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Frontera Musicscapes: Grinding Up a Bad Edge in Borderland Studies By Frederick Luis Aldama
Grinding Up a Bad Edge in Borderland Studies"
"The future of music for the rest of Mexico was born here today", claims a young club-goer in an improvised dance club situated in a fifth floor artist's loft overlooking Tijuana's hyper-busy Revolution Avenue. The music the young dancer refers to is known locally as "Nortec", a hectic mix of Norteño music, Tex-Mex sounds, Ranchera guitars, Banda Sinaloense horns and beats mixed with electronic sounds that glisten with depth, echo, groove and reverb. A sound like this only could have been dreamed up in a place like Tijuana. (Nortec Collective, "The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1)
This blurb appears on the second page of the insert to the Nortec Collective's CD "The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1"CD, providing the paratextual codes for its listeners to read its soundscape as a hybrid, borderland musico-aesthetic enterprise. It not only provides the listener with the vocabulary by identifying the different influences and instruments for understanding how this "hectic mix" of noise becomes music, but it locates and club-goer authenticates Tijuana as the center of progressive, new generation Mexican musical production today. Likewise, it reimagines the Tijuana borderland not as a place of transition between U.S. and Mexico, as a locale with its own subculture that includes: its own musicians and producers, a distinctive argot known locally as Nortec, affiliated fashion designers that create Nortec sartorial wear as well as graphic artists, and architects. Nortec Collective promises not just an architectured soundscape of a hybrid future, but a new borderland lifestyle.
It is easy to be seduced by a musico-aesthetic that glistens and conjures up dreams of a borderland utopia. When the Nortec's microtonally nuanced and continuously proliferating and hybridizing sounds (from street noise to conjunto accordion, electronic trance to tuba blasts) beat against tympanic membranes, the listener's mind and body move more freely than in an otherwise restrictive everyday. Not surprisingly, this synthed soundspace "dreamed up in a place like Tijuana" that leads to an ecstatic abandon lends itself nicely to a reading of Nortec as an expression of a contemporary U.S./Mexican cultural borderland. It lends itself to a reading of its musicscape as a borderland politico-aesthetic that reflects a destabilizing and continuously proliferating racial and cultural reality. It lends itself to a theorizing of its sounds as a musico-epistemological space that articulates a new language for expressing resistant subaltern-based hybrid textualities that defy national paradigms: U.S. versus Mexico and Mexico versus Latin-American. It lends itself to its being theorized as an "audiotopia" (cf. Josh Kun) that appropriates and recycles produced and consumed objects to intervene critically into a hegemonic global capitalism. It lends itself to being read, as Roberta Fernandez theorizes of borderland cultural texts generally, as a "rhizomatic trickster literacy" necessary for "our survival in a postmodern cacophony of mixed cultures" that transmutates technologies to transform "threats to individuals, communities, nations, and the planet" (189). Finally, Nortec lends itself to being invested with the power to transgress, transcend, and transform dominant ideologies that otherwise restrict racial, sexual, and social relational possibility.
I ask, however, how much can a frontera -identified Nortec musicscape--and music generally for that matter--actually function as a textual expression of resistant hybrid identities and experience? How much can it actually function as an intervention into the socio-political sphere? How can Nortec act either as a symbolic and/or real resistant site to dominant capitalist/colonialist hegemonies? How can its soundspace grammars signify within larger systems of postcolonial epistemologies? And, finally, if Nortec is resistant to dominant capitalist paradigms, how does it exist outside a popular music economy driven by dollar profiteers?
Nortec is a complex musical form that draws from and recombines many genres with their own sound patterns and conventions. Its drum-n-bass lines and cut-'n'-mix synth dips/arcs and pulsations characteristic of techno fill out and dominate the tambora, tuba, and accordion riffs characteristic of Northern Mexican and Tejano conjunto. Hence, the "tec" suffix in the "Nortec" that situates its soundscape firmly within the genre of techno. As we know from techno critics Simon Reynolds and Roy Shakur, this is a soundscape developed in the contact zone between European New Wave synth beats and Detroit funk rhythms in the early- to mid- 1980s. Shakur sums up nicely:
Techno emerged as a musical style and meta-genre in the 1980s, partly associated with new, computer-generated, sound/composition technologies available to musicians. Techno is often conflated with house and ambient music, or used contiguously with the whole corpus of contemporary dance music. Techno became closely associated with a particular social setting, being the stable music at large-scale parties, or 'raves'. Along with the use of the drug ecstasy, these generated considerable controversy (and moral panic) in the early to mid-1990s in the UK and internationally. (153)
Techno was a genre produced by young, middle-class African Americans living in the white suburbs of Detroit in the early 1980s. One generation away from the factory line yet living in the white suburbs, many young African American proto-techno wizards combined the mechanical and repetitive/industrial synth sound of Germany's pop group, Kraftwerk, with the funk of George Clinton and Parliment. For example, Derrick May used the mass-marketed Roland TB 303 Bassline--originally sold as a bass-line synthesizer to partner with the Roland 606 drum machine for rock guitarists in 1983--to strip down Parliament's funk sound and recombine with a severe pounding rhythm that he spread across an expansive landscape of instrumental techno sounds. In this spirit, May produced the club hit, "Strings of Life", that put this new sound on the map and allowed him, as he contends, "to tap into history in a way we could never do before, and that gives us the opportunity to create our own perspective of what we've been brought up with all our lives" (cited Timothy Taylor, 41). One of the Nortec Collective DJs, Pepe Mogt, also began his early synth play after using high-frequency radio to tune into Kraftwerk, New Order, and Depeche Mode that were being transmitting across airwaves across the border in San Diego. This was important to Mogt's cultivation of a musical sensibility as most of the music he would otherwise hear in Tijuana was of the conjunto and norteño variety. Somewhat similar to May's story, in 1986 Mogt managed to get his hands on a Yamaha Portasound and began to recombine Eurodisco with break beat patterns and synth sounds. Unlike May, Mogt's sounds would take over a decade before becoming visible in wider circuits of production and consumption. May went on to develop a sophisticated synthesized soundspace where the Euro-pop beats of Giorgio Moroder cut 'n' mixed into Motown favorites like Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby", repeating rhythmic patterns that allowed its listeners to dance to identifiable sound patterns. As such, he introduced listeners to a lyric-less, re-architectured soundscape where synethetic and processed sounds talked to each other and had the power to stimulate its listeners into trance-like movement.
