfest or youth subculture has altered radically the bourgeoisie's exploitation of the working class. Musicians and producers of music want to sell their music; they want people to listen, then buy. So perhaps we should think twice about identifying Talvin Singh as an "organic intellectual" who samples Bhangra beats in his Indian-brand of techno/trance to emancipate his hybrid South Asian subject; we should think twice whether Chuck D's "fight the power" lyric will instill revolution. Perhaps both are simply music. That is, their authors are simply inventing different musical compositions for consumption: one breaks a rhythm by cutting and mixing a Bhangra soundscape to enliven and revitalize its dominant ambient beat, and the other repeats a catchy lyric for mnemonic effect.

It's even dangerous to romanticize disenfranchised groups and their subcultural expressions (music or otherwise) as resistant to dominant paradigms, especially when they feed into globally organized lumpenproletariat underworlds that exercise power to ensure profit margins through violence and exploitation (prostitution, drug peddling and smuggling and so on). One must be careful not to overstate the power of subcultures — music-based or otherwise — to resist dominant ideologies, when much of what takes place there is antithetical to class struggles worldwide. (To his credit, Gilroy's lament on the closing down of cultural studies also included an important identification of the problem: the increased manipulation of education by the British government to deny its citizens equal access to education. He also spoke to the material effect the closing would have on teachers and staff, who will be out of work, and how we must see this as yet another move on the part of the government to privatize education.)

Music, music festivals, youth subcultures with their various "rhythmic cartographies" should not be confused with the real acts that have en masse a "real" power to destabilize a "real" colonial/capitalist-national power structure. For example, in the case of the music festivals in the Balkans or Baltic states, believing that a gathering of young people dancing to techno or Euro-pop beats can transform a hugely powerful and corrupt old Nomenklatura-cum-Mafia is a fantasy at best. Such musicfests do not exist outside of a parasitic capitalist and Mafia-styled exploitive capitalist paradigm that is financed by the American government with American tax payer money. If American imperialism learned something from the Sixties, it is that all youth festivals — and in particular, gigantic Music Events — are great vehicles for spreading drugs and cynicism among the disenfranchised, to turn them away from real politics and any real attempt to organize in the hundreds of thousands, to fight for certain basic democratic rights such as equal access to education and the right to representation for all.

Frederick Luis Aldama is a member of the Bad Subjects Production team.

Copyright © Copyright © 2004 by Frederick Luis Aldama. All rights reserved.