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Music can Rock, just not the World
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 celebraed 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 that 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 Milosovic. In a post-Balkan war, shredded up Serbia, "EXIT 2002" claimed to unite and renew respect between young Serbians, Bosnians, and Croats.
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 of 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 (paid for by foreign, corporate, and U.S. tax-dollar money in the name of International Development) the only sense of multi-ethnic community building present was in the rah-rah moments crystallized as pop fandom. 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 took place in the center of global capitalism--the U.S. The same month that "EXIT 2002" unfolded in Novi Sad, four hundred-plus twenty- and thirty-something African American professionals lounged on blankets and lawn chairs while listening to, among others, 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 once they toweled down after some r 'n r in one of AshantiLands's many jacuzzis.
Of course, Kwab Asamoah's "Blackstock" was meant to rif 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 were musicfests that 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 mind-altering drugs. As Woodstock 1999 turned into a frat party replete with drugs, alcohol, and violent misogynistic acts, big money clicked back and forth between sponsors like Pepsi, pay-t.v. CFOs, and organizers like a ticker-tape measuring money-market returns. The festival was so successful in corporate America's eyes--they overlooked the rioting, looting, and raping of women--t.v.-cable network owner and financier of the '99 musicfest, Alan Gerry, has decided to pump $40 million into developing the Woodstock site (with the help of $15 million of tax-paid dollars pledged by the state of New York) into a Disneyfied music/cultural center. It seems that the kickbacks Mr. Geary pocketed from the three-CD, Woodstock '99 compilation that hit record stores and the massive revenues generated from the sixty-five hours of pay-per-view coverage might have dried up, 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, '94, and '99) 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. However, to greater or lesser degrees all these musicfests offer only temporary economic solutions to a very localized population of people. All of these musicfests to greater or lesser degrees of explicitness sell tickets for its 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 example, for $1,500 Yves Saint Laurent's designer line (made famous for is 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 in the air that rich urbanites breath, these same Looks can be purchased for less in shopping malls favorites like Gap and Banana Republic.
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 cultural studies department argue differently.
Cultural Studies scholar, Paul Gilroy, lamented the closing shop on University of Birmingham's cultural studies department. He lamented the shutting down of what has been a center for a New Leftist scholarship since 1964 and that created a legacy of thinkers such as Ian Chambers, Graham Turner, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Raymond Williams. Much of this scholarship from Hebdige's punk subculture to Gilroy's black Atlantic rap and r 'n b 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--exist within a dominant consumption/production capitalist paradigm.
No musicfest or youth sub-culture 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 their music. 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 re-vitalize an 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 when they feed into globally organized lumpenproletariat underworlds that exercise power to ensure profits 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 here 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 of the increased manipulation of education by the British government to deny its citizens equal access to education. He also speaks to the material effect it will have on its 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
destablize a "real" colonial/capitalist-national power structure. In the case
of the music festivals in the Balkans or Baltic states, for example, 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 the
spreading of drugs and cynicism among the disenfranchised, to turn them away from
real politics and any real attempt to organize in the hundreds of thousands and
to fight for certain basic democratic rights such as equal access to education
and the right to representation for all.