This is to say, without a middle-class youth (Latino, African American, or Anglo) with a disposable income to purchase and have access to new sampling and synthesizer machines, the tec in Nortec would not have been possible. As computer chips developed, so too did the sophistication of samplers and digitizing recorders. The combination of sampled and created sounds became infinite as production moved away from traditional instruments to I/O binary converters. So where May's Roland TB 303 and Mogt's Portasound served as "quote" machines, by the late 1980s and early 1990s new technologies allowed a proliferating number of DJs in Detroit, Chicago, and New York to warp and wrap sounds into sophisticated sequences on a massive scale. We see the end result today: deep house and Italo house, jungle, drum'n'bass, trance, trip-hop, acid, garage, techno-rave, the sped-up hip hop identified as breakbeat, tribal, and the Chicago-based, palsied techno known as minimal jack.
Nortec certainly has a story to tell. As the sound splintered, so too did its audience. By the early 1990s, techno and all of its sub-genres were no longer identified solely as African American. Panoptic surveillance systems identified that DJ-ed techno musicscapes such as Chicago's acid house scene and New York's Garage scene (mostly as brown/black and/or gay inhabited) as sites of "perversion" and contraband drug exchange and use. This drove the scene underground and across the Atlantic. As ebbs and flows of different surveillance systems enacted to control like populations of clubgoers across the Atlantic in metropolitan centers like London, the techno-scape continued its migration to places like Ibiza, Manchester, and Bristol. Today, after many transmutations and transmigrations, the soundscape has found a place back along the Mexican/U.S. border.
If techno is the site of surveillance of outlawed bodies, then one might theorize a musicscape like Nortec--in its reconstitution of trans-racial, diasporic cultural forms--as a site of symbolic resistance within ideological structures that delimit and segregate sexual (queer/lesbian and straight) and racial (black/brown and white) communities. And certainly, the Nortec club scene in Tijuana's Jaialai Palace more than suggests this as its beats thump and generate a confluence of dancing bodies. It could be argued here that a globally formed musicscape like Nortec appropriates then re-combines capitalist-generated technologies to create a space for differently desiring and racialized bodies to crisscross on the dance floor. In this spirit, Celeste Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz identify like models of cultural resistance to hegemonic paradigms when analyzing pan-Latino syncretic music and dance forms such as salsa and the Brazilian fight-dance, capoeira. For Fraser Delgado and Esteban Muñoz, such syncretic New World musicscapes and dances were sites of resistance to hegemonic structures present during the conquest and colonization of the Americas, but exist today as resistant cultural expressions within the exploitive transnational globalization process. For example, they write,
The intricate gesticulations of New World dance form inscribe and are inscribed by three broad historical movements: (1) the reorganization of the world produced by conquest, colonization, and the institution of slaver; (2) the consolidation of capitalism and the building of nations characteristic of modernity; and (3) the transnationalization of global culture effected by the incessant flow of capital characteristic of postmodernity. These broad movements are not discrete stages nor do they form any kind of direct linear progression from one moment to the next. Rather, we take the polyrhythm as a metonym for history that allows for an understanding of the simultaneous sounding of incommensurate historiographies. (13)
Read accordingly, Nortec's techno and conjunto hybrid musicscape would function as a counter-hegemonic site of "polyrhythmic" resistance and as trace memory of a past marked by conquest and colonialism.
Can Frontera-musicscapes Resist?
Nortec is a soundscape that the media--and the Nortec collective itself--have identified as expressive of a hybrid, borderland identity. However, can one identify this as a musico-aesthetic that expresses a new hybrid identity or a site of capitalist/colonialist resistance? Or is it simply a specific patterning of noise to make sounds that move bodies? When a Nortec track pulsates, club-goers ("real") bodies respond, but is this a way to resist those generationally, racially, and sexually controlled frontera zones? Or is this simply one example of many soundscapes that lead to a kinesthetic response? If the musical sounds are patterned and combined with the listener in mind, the soundscape will create, as Richard Middleton argues, a "gestural center" that taps into specific neural networks that trigger kinetic reflexes ("Popular Music Analysis and Musicology" 109). Such a musicscape with its controlled pitch-contours and harmonic rhythms can also have the power to tap into the brain's neural network, inducing different mental states and emotions. Of course, people do not exist in a vacuum. So that while certain combinations of sound might trigger a kinetic response, the shape of this response looks different from community to community. Cognitive responses to music are hardwired in their raw form; the way the body looks as it responds to the music is as learned as the phatic, or gestural, in everyday speech-acts and determined by locally acquired conventions. Hence, it is possible to read body reflexes to music as formed within and manipulated by a dominant capitalist ideology: where each sound and its concomitant gesture are part of the hegemonic discourse that controls subjects by asserting just how bodies move and are seen; where each sound controls just how the subject exists within socially, sexually, and racially inscribed hierarchies of difference. So that, according to a racialized, primitive (body) vs. civilized (mind) hierarchy, brown/black bodies would "naturally" have rhythm and the white bodies would "naturally" not have rhythm. Dance is, according to Jane C. Desmond, "a discourse of the body [that is] especially vulnerable to interpretations in terms of essentialized identities associated with biological difference. These identities include race and gender and the sexualized associations attached to bodies marked in those terms, as well as national or ethnic identities when these are associated with racial notions, as they so often are" ("Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies" 43).
