Taboo!

Phil Ford

I was on vacation last week (hence my spotty posting to Dial M) but went back to school yesterday — time to get my courses in order for the fall. I stopped by the mailroom and was greeted by our ebullient new mailroom person, Karen, who handed me a package I wasn't expecting. And . . . it's . . . my Representations article! Wheee! It's finally out! Look!

Repcover

My name on it and everything! And in rather august company. (The Representations website has a comprehensive list of past issues and authors.) Sorry, it's probably unbecoming to show too much enthusiasm for your own journal articles, but I'm proud of this one. If you're wondering what my article ("Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica") is about, here is the abstract:

In the 1950s, exotica was a genre of pop music that specialized in depicting imaginary exotic paradises and conventionalized natives. By the late 1960s, exotica pop had disappeared, but its tropes of temporal and spatial disjuncture persisted, structuring the music, visual art, and social theory of the utopian counterculture. While 1950s and 1960s kinds of exotica differ in their preferred imaginary destinations, both raise the question of what intermediate shades between belief and disbelief are demanded by aestheticized representations of human life. This essay theorizes exotica as a mode of representation governed by a peculiar mode of reception—one of willed credulity enabled by submission to its spectacle. What exotica demands is what intellectuals are least likely to give, though, and the peculiar pleasures of exotica spectacle are denigrated or rendered invisible in the hermeneutic regime.

And here is the article itself, free for all who might want to read it.

There seems to be something of a boom in what might be called exoticism studies in music at the moment. Ralph Locke in particular has a book called Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections coming out from Cambridge University Press, and I am keenly looking forward to reading it. I read his Journal of Musicology article "A Broader View of Musical Exoticism" only when my own article was in final proofs, so it doesn't show up in the notes, but Ralph's way of thinking about musical exoticism is very congenial to mine. In his gentlemanly and unassuming way, he revises much of the conventional understanding of musical exoticism by showing that exoticism doesn't happen only when the music sounds weird, alien, non-western, etc. Against this "exotic style only" paradigm he posits an “all the music in full context” paradigm, in which an audience's understanding of exoticism takes place within the music's larger narrative frame. Which is a much more satisfying way of dealing with the matter. In one part of my article I write about "Blue Jungle," from the Les Baxter album Jungle Jazz. The theme of this album is South America, as the liner notes tell us in the usual bombastic exotica-album style :

Les here ventures forth . . . this time on a musical exploration into the wilds of South and Central America. Here are the spectacular results. Here the timeless meets the modern in a breathtaking, pulsating whirl of sound. This is music of high adventure with a beat—exotically presented in a Baxter blend of ‘Jungle Jazz.’

And Jungle Jazz is adorned with a particularly, uh, problematic album cover:

Jungjazzlp

But the music itself
— particular "Blue Jungle" –  doesn't sound "South American." It sounds like cop show music, or what I call "jazz exotica." I have an article on jazz exotica just out in the Journal of Musicological Research (this has been an exotic year for me) where I define jazz exotica as "music that attempts to conjure filmic images of the urban demimonde perennially associated with jazz and the narrative subject that traverses it." Which is a highfalutin' way of saying that jazz exotica is not so much jazz as music whose topic is jazz. But what does that have to do with the guy on the album cover? In the "exotic style only" paradigm we wouldn't look at the album cover or liner notes, but would insist that whatever the album means is to be found in its musical style only. But popular music just doesn't work that way. You never pay attention to the music exclusively– otherwise it wouldn't matter if KISS performed in business suits or full kabuki drag. Likewise here: as I say in "Taboo," an exotica album "is a system of representations in which music plays the main but not exclusive role in creating an ethnographic fiction." And that "system of representations" is the music plus liner notes, cover art, and what academical types like to call the "discourse" (i.e., talk and hype) surrounding the album. And from that point of view, why yes, this is the music of the mysterious South American native folk! At least it pleases us to think so while we're listening to it. Or, as Heather Hadlock put it to me once, the audience is a participant in its own delusion. (Thanks Heather!)

Which reminds me: thank you, Ralph, for stepping in and writing for Dial M this summer. Those of you who aren't in the biz, this was a little like having Dr. J come and play a little one-on-one on your neighborhood blacktop.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Taboo!

