Earlier this week, Simon Reyonlds published a great little essay on what he calls “xenomania”—i.e., Western hipsters’ internet-enabled digi-crate digging for increasingly exotic-sounding “ethnic” pop and/or dance music. Now, I realize that its publication venue—one of the MTV sites—probably limits the nuance and political content Reynolds can include in the piece. I, however, am not limited by Viacom overlords, nor by maximum word-counts, so I want to complicate Reynold’s analysis of “xenomania.” I introduce 2 related complicating factors into his anaysis: race (i.e., US domestic race politics, which sometimes correlate in a general way to UK domestic race politics, at least insofar as “blackness” gets valued and perceived in pop music) and orientialism. “Xenomania” is a transnational phenomenon, and I want to bring some of the resources of transnational feminism to bear on his analysis.
The question Reynold’s article begs is this: Is “xenomania” just Orientialism + the internet, what we might call “Orientialism 2.0”? What makes xenomaniacal Orientalism different from Orientialism 1.0? (If we wanted to be more strictly political-economical about it, maybe we could also say this is “informational Orientialism” vs. “industrial Orientialism”?)
Reynold’s essay seems to suggest that what is distinctive about xenomaniacal appropriation is its medium, i.e., teh interwebs. His metaphors of “safari” and “exploration” suggest that the internet enables (Western) music fans to reproduce traditional colonial/Orientialist narratives of “discovery,” expropriation, and domestication:
“For the exotic beat-freaks and the global street pop enthusiasts alike, something of the thrill of the hunt has been restored, it’s just that the safari now takes you through the deeper recesses of YouTube or the hinterlands of the web, rather than to an out-of-the-way record store or a street market in some dodgy neighborhood.”
So at some level Reynold’s essay implies that xenomania is Orientialism + the internet. What the internet adds to regular old Orientialism is really what it takes away—physical distance. According to Reynolds, the internet collapses geographic space, allowing Western hipsters unrestricted access to any sound, anywhere.
“But the Internet’s effect on space has been just as profound. A new generation of listeners and musicians is emerging whose consciousness is post-geographical as well as post-historical. There’s a thirst for fresh musical stimuli that slips easily past geographical borders and cultural boundaries.”
But the point is that this music might circulate, as transnational capital, past geographical borders, but it reaffirms cultural boundaries.
How does it reaffirm cultural boundaries? Reynolds’s article points to a few ways, and feminist philosophy/transnational feminist theory points to a few more ways.
First, Reynolds. I want to hone in on two terms he uses “nomadic” and “foreign.” Reynolds gives us the following equation: “Infinite choice + infinitesimal cost = nomadic eclecticism as the default mode for today’s music fan” (emphasis mine). The problem is that “nomadism” is a privilege. You have to have a passport and papers (often from the “right” countries), to say nothing of cash, to be genuinely “nomadic.” As many feminist theorists have pointed out, this nomadic cosmopolitan ideal it is bad liberal multiculturalism, the eating seemingly infinite varieties of “theother” neatly set out on a buffet of “Third-World difference(s)"; this buffet, however, is located in one’s “Safe European (or at least Western) Home.” When subaltern subjects—either in the colony or in the metropole (or in the FTZ)—practice this sort of sampling, it’s called “migration” or “illegal immigration” or the refusal to assimilate. You see, when Western hipsters like Diplo cite and spin this shit, it is seen as evidence of their superior, refined musical judgment; when this music is performed and heard in its “home” contexts, it is seen as “different”—indeed, it is seen as less “developed” than Western pop music (in the same way that the so-called “underdeveloped” world is thought to be less “advanced” than post-industrial liberal democracies). In order for this music to make Western hipsters feel/seem “special,” its original contexts and performers/audiences need to stay distant (and thus different, exotic, and primitive.)[i] So while geographic space may seem to be collapsed for Western “nomadic” subjects, it is not actually collapsed—it is only the music that gets to travel transnationally, not its indigenous composers, performers, and fans—they have to stay “different” (both geographically and temporally, i.e., as “primitive” and “undeveloped”) so that the Western hipster can consume their difference.[ii]
In fact, the reification of cultural difference is a necessary condition for this sort of “xeomaniacal” appropriation. Though Reynolds might claim that “nothing is foreign in an internet age”—maybe no thing is “foreign,” insofar as it can be imported and domesticated. However, there still need to be foreign cultures and foreign people—somebody still has to manifest/represent “Third World difference” in order that what is “domesticated” appears to be a recent addition (and not native or long-integrated into the culture). Even in its domestication, it has to maintain the veneer of “Third-World difference.” Regular readers of this blog might suspect that I’m arguing that “xenomania” is a manifestation of what Shannon WInnubst calls “the biopolitics of cool,” and what I call “postmillennial black hipness.” This suspicion is correct. Winnubst’s concept is a more general one that covers a range of phenomena across contexts; my concept is more specifically focused on popular music. I’ve discussed the both the biopolitics of cool and its relation to postmillennial black hipness here, so I won’t re-hash it here. Instead, I want to focus on race, specifically, the changing role of blackness in White hipsters’ musical preferences.