To analyze the bodies rhythmic response to patterned sounds, then, is to formulate what Desmond calls a "kinesthetic semiotics" where, for example, subaltern subjects express a "bodily bilingualism" in opposition to otherwise segregated social/sexual/racial spaces ("Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies" 33). However, for those cultural studies critics who choose to theorize a subaltern kinesthetic semiotic, they must read dance as more than a body's physiological response to sounds. It requires that a body's response to music be read as a counter-cultural expression that articulates a counter consciousness and history. It is to make visible and articulate what Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz identify as a "politics in motion" ("Rebellions of Everynight Life" 9, 23). Accordingly, then, music and dance are theorized as Other histories that speak to a disenfranchised community's violent subjugation and oppression from "the conquest of the continent to California's passage of the racist Proposition 187" ("Rebellions of Everynight Life" 9). In sum: theorizing dance and music for these critics is one way to understand better how marginalized cultures and peoples become the invisible Other within dominant fantasies (white, heterosexual, male) of nationalism. It requires such critics to speak of "imagined communities" whereby texts--from narrative fictions, political treatise, to musicscapes--have the power to create nation. As such, music/dance can also be read as a text invested with like ontological weight as reality. Hence, the theory of a "politics in motion" (23) that reads the kinesthetic semiotics of the Other as an act of the subaltern subject's resistance and intervention within a racist and heterosexist nation-state.
If the nation-state apparatus wields power discursively and dance/music is a text-act invested with the same weight as, say, a political treaty or a mass movement social protest or revolutionary force, then it too can radically alter the ontological reality out there. This line of thought follows a Foucaultian model of theorizing power as discursively constructed and that is everywhere--and nowhere. So if music/dance is also discursively constructed, it too can be everywhere--and nowhere. Accordingly, music does not, Josh Kun writes, "respect places precisely because it is capable of inhabiting a particular place while at the same time moving across several places--arriving while leaving" ("Against Easy Listening: Audiotopic Readings and Transnational Soundings" 288). Namely, if music can inhabit the same non-position as power, then, music can also have the power to deconstruct and shatter such a power structure. As such, dance/music produced by those inhabiting ontological margins has the discursive power to intervene into what is posited as a discursively constructed and imagined nation-state. Hence Kun can conclude:
Music creates spaces where cultures can be both contested and consolidated, both sounded and silenced. Moving through space, music performs a double act of delinquency that unsettles both the geopolitical boundaries of the modern nation-state and the disciplinary boundaries that govern the study of music in the academy. (288)
For Kun, frontera musicscapes such as The Brat and Los Cruzados, Los Illegals, and Kid Frost all have the power to "unsettle" geopolitically inscribed nation-state boundaries. Similarly, Ana M. Lopez identifies "rhythmic cartographies" that function as "signs of imagined Latin American nations/communities [that have the power to] performatively interpellate social actors into a community in the present" ("Of Rhythms and Borders" 311).
According to this line of theorizing, Nortec would also function as a rhythmic cartography symbolic of a hybrid, borderland community with the power to unsettle nation-state boundaries. Nortec would be also be an example of a transfrontera resistant text-act with an identifiable semiotic that critiques dominant capitalist/neo-colonialist systems that systematically exploit and deny basic human rights to subaltern bordercrossers. Nortec as "politics in motion" or as a subalternized "rhythmic cartography" would have the power to transform the everyday life of the indocumentado/a throughout the Southwest. It would express a kinesthetic semiotics of the Other with the same ontological value as the "real" struggles by (im)migrant subjects daily. It would resist and unsettle sexist, racist, and classist master narratives. It would be a text-act that leads to a revolutionary politics.
Body and Language
At the most basic level, there is a fundamental difference between a body moving to music and that of bodies en masse fighting for political reform. The former is a reflex that can be crafted and re-crafted to perform within different sonically sculptured scenes; the latter functions as a phatic, bodily extension to emphasize political demands for radical reform. To put it simply, a body's kinesthetic response to music that can be shaped into dance is not equivalent to language (sign and phatic gesture) that is necessary not just for the survival of the human race, but for the communication needed to build solidarity between proletariat groups worldwide for revolution to take place.
So while the impulse might be to read dancing bodies as counter-hegemonic rhythmic cartographies that resist dominant paradigms and articulate a subaltern history, culture, and consciousness, music and/or the body's movement in response to music quite simply does not have the same ontological equivalence to language. This is not to say that a rhythmic cartography such as Nortec does not border-cross. As the brief discussion of techno above points out, Nortec participates in a rich history of techno's diasporic movements and hybridizing of musical genres. However, this connection to hybridizing at the level of music culture and genre is not to be confused with acts of linguistic communication--whether counter-hegemonic or not. Musical rhythms and body movements might gel together and form communities such as Latinos with salsa or meringue, Tijuaneses and Nortec, thrash metal and white suburban male teenagers, or ska and British underclassers. However, such dance/music cartographies are not text-acts equivalent to the linguistic structures that inform language. They could never be, then, considered the same as the language required for communication in order to build coalition and incite revolution. Nortec, or any dance/music rhythmic cartography, cannot do what is required of hundreds of thousands of people gathered together on the streets to overturn the formation of nation-states by bourgeois elites with its drawing of boundaries, establishment of institutions, and laws (judicial and legislative branches) and government (executive branch) to enforce the material reality of the existence of these borders that delimit the territory within which the ruling class can rule.