  1. Glen says:

    Nice work Phil! I have downloaded the article and can’t wait to read and study it. Take plenty of time to celebrate — after all, if you don’t take pride and see value in your work, why bother doing it? This may not blow the lid off musicology, but it’s surely pushing us in a very positive and interesting direction and that’s not something every scholar can say of their own writing.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    ‘I define jazz exotica as “music that attempts to conjure filmic images of the urban demimonde perennially associated with jazz and the narrative subject that traverses it.”‘
    I suppose there’s something pejorative about all this, and it’s easy to see how something conforming to this definition could be horrible kitschy, but at the same time, this sounds like music I would like, though the *immediate* reference I have isn’t cop show music (at least, not going by the examples you posted when introducing the phrase “cop show”: I only watch Columbo), but something like Bohren und der Club of Gore—I see that someone on youtube agrees with me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJg_BzMBp4A even if it does appear that he had to artificially slow down the footage at points.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Nothing pejorative intended at all — I like this music too. It’s true that this kind of music (filmic whether or not it is attached to a film) does something we are inclined to think of as kitschy, but as I argue at the end of “Taboo,” that’s our damn problem. There’s something about exotica in general that’s both perennially in bad taste (taboo, at least for intellectuals) and wonderful — or at least resilient. I myself like it, although as with everything else you have to get down to individual cases. (Let’s face it, some of this music is not very good.) Robert Drasnin’s original “Voodoo!” is great, for instance — I’d recommend it as a first purchase.

  4. David Cavlovic says:

    BTW. Have you checked out the web site LP Cover Lover? Some great, and whacky, covers reproduced there. Of course, there are tonnes of Exotica covers. Check it out.

  5. Wow. This is sensational. Lots to discuss, my friend. Here are a few initial thoughts.
    There’s definitely a book in there. I can imagine something along the lines of Hoberman’s Dream Life—i.e. a reading of the world of politics/ideology/fashion/aesthetics by way of exemplary works in a given medium. It would also be fun to situate exotica more specifically in the various social spaces of music and vicarious transport—dance halls, music halls, cabarets, movie theatres, as well as the anti-social spaces of pulpy private fantasy—the space between the L and R headphone, as it were. Maybe a good PhD topic for one of your students? And it would be great to have a seminar based on an anthology of those 60s writers who were best at charting changing sensibilities, and seeing the value/complexity/seriousness of simple/stupid/‘guilty’ pleasure (McLuhan and Sontag, but also Pauline Kael, Smith on Maria Montez &c &c).
    And of course I’m going to insist that McLuhan is especially key to any further researches. Surely his distinction between ‘hot’ (hi-res, visual, spatially discrete) film and ‘cool’ (low-res, immediate, immersive, acoustic/tactile, participatory) TV goes a long way toward explaining the different kinds of viewers these respective media create—namely the difference between a centered 50s subject contemplating an externalized other (as in the cult of Maria Montez or more famous movie divas) and the kids of the “TV West” 50s who come of age in the 60s, as summed up in your quote on p. 126. I love the last line (“it is a put-on, and they know it”) indicating the knowingness that is central to secondary aurality. McLuhan loved to joke thta he was “putting-on” a live TV audience—wearing them like a costume, making them integral to the event. This is the undervalued McLuhan of the early 70s, when he’s formulating his book Cliché to Archetype, which shows how there is nothing wrong with formulaic repetition, and how yesterday’s pulp becomes tomorrow’s art. I confess I only know about the book from reading descriptions of it in his letters, so if you beat me to it let me know what you think. In the meantime, here a sample of his thinking from that period, from a letter he write to Edward T. Hall on Jan 21 1971:
    “On page 167 of ‘The Greening of America’ Charles Reich notes that ‘the medium is the message means that there is no content in any medium.’ This statement is one of the few useful remarks that has ever come to my attention about anything I have written. It enables me to see that the user of the electric light, or a hammer, or a language, or a book, is the content. As such, there is a total metamorphosis of the user by the interface. It is the metamorphosis that I consider the message.” [Letters of MM, ed Molinaro, 1987, p. 422]
    Like I say, lots to discuss!

  6. Lee says:

    Hey Phil. Great stuff. Can’t wait to read the full version of this argument, which I think you presented at the American Cultures Workshop at Stanford a few years back, if I remember correctly.

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