One thing that is new to xenomania is its function in indicating the changed status of “blackness” in postmillennial Western cultural vernaculars. As I discussed in my post on the biopolitics of cool,
Blackness, particularly the “gangsta” or “thug” masculine stereotype proffered by mainstream hip hop, has been so thoroughly co-opted that it’s just not different enough anymore.
Traditionally, white hipsters (e.g. Norman Mailer, in his “White Negro” essay) are dissatisfied with normative bourgeois life, and try to distinguish themselves from normal bourgeois whites by appropriating and domesticating stereotypical blackness (often in the form of stereotypical black masculinity). White hipsters used their ability to domesticate (stereotypical) blackness as evidence of their exceptionalism vis-à-vis normative bourgeois whiteness, that is, as evidence of their avant-garde status. Traditionally, white musicians and music fans in the US and the UK treated stereotypical blackness as “the unknown that used to be the motor driving the vanguard sectors of Western pop” (Reynolds). So Reynolds is correct that the old “unknown” is all-too-known, and that the old sources of inspiration aren’t that inspiring anymore, because they’ve been thoroughly co-opted. So what is a white hipster to do, now that stereotypical blackness is exhausted? Turn to “Third-World” difference instead. This is where the internet comes back in: whereas 20th-c whites could venture up into Harlem, or more likely, take an excursion into the “race music” section of the record store, postmillennial hipsters have it easier, because they don’t actually have to transgress any physical boundaries to hear “exotic” music. Reynolds writes,
If our own rock and pop traditions seem stagnant and stalled, their forward motion obstructed by the sheer accumulation of glorious history, it could be that one way to escape the dead end is to step sideways. Get yourself outside the Western narrative altogether and explore all the elsewheres now accessible like never before.
This is all true—he’s correctly identified the logic of hipness, and the fact that the internet makes old modes of appropriation easier. By overlooking the changing status/role of blackness (well, by overlooking race in general), Reynolds mistakenly identifies what is new about xenomania. The logic isn’t new—it’s as old as anything: orientialism, white hipness, “Love & Theft,” etc. Xenomania is a new variation on an old theme. And why the theme needed to be varied, and why this particular variation is currently so compelling—those are what is really interesting and helpful about Reynold’s notion of “xenomania.” But you can’t get at those without thinking about race, “Third-World difference,” and Orientialism.
[i] The construction of these songs’ and genres’ “Third-World difference” obscures the actual hybridity and transnational character of these generes. Reynold’s own text points to the ways these “Third-World” genres are influenced by and make use of contemporary “First-World” aesthetics and technologies: “Whether they’re spawned in European cities or the ghettos of the Southern Hemisphere, what all these exotic dance genres share is impurity: they are bastard and creole children based in the soundclash of folk forms with Western styles like hip hop, house, and techno. Ethnic vibes (traditional instrumental textures such as accordions, unusual polyrhythms) mesh with American/European staples like the booming 808 bassline or the house synth-vamp. Rowdy chanted MC vocals influenced by gangsta rap and dancehall are offset by cheesily tuneful choruses invariably given the cheap gloss of AutoTune.”
[ii] So, contra Reynolds, I don’t think you can separate xenomania from retromania via a simple, too-neat dichotomy between space/geography and time/nostalgia. Postcolonial space signifies, in the West, both distant space and distant time. The “Third World” is third because it is at least two places behind the so-called “First” or “developed” world. It is both far away and backwards. Just as Enlightenment political philosophers treated “America” as the “past” of which Europe was the “present” (e.g., in considering whether “America” was “the state of nature”), xenomanical hipsters treat “Third-World” pop as the “past” that they then translate into the Western avant-garde (note the connotations of future-orientation here).