So what are we to make of critics such as Desmond, Kun, Lopez, Fraser Delgado, and Esteban Muñoz, and their confusion of dance/music compositions with language, and, by extension, ontological fact? What are we to make of such critics' formulation of music/dance cartographies according to a poststructuralist method where discourse is power and not locatable in bourgeois institutional centers used to command, to dominate, to oppress and to exploit in the hands of one social class and its institutions (the State)? Where the text is the world and therefore dance/music is a text invested with the weight of the power that exists in the 'real' of reality. What are we to make of Kun's argument that Latino Spanish rock production, he writes, "allows us to witness the unique power of popular music to overflow the national boundaries that pretend to contain it, creating audiotopias across transnational geographies that sound both through and against the hegemonic properties of the multinational capitalist recording industry" ("Against Easy Listening" 305-306). Or his celebration of the Nortec Collective's hybridizing of "ambient beat textures with samples of old banda and norteño albums" ("Rock's Reconquista" 280) as a musicscape that destablizes "monoracial [and] "monological national paradigms to understand emergent cultural expression throughout the musical landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands" (280)? Finally, it could be read as Nestor García Canclini generally theorizes of, for example, urban graffiti, as a form of "decollecting and deterritorialization" that breaks up and makes impure capitalist governed cultural systems (223).
The tendency on the part of Kun et al. is to posit these musicscapes as referential, therefore as potential sites of ontological transformation. Such critics can theorize music as having a magical power to re-territorilize the restrictive capitalist nation-state because they identify it as a discursively referential construct. However, if the nation-state is neither a textual construct nor an imagined community, but rather the very real drawing up of boundaries, establishment of institutions and laws by a bourgeoisie to enforce the very real and violent oppression of the working class, then we must re-asses critic Ana M. Lopez's statement that rhythmic cartographies can enact a "rewriting and resisting [of] the homogeneity of the generalizing force of nationness" (340). These critics all take a poststructuralist mis-step, reading a given subaltern-identified "rhythmic cartography" or "audiotopia" as referential acts equivalent to speech-acts or text-acts invested with the equivalent power to destablize a "real" colonial/capitalist-national power structure.
This confusion of a cultural form with ontological fact dangerously embraces a relativist and constructivist poststructuralism. Such criticism, muddles musico-aesthetics and dance compositions with ontological fact and ultimately leads--nowhere. As Keith Negus aptly reminds, "music cannot simply reflect, an individual's personality or life, a nation, a city or 'the age we live in'. That word, reflection, is one that slips very easily into both academic discourse and everyday conversations about popular music. But no music can be a mirror and capture events or activities in its melodies, rhythms and voices. The world, a society, an individual life, or even a particular incident, is far to complex for any cultural product (book, film, or song) to be able to capture and spontaneously 'reflect'" (Popular Music in Theory 4).
What is Nortec, Really?
Certainly, Nortec is a soundscape that draws from many different genres and therefore many different musico-aesthetic histories such as a Mexican conjunto and norteño that speaks to a history of hybridizing German polka sounds with bajo sexto rhythms and African-American and Anglo Detroit/Chicago/New York and London/Manchester rave beats. As such it is caught up in world diasporas dictated by, often, sociopolitical (less) and economic (more) forces. It is a musico-aesthetic that is tied into a government and media rhetoric that applauds NAFTA. For example, the Mexican government sponsored a five day conference titled "Nortec 2000" to celebrate Nortec as a reflection of a post-NAFTA harmoniously hybrid border reality. It was identified in a special issue of Time titled "Amexica" as representing a blended expression of the new Mexican/American cultural and racial identity.
Whether identified as Amexican or as reflective of new U.S./Mexico diplomatic and trade relations, this does not mean that the Nortec is reflective of a real Amexican subject who has, say, real citizenry in both the U.S. and Mexico; nor does it mean that it is a cultural form that will somehow allow for truly equal economic and political relations between a dominating capitalist power such as the U.S. and its struggling sibling, Mexico. Nortec's crossing genres does not meant either that it is reflective of a site of diasporic collectivities that resist dominant colonialist/capitalist paradigms. Nortec--like all music of its kind--is simply a popular cultural form. That politicians or journalists deem it as something more than a popular commodity mediated by patterns of economic and social organization is pure fantasy--a fantasy with exploitive economic motivations in mind, of course. Its hybridizing of genres should be read as nothing more than the Nortec Collective doing what musicians do all the time: to introduce, recombine, and create new variations out of a finite set of rhythms and beats for appeal and for consumption. So when one of its DJ's, Bostich, cuts 'n mixes in Tijuana street sounds (car horns and the trombones/trumpets heard on Revolucion Ave.), its new formas sonoras are not an expression of a resistant street poetic, but a way to make the old sound patterns such as techno and norteño/conjunto more interesting. For example, The New York Times reporter, Frances Anderton, celebrates Nortec for revitalizing the techno genre that has "degenerated into monotony or esoteric meandering", concluding that it is "saturated with a sense of discovery" (3). The music industry encourages this type of "hybridizing" heard in Nortec because the tendency of music is to be monotonous; consumers are always looking for something new. So, while today, Nortec might be all the rage, tomorrow it will be something else.
