Reality — and by the same token consciousness — is molded by conquerors: those who win wars, influence policy, and impose themselves on others. Yet for many, it is incredibly hard to analyze colonialism on an ideological level, to look beyond the slavery and the wooden boats, the muskets and the swords that once made imperialism possible. Thinking abstractly about this issue is critical however, because modern imperialism no longer represents the physical nature of the past (no more horses and Spanish conquistadors); instead it is more subtle and nuanced — and in many cases almost indiscernible — influencing almost everything we value. From capitalism to corporate sponsorship, filmmaking to higher education, “consumerism to the fetishism of stars and fashions” we are often unaware of the developed world’s omnipresence. But a more aggressive expansion unfolds particularly in the musical sphere, where I will argue that Western transnational record companies have coined the term “World Music” as a divisive weapon and misconstrued the authenticity of non-Western cultures, perverting and colonizing the music produced by the developing world.
In fact, just a single stroll through the average music store highlights the prominence of Western imperialism in this domain: huge, unapologetic signs labeled “World Music” are usually erected in some dark corner of the store to make clear the notion of otherness, to tribalize music into the us and them. Simply put, it is a political weapon to differentiate between the clearly defined, sophisticated genres of the West, and the moshpit of whateverness that is “World Music,” music by foreigners and brown people: “music of others, people who are not modern, not white, not us.” But it also highlights that the Western world has been able to, without justification, police the qualities of audible noise itself, sweeping under the rug any genres that fail to conform to its guidelines. In essence, it has brandished itself as Western precisely because it has been able to distinguish itself from the rest, to characterize others as savage and uncivilized, and to then compare itself with that prejudiced view. Moreover, the power to define what is Western and what is “World Music,” what is African and what is Chinese, what constitutes Jamaican Dub or Persian Folk, raises concerns about the influence of linguistic determinism, the idea that the way societies think and operate is based on the words of their language — that distorting the very definitions of musical genres and phrases implicitly warps the cultural perceptions of people in developing nations.
And this damning manifestation of expansionism brings to the limelight an array of loaded issues about musical authenticity, because if the West can define what “World Music” is, it can also weigh whether certain works fit that description. Pair that with the fact that defining authenticity is problematic in and of itself because traditions themselves are not static, and the flaws of this outlook begin to emerge. But even so, as Byrne points out in Crossing Music’s Borders: ‘I Hate World Music, there is this irrational need by Western countries to feel like they’re “getting the real deal,” to be certain that rappers are from the streets, that Asian performers are tranquil, and that African artists are dressed in traditional garbs. God forbid they dress like us, walk and talk like us, “because then we assume that their music is calculated, marketed, impure,” and that their complex musical perspectives actually deserve distinction. Yet according to Byrne, as he points to an alt-Japanese salsa orchestra’s utter domination of the U.S. music charts, no party should “make rules about who can make a specific style of music,” since the perceptions surrounding authenticity should not impede on discussions about its quality and artistic value. Yet unfortunately, even Byrne does not see that the biggest problem of the authenticity fiasco is not the fact that many of those still invested have grown up in a world embedded with presumption; the biggest problem is not even that some proponents use these rules as a guise for stamping out certain populations with the label of outsider.
Instead the most extensive issue is that the West has taken it upon itself to determine the authenticity of foreign music, a positive feedback loop that morphs false expectations into reality. This is because Western consumers only buy the music they believe is authentic (however unfounded), and their economic purchasing power entices foreign musicians to adjust to and appease Western tastes, by extension shifting from the actual ethnic music they once played to its newly normalized Western interpretation. Since these artists are faced with a slew of cultural expectations, they are unable to transnationally collaborate or spread their personal styles, advancing the narrative that music — or rather the developing world’s music — should be stagnant rather than a constantly evolving art form. On these grounds, defining musical “authenticity” runs contrary to its own purpose but instead serves as a mechanism for cultural imperialism, because any entity with the power to define what music is, weigh cultural validity, and economically enforce its preferences, owns the musical infrastructure entirely.
Nevertheless, the extent of cultural expansionism is not confined to record stores and musical verbatim. Instead these examples parallel the way in which West-based radio and record companies actually operate in the real world, exploiting cultural resources, “…stifling competition in their domains…and [following] the general pattern of monopoly capitalization domination of the developing world.” Even so, Bohlman argues in his World Music: A Very Short Introduction, that this influence has actually enriched the music of the developing world, that transnational companies have “exerted a profound effect on the diversity that [nourishes] a city’s musical life.” But he fails to realize that no matter how favorable the outcomes of musical colonialism are, the means do not justify the ends since any effect at all has distorted the natural metamorphosis of ethnic music, that “good” or “bad” imperialism is still imperialism all the same.
There is also a case to be made that rather than catalyze diversity, Western influence actually homogenizes the music of the developing world. And while according to Manuel in Popular Music: World Popular Music, Western technologies like cassettes, compact discs, and recordings have “increased the availability and dissemination of music to the average listener,” it is important to realize both the underrepresentation of ethnic music in the records produced by transnational companies, and that technology has a potential use for colonialism through promoting popular Western music only. For instance Romania’s street music, which percolates into shopping centers, subways and bus stations, “rarely belongs to the streets…but instead is more often imported into the city.” Even Iran, a country fervently opposed to Western authority, has seen its long-held, culture-defining music displaced by a radical shift toward U.S. based trends. While the aforementioned countries — and others just like them — should theoretically have become more diverse by being exposed to Western music, their own long-established industries instead became homogenized to fit the standards imposed by transnational record companies. Moreover, this outcome proves that any pursuit of musical authenticity is futile, because the very traditions themselves of the developing world are in flux, influenced by anything from geopolitics to public health. And as the West continues to encroach on the culture of the rest of the world, what is judged as authentic now “was probably some kind of bastard fusion a few years ago.”
Ultimately, from Manuel’s examples of the West’s firm grip on music at the international scale, to Byrne’s devastating critique on the pursuit of “authenticity”, to Bohlman’s case study on cultural exploitation by transnational record companies, it has become crystal clear that Western cultural imperialism through the avenue of music is as pervasive as it is damaging. These authorities have coined musical verbatim as a guise to stamp out certain populations with the label of outsider; they have distorted the way societies operate by stereotyping and standardizing entire populations; they have economically enforced their perceptions of the developing world and stagnated musical evolution in their domains; they have physically superimposed long-held traditions with imported music. And naturally, this unchecked influence of developed countries on those undeveloped, has several implications for the future. Do the issues discussed here have the potential to be used for the advancement of Western political agendas? Is musical authenticity a means by which xenophobic individuals can override Civil Rights by labeling certain racial groups as uncivilized or primitive? Can something as seemingly harmless as music be weaponized for cultural warfare? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, the West’s conquering of the physical world has not quenched its thirst for control; instead, it has now turned its attention to music and culture, reality and consciousness, monopolizing almost every facet of popular music production both at home and abroad.
The West is now after reality itself, and it doesn’t look good for the Third World.