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[whitespace] Manu Chao Manu Chao doesn't get the MTV treatment.

Rockin' the Free World

Everyone loves American music, but when do we get to hear the best of the rest of the world?

By Gina Arnold

ACCORDING TO AN EMAIL notice from United Airlines, it only costs $286 to fly to Europe round-trip this week, less than the tab for a nice meal for four at Stars or a large bureau at IKEA. That kind of offer would have been tempting once upon a time but has become less so since viewing the MTV-Europe Music Awards last week. I used to love the way that radio and rock were different on other continents--it was part of what made traveling fun. But this year's big winner at MTV-Europe was none other than Limp Bizkit, with Blink 182, Eminem and Jennifer Lopez bringing home most of the other honors.

Well, need I say more? I think so. After all, the globalization of culture is one of the main reasons for the conflict in Afghanistan--the Taliban and its Islamic supporters don't like it. And there are few places where global culture can be tracked better than on MTV. Far be it from me to say that the fundamentalists are right about something, but pop culture, like language, really is a virus--and one that is spreading a lot faster than anthrax.

Only five years ago, while in Paris with a friend, I spent a perfectly enjoyable rainy evening indoors in the hotel, watching videos of terrible French rap acts and German metal bands, which were, to our eyes, ridiculously quaint. There was a German song called "All Men Are Pigs," in which the chorus kept repeating the words "Fleisch! Fleisch!" that we found particularly hilarious. We laughed, but we liked it, just as we liked French "ye ye" pop and German experimental music, and even the silly Spanish songs they play on KSOL-FM: "Acompaname," "Aqui Estoy Yo," "El Segreto de Amor," etc.

Indeed, that is one of the great things about the very premise of rock & roll: It can incorporate the idiosyncrasies of the language and rhythm of other places, while still remaining essentially itself. It was always fun watching foreigners mimic American musical idioms--to wit, Abba--but nowadays, apparently, they just copy our most vile acts and be done with, and I think that's sad. Last spring, I was in Asia, where I heard loads of bad Thai and Japanese pop--mostly of the EZ-listening boy-band variety, except it was sung in Thai and Japanese. Vernacular foreign pop does exist, even if it's not an authentic expression of those cultures. But a look at the MTV-Asia website is a different, more depressing, matter altogether. They talk big about Malaysian, Korean and Filipino acts, but the top video clips there are by Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado and Linkin Park. Here on American MTV, ethnic diversity merely means that Madonna is wearing a sarong this month or that Bon Jovi is big in Taiwan.

Sure, the kids in Asia, Africa and Europe seem to like our music (or our midriffs) better than their own, but maybe we'd like theirs if we were given a chance. MTV doesn't even attempt to play clips of Manu Chao, Bebel Gilberto, Shakira, Haze, Click B. MTV mirrors the real world, and it's not just music that has been usurped by American values, it's everything: TV, movies, food, even the cartoon-character patterns printed on children's sleepers. There are Gaps on the main streets of every country I've been to (except Tunisia and Turkey) and worse.

And yet most of this development is relatively recent, a sidelight of the advent of cable and cellular and modems and ATM machines. Not that long ago, it was possible to travel in Europe when few people owned washing machines and the TV was only programmed for the evening hours. Now in England, the top-rated shows are The Simpsons and Frasier. Of course there's a good side to everything: consider the way the Russians embraced the Beatles and how the Iranians, apparently, love Metallica. But no one can deny that, commercially speaking, going to Europe, and even Asia, is like going to the Mall of America, and even people who aren't fans of unadulterated foreign items, like Guatamalan print fabric and cheap Chinese slippers, can't help but feel a bit nonplussed.

It's true that America is more free, more welcoming to other cultures, than anywhere else on earth. But instead of celebrating those cultures, we tend to pulverize them. As has been often stated, America is a melting pot. Unfortunately, the melting pot is full of mush, the aesthetic equivalent of the orange goop they put on ballpark nachos. Many people like the taste of those, too, but I think we all agree they're not of lasting value.

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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