Moreover, such re-patterning and hybridizing of sounds takes place with instruments produced through capitalist technologies. Electronic samplers, software, sync. instruments, for example, are among the more or less recent instruments created to invent new sounds with a view to enliven dying musicscapes, and these are heard by young rave-goers wearing the latest in hip sartorial wear and under the influence of synthetic drugs and/or alcohol. In other words, even at its most basic level, there is nothing radically transformative about Nortec. As with other music generally, Nortec is not a site of transgressive Amexican-ness nor is it an example of a "politics in motion" that can magically reterritorialize hegemonic nation-state spaces and/or resist capitalist/colonialist hegemonies.
Nortec's creation, composition, and modes of distribution (www.millrecords.com) and consumption place it very squarely within a capitalist-governed popular culture. Nortec uses sophisticated, expensive technology to fill dance club spaces; it is distributed widely via record stores and the internet (one can sample then buy and download Nortec Collective albums via a Paypal system on the internet); it has been sampled in television commercials selling $45,000 Volvos and featured in popular indie hit films such as, Y Tu Mama Tambien and the U.S. box-office hit, Traffic. Nortec is far from "resistant". The DJs that make up the Nortec Collective such as Bostich, named after a German electrical appliance is similarly telling. Other names such as Plankton Man and Hyperboreal are in the capitalist lingua franca, English, as well as the title, "Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1". Like all music, it functions within a capitalist system governed by production/consumption models to ensure profits.
Even when the music is in its most, say, audiotopic expressive form, when clubgoers are high on drug Ecstasy and lose themselves to a sea of trance-beats and seemingly reach a collective sense of higher being, it is still caught up in exploitive systems of profiteering: it's tied into a huge global drug trade where capitalist CFOs and Mafia-drug lords work together to ensure massive revenue. Put simply, Nortec is music and therefore a part of a huge money-making music industry dominated by U.S. capitals that manipulate and artificially create (with the media as one of its main appendages) audiences and target markets within the logic of capitalism: to maximize profits. Nortec is a part of the global network of leisure and entertainment corporations and media conglomerates such as RCA, EMI, Sony, Warner, and BMG that exploit working-class populations worldwide. There is nothing transgressive or romantic about it--or of any musicscape generally. (When one listens to a Talvin Singh and his techno banghra beat, one must remember that its "hybrid" soundscapes might have very well been produced in places like Sri Lanka or along the U.S./Mexican border where labor is cheap and bodies easily exploitable.) Even if one were to posit that such a musicscape simply uses the mechanism of capitalism to distribute a resistant text--investing the music and its listeners with a resistant capacity--such reader/listener-response theory simply does not weigh up next to the awesome power of centralized media institutions, such as BMG, who spend millions of dollars creating musicscapes (from promotion and marketing to production and distribution) that undeniably manipulate every and all consumers. In the year 2000, as Roy Shuker comments, "the Recording Industry Association of America observed that, as the world's universal form of communication, music touches every person of the globe to the tune of $40 billion annually, and the US recording industry accounts for one-third of that world market" (27).
Many theories of popular music reflect a fundamental tension between the creativity of the artists and music as an aesthetic with the potential for resistance and its place within capitalist consumption/production/distribution. However, in no way does Nortec's appropriation and recycling of sounds make for a localized, resistant symbolic space. You could be in Tijuana, Frankfurt, London, or at an rave in Ibiza, and the music and scene would be the same massive act of conspicuous consumption. The more music is an industry, the more it is a world business dominated by a handful of record companies. There is no place within this hugely manipulated arena for the production of alternative cultural politics where individuals can reinterpret and then construct oppositional and/or disruptive sites of meaning.
In identifying an audiotopia, rhythmic cartography, a decollecting act, or a "politics in motion" one unwittingly reproduces a reading of music like Nortec as an authentic site of the exotic and resistant. Such a celebration and show of anthropological interest in the exotic--Nortec's resistant syncretism--is dangerous when such critics use it to discuss politics of resistance in music/culture under capitalism, precisely because it can romanticize very real problems that people on the border face daily; it can defer attention from exploitive legislative policies (NAFTA, for example) to musicscapes such as Nortec, and ultimately lead to inaction. In Critique of Exotica, John Hutnyk says: "a pro-hybridity stance does not seem to me to offer any guarantees of a revolutionary project, since the place for articulation of hybridity is also a space which already seems all too easily articulated with the market. Hybridity and difference sell; the market remains intact" (36). Finally, then, more than setting out to critique romantic idealizations of the Chicano/a and Latino/a musicscapes as subalternized epistemologies that disrupt capitalist/colonialist hegemonies, I ask, So what if Nortec uses technology? So what if its soundscape appeared in a t.v. commercial to sell high-price tagged, slick Volvos. After all, we are only talking about noise harnessed and patterned into soundscapes that elicit certain neural, somatic, and emotional responses.
Untangling Body- and Musicscapes
No matter how obvious the power of capitalism is in its production, distribution, and consumption of musicscapes, the bottom up model for theorizing music as a resistant text-act is alive and kicking.
Kun et al. are not alone. The musicians themselves participate in such rhetoric, promising, for example, in their CD's sleeve that the Collective is not just about music, but about building of a borderland communities replete with graphic artists, architects, fashion designers, remixers, producers, listeners and club-goers. As the self-techno titled Bostich, tells Village Voice reporter Enrique Lavin: "Nortec is not a genre but a way of life" (Vol. 46, no. 15, April 17, 2001: 71). One of the non-DJ members of the collective, architect Raul Cardenas Osuna, even makes promises to design what he calls "the Vertex project"--a spaceship-shaped art gallery that would span U.S./Mexican border and feature multimedia art--that will destablize the boundaries between the two national cultures. Of course, the Nortec Collective want to participate in utopian fantasy. This has a material consequence on their lives. The more people buy into this lifestyle, the more money they make and the more their lives--and only their lives--change. For example, after the dance-club success of the track "Polaris", Nortec's DJ Pepe Mogt could quit his 12-hour work shift at the local maquiladora as a chemical engineer mapping formulas for face creams. So, more than the Nortec collective sub-culture really altering the oppressive reality for those millions of poor and starving people trying to survive along the 200 mile-long border, they simply make clear what is the potential in any media form: that a lifestyle, or "subculture" if you will, can be formed around a particular musico-aesthetic but that this is always to an economic end. Such a lifestyle will at best, form a subculture produced and contained within dominant capitalist economic practices. Such a lifestyle will never have the power in the 'real' world to resist and/or revolutionize restrictive colonialist/capitalist-produced social spaces. So, as much as a Nortec Collective performance (the collective often tour independently) might stimulate a high kinetic response from its hundreds of club-goers within such hybrid architectured spaces as Tijuana's Moorish styled Jai Alai Palace, when the performance ends, the bodies cease stylizing and unifying and return to a "real" world hors soundspace--maquiladoras/narcotraficantes, extreme poverty--that remains unchanged. When the performance ends, I might add, it is a young middle-class border subject with enough disposable income to buy tickets and enough leisure time to enjoy the scene that returns home to recuperate.
Even if one were to posit this as a subculture made up of disenfranchised youth, like all subcultures, it reflects a lifestyle and not a site of political collectivity and agency that might have the power to alter social realities. Namely, as much as Birmingham School cultural studies critics romanticized youth subculture formed around music as an expression of a self-determined agency and resistance to an officially sanctioned mainstream culture--I think here of Dick Hebdige's 1970 Subcultures, where he identifies a subversive punk and ska youth subculture by deciphering its participant's appropriation and recycling of sartorial wear, body postures, argot speech systems, and hair style--music and its ancillary lifestyles is only ever about the escape into and utter consumption of capitalist mass culture.
This does not mean that Nortec's reliance on technologies of capitalism is less resistant than other music subculture forms. This would assume that other music scenes and subcultures are more authentic ways of producing agency and the "real" transgression of social and racial hegemonic structures. For example, Paul Gilroy falls into this trap, celebrating certain musicscapes as expressions of a resistant, de-essentializing Black Atlantic diasporic culture--reggae, r n' b, rap, among others--and denigrating others, such as techno, as musicscapes that have lost their "ethical flavour" and that are therefore void of any socio-political interventionist possibility. For Gilroy, techno is simply another example of a hollowed out capitalist world where simulation and spectacle predominate. ("Analogues of Mourning, Mourning the Analog" 262). Of course, not only does Gilroy (counter-intuitively) continue to participate in an authentic/inauthentic paradigm, but he wrongfully invests musicscapes with the power to be inside or outside capitalist production and consumption. Musicians and producers of music want to sell their music; they want people to listen to their music. Talvin Singh samples Bhangra beats in his Indian-brand of techno/trance just as much as Chuck D raps a "fight the power" lyric to identify a black mood. Both dress up their own cultures to sell CDs. That's why all popular soundscapes--rap, r n' b, soul, trance/techno, rock, and so on--employ "hooks" in their songs/tracks to imprint through repetition (beat/lyric/rhythm) in the listener's mind for commercial purposes. Theories of the authentic fail to see music as fundamentally an object that circulates in and through circuits of consumption and pleasure.
Music as Culture and Not Language
Nortec--and music generally--cannot act as political intervention. Every aspect of its form is caught up within capitalism. And, as has been shown, even to say that it uses the technologies of capitalism to circulate resistant and subversive messages is utopian fantasy. However, Nortec--and music generally--is a part of our culture. Why, then, can it not be theorized as an oppositional site of resistance to a dominant culture? To answer this, one must first ask, What is culture? Is it the meaning generated in and around certain objects--art, music, food, fashion, language, literacy education, for example--that allow people to collectively determine group identity and collectively define group experience? Raymond Williams describes culture as " a particular way of life' (12), whereby "music, literature, painting and sculpture, theatre and film" (90) that reflect "a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development [. . .] applied and effectively transferred to the works and practices which represent and sustain it" (90-91). In sum: Williams captures in his definition several aspects of culture, but does not cast his net wide enough. According to this restricted definition, culture is the means through which groups of people infuse meaning into their everyday social existence--and especially so for people who are increasingly alienated within a global capitalist governed world. In such a world, stripped down Nortec is essentially a musicscape that becomes a part of the U.S/Mexico cultural landscape simply in its providing an object for people to gravitate around and interact with in the production, distribution, and social consumption of its soundscapes. In this case, then, Nortec and all cultural artifacts exist as products of capitalism and consumption. And, while Nortec is hybrid, to identify it as representative of a subculture is to confuse the historical fact that all modern culture is a product of cross-cultural encounters; it is to ignore the basic fact of human history that culture is the result of hybrid cross-pollinations--with music as only a small by-product of this process.
Music is a part of our culture and as such is a way to make meaning out of reality, but it is not necessary in the same way that language is necessary or that eating and drinking are necessary for our survival. Namely, the human race has survived and evolved not because of the systematic patterning of noise into music, but because of the development of techniques for building shelters, for ensuring food supplies, and for creating sophisticated sign systems for communication. For those cultural studies critics that consider that music has an interventionist force, music has the same ontological weight as language, and this is what allows it to alter reality. Thus, music is formulated as a speech-act with the power either to resist and/or uncritically reproduce dominant capitalist hegemonic structures. In this spirit, Richard Middleton theorizes music as carrying the same linguistic properties--what he identities as a "generative-transformational grammar"--as language. This allows Middleton to ask, for example, "What exactly is this text? Where is it located? What kind of things does it do?" (Reading Pop 2). After proposing that "both language and music originate in broader processes of semiosis" (11) and that because both are semiotic constructs that evolved through a "never-ending, historically contingent" intertextual exchanges, they both operate "between utterances, texts, styles, genres, and social groups" (13). For Middleton, then, if musicscapes are the same as linguistic systems and reflect social groups, then any music that crosses genres is not only, as he writes, "multiply voiced" (13), but can be likened to the destabilizing of otherwise segregated social groups (racial, sexual, gender identified). A further instance of this way of thinking is Philip Togg who reads sounds in music as signifiers and signifieds to establish a formal relationship between humanly organized non-verbal sound structures and listeners and who identifies a reader-response like method of analyzing how different groups decode the communicated messages, or what he calls a "museme"--a minimal unit of expression that covers over ideologically and manipulates its listeners ("Analyzing Popular Music: Theory, Method, Practice" 94). Also, in his essay "Reflection of a Disappointed Popular Music Scholar", Lawrence Grossberg theorizes music as a Foucaultian "discursive apparatus" that can critically engage with, as he writes, "the apparatuses of power that mobilize different practices and effects to organize the spaces of human life and the possibilities of alliances" (27); music as text--and by extension the world as text--then allows Grossberg to posit it as a way to engage with today's "new and urgent political struggles"(30). In their confusion of music with text (spinning out of Derrida's and Foucault's 'textual' view of culture and reality), Togg, Middleton, and others can then proceed to locate a politics of resistance--an intervention into discursively constructed ideologies--in a music (or anything) as a "pluricultural" (cf. Roberta Fernandez) text.
Middleton, Togg, Grossberg, Kun, Lopez, and Esteban Muñoz, to name a few, assume much when they theorize music-as-text. Namely, they take up from Derrida's distortion of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic definition of the sign. Saussure's characterization of the sign showed that it is a construct of two inseparable phenomena: the "signifier" (or acoustic image or phoneme) that identifies those sounds that are different to the sounds recognized as noise within language and the "signified" (or the "mental image") that identifies how the speaker of such and such a language categorizes an aspect of reality in the particular way of that language. Here de Saussure clarifies also on his idea of the "arbitrariness" of the sign, remarking that it is not as indeterminate and the choice entirely of the speaker, for the speaker does not "have the power to change a sign in any way once it has been established in the linguistic community" (68). He continues, "the arbitrary nature of the sign explains in turn why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system. The community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself, the individual is incapable of fixing a single value" (69). The meaning of a given word is not arbitrary, but rather defined within a system of terms; for if there is not system, there is no communication. Meaning in language is thus a complex operation of a sign as an inseparable signifier/signified unit used in a specific community of language participants. Linguistic sounds (phonemes) are recognized as belonging to either language A, B, or C (German, Spanish, English) by speakers of such languages. Those sounds (de Saussure's signifiers) are a physical phenomena (vibrations of waves in air) that produce an "acoustic image" in the mind of the hearer and, I remind, are inseparable from notions formed in the mind of such a hearer at the moment that he/she transforms sounds (vibrations, etc.) into concept (de Saussure's signified). This sign is unity of signifier and signified--physical and mental phenomena--these two elements are as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper. You might be able to tear the paper apart, but you cannot eliminate the fact that it has a front an d a back. To speak of a "signifier" as separate from a "signified" is thus, strictly speaking, nonsense.
When critics such as Middleton, Togg, Grossberg, Kun, Lopez, and Esteban Muñoz, theorize music-as-text by way of a Derridean difference (cf. Positions), they mis-read Saussure's theory of the sign as the inseparable 'acoustic' image with its concept, confusing the signified with the referent, or the "out there". These theorists, like Derrida and even Roland Barthes before him, mistake the signifier for the "word" and the signified for "referent". Such a muddling of de Saussure's formulation allows critics such as Middleton, Togg, Grossberg, Kun, Lopez, and Esteban Muñoz, to wrongfully theorize music as textual construct and to read music as text-act that performs between the lines of capitalist and/or colonial language paradigms. From every point of view, whether social, psychological, anthropological, linguistic or ontological, music and literature are two entirely different entities. Where literature's raw material is a complex language system, music's prime matter is simply noise submitted to certain patterns of regularity and differentiation. So, to conflate music with literature and therefore language is not only a category mistake, but also a utopic, unrealizable aspiration.
Can Music Matter?
What is the value of analyzing Nortec or any musico-aesthetic form, then? If music is not to be read as a text-as-world discursive act with the power to alter and/or reflect reality, then what is its function? Why "read" music? We analyze music not because we are deluded into thinking that it holds the promise to revolutionize the world, but because of an interest in understanding the neural/emotive response mechanisms to sounds and a concern for the development of a vocabulary (genres, rhythmic structures, macro and micro tonal patterns, and so on) for appreciating music consciously. As Christopher New clarifies,
Musical notation has no other function than to represent sounds, or qualities of and relations between sounds, whereas the written sentences of literature that require to be read or spoke aloud (and, of course written sentences in general) standardly have the additional quality of being meaningful--a quality they possess whether they are read in silence or aloud. The reading of a musical score is in this sense a merely auditory affair--we either imagine the sounds represented in it, or directly produce them--while the reading of a literary or an other written work is not. Music [. . .] does not have a semantic dimension in the way that literature does. (7-8)
So, although we might employ linguistic metaphors for "reading" music, these are useful analogues and not to be confused with the actual grammars and syntax that govern language. So, when one describes music one can use literary metaphors--identifying, for example how an Alanis Morissete lyric is "hymn-like" or how Nirvana employs the ballad. And one can talk about a poem being musical and discuss the musical rhythms in poetry. However, this is always figurative and never literal.
Meaning in music relies on recognizing and/or physiologically responding to such patterns of repetition and difference as shaped by sonic themes and clusters. This meaning exists at the somatic and emotive level. (Without the recognition of difference, music's finite sound patterns would pass unnoticed and therefore would be unable to move its listener.) So that when we hear a musical sound, a Nortec beat, say, these are a series of vibrations that pass through the air and hit the ear that then triggers a neural response. Sound meaning, then, is a completely physical phenomena, and not a sign in the Sausurrian sense with signifier and signified. The musical sound is devoid of all meaning.
The Nortec DJ--or any musician for that matter--creates shapes and forms with sounds; his raw resources are sounds either as noise or as recognizable music that vibrate through the air and trigger a physiological response. The only difference between the use of noise and music is the value we attribute to the different sounds: whether the accident of noise or the deliberate sound of music. So a musician or DJ can create patterns of repetition and difference by alternating the musicscape identity by putting notes together in certain ways. These same notes can sound differently when other notes are introduced and new clustered patterns mixed.
Music is not a language and, therefore cannot communicate or transmit meaning, but it is not meaningless. Certainly, music with its different patterns and rhythms has been useful--it can help change moods and increase physical resistance when doing work, but it does not play the role in society language plays. So, even though music is not essential for the survival of human beings, as language is, the fact remains that people have been producing music for thousands of years and continue to do so today. Why? Creating and listening to sounds based on pitch and rhythm and other patterns may affect the brain in specific ways that bring pleasure or simply content, like in the case of the heartbeat in the womb; or it can produce hypnotic effects that enable us to withstand pain, for example. Song and rhythms have always been important for the survival of enslaved people while they work, helping their bodies to sustain huge physical demands. In other words, the only thing musicscapes can ever offer are sound patterns that help sustain "real" people, who use "real" language systems and who by this means communicate "real" needs, such as food, education, and medical assistance.
Village Voice reporter Enrique Lavin celebrates Nortec as a musicscape that radically revises the tourist's preconception of Tijuana, celebrating its "cuts and pastes" of an environment filled with, he writes, "la migra, prostitutes, the assembly-line tech industry, FBI "Wanted" posters of the Arellano brothers drug bosses" (April 11-17, 2001). And Mike Davis writes more generally that "Tijuaneses are consummate bricoleurs who have built a culturally vibrant metropolis from the bottom up, largely using recycled materials from the other side of the border" (Magical Urbanism 26). Given the absolute poverty that most of the 1.3 million people (Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, Ecuadorians and indigenous Zapotecs, Yaquís, Kanjobals, Mixtecs, etc.) that line the Tijuana side of the border face daily, this is most likely a terrible mis-reading of borderland culture and subjectivity.
It is with this in mind that I chose theorize Nortec against the scholarly tide. As Lawrence Grossberg appropriately announces, "Every once in a while people invested in a particular body of scholarly work should take stock. They should stop and ask themselves what they have accomplished and what they failed to accomplish" ("Reflection of a Disappointed Popular Music Scholar" 25). In this case, theorists of music might be mindful of the distinction between music, language, and material reality. Often the counter-hegemonic methodologies theorized by postcolonial and cultural studies critics differ from the methods used to accomplish social change in reality. Certainly, a shared history of colonialism and capital globalization increasingly equates experiences of marginal groups in Los Angeles to those of marginal groups in the San Ysidro/Tijuana borderland. And U.S. ethnic scholars see a similarly North/South American fusion when identifying cultural borderlands. However, this theorizing of a borderless world out there is a problematic abstraction. The destruction of nation-states such as Yugoslavia has given way to mass-murder of entire populations, and to barbarism. Beyond Europe, is a whole continent--Africa--that is being destroyed by the assaults against the nation-states. And when theories such as those of transfrontera "rhythmic cartographies" and resistant musico-aesthetic epistemologies circulate outside the academy, they risk being used to primitivize and then justify the exploitation and/or genocide of subaltern peoples.
Finally, then, we need to be mindful of the difference between theories of "audiotopias" and transfrontera "rhythmic cartographies" that celebrate hybridity and borderless worlds, and the often less emancipatory reality of living within a material, borderland reality. It's difficult to reconcile the theory with the reality. Lastly, it is difficult to see how a musicscape acts as a postnational, "inter-American cultural formation" (cf. Kun) that reterritorializes traditionally conquered racial and cultural hybrid subjects, when media broadcasts news of rapes and murders of women who never return home from their three-dollar-a-day shift at the maquiladora. (Sam Dillon, 1).
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