White Man in the Global Palais:
Reporting Live from Internet Border Communities
At the opening of this decade, when I was sixteen years old, I had two records firmly picked out as my most anticipated releases of the young aughts. One was Reflector, the debut album by the pop-rock quartet Killing Heidi, who came from the tiny burg of Violet Town in the Australian state of Victoria. The other was a more local act: Lo-Tel, who resided in Sydney, a mere two hours drive down the highway from my Newcastle home.
Neither record disappointed, though today I’d recommend focusing your intention on the enduring singles from each: Killing Heidi’s Kelly Clarkson-anticipating “Mascara” and Lo-Tel’s new-wave, pop-grunge mood piece “Genre Casting.” But what seems so unusual — so thoroughly parochial — to me now is how local my concerns were. Not that we here in Australia are incapable of making great records; in 2000, sample-happy dance technicians The Avalanches would go on to release one of the decade’s best, and after a little more time with it, I may be willing to say the same of An Horse’s compact indie-pop debut Rearrange Beds. But between then and now I’ve enriched my palette, partly through the same international explorations undertaken by waves of twenty-somethings in decades previous, but also in ways completely unique to this time.
In the early months of 2000, pop music could still roughly be divided into two forms. There was the mainstream: the tunes you’d hear on the radio and see played on TV, that were aired in commercials and included in movie soundtracks, that you could bop to at high school dances and mention to just about anyone and be sure they would know what you were talking about. Killing Heidi and Lo-Tel were examples of these, and in Australia the mainstream was a mix of local stars and chunks of the British and American charts. Then there was "alternative" music, rapidly being rebranded as indie: the songs you’d read about in street press magazines and discuss with like-minded friends. Perhaps you’d even see these bands at a small show or hear them on niche-targeted, non-commercial radio stations.
But then, catalyzed by the revolutionary distributive qualities of services like Napster and Audiogalaxy but actually created by blogs and message boards and online music publications like Stylus, a third category threatened to be even bigger. This was music that you didn’t usually share with other people because you couldn’t, not in person anyway. It came from far away, and its creators almost never had the kind of audience in Australia that would allow them to tour our small, distant market. I couldn’t talk about it with people around me as I did mainstream music; these records weren’t initially sold in Australia, and so they weren’t on the radio.
This new wave was the genuine innovation of the young decade, not the New Rock or other such fast-burning movements. It was Internet music: music recorded by real people in the real world and listened to through real stereos, but otherwise existing entirely online. We enthused about it through broadband connections and were introduced to it through emails and chats from friends more readily remembered by their screen than their government name.
By not existing within a border, Internet music seemed like it occupied the entire world. Not to get all Tom Friedman on you, but suddenly pop music from anyone, anywhere could seep out the computer speakers into my little Australian world. Brazilian baile funk and Jamaican dancehall and South London grime and Swedish pop and Puerto Rican reggaetón and Indian banghra and Trinidadian soca and Italian disco, splayed out across my iPod like a pan-global smorgasbord. And not just exotic Third World sounds, but also music that went multi-platinum in other parts of the globe but was even more unknown to the people around me than the experimental underground acts that critics had lionized forever. Crunk, for instance, eventually broke into the Australian mainstream, but I spent a lot of time reading of a far-off and fantastical Atlanta where this cold, violent, and austere sound was actually popular before I met anyone else who had heard of Lil’ Jon.
We get so much American music here in the rest of the world that we forget that entire genres of American music barely permeate our consciousness; it belongs to them, not us. Corny country singers and snappin’, jerkin’, hyphyin’, chicken-noodle-soupin’ black kids; New York icons like Dipset and New Orleans aliens beaming mixtape transmissions like Lil’ Wayne; and genuine celebrities like T.I., whose mega-hit “What You Know” only existed as an Internet record for me because, down here, King arrived in stores months after its American release. In the early ‘00s, even emo and indie rock seemed a peculiar, exotic creation of American collegiate culture, as removed from my own experience as any other world music. But through the wonder of copper wire and optical fiber, any mainstream was my mainstream. Any scene was my scene. We lived on the Internet now.
This spirit infused stuff that wasn’t even Internet music. Timbaland fell in love with Indian rhythms and rappers swiped dancehall cadences. African artists like K’Naan and Akon came to North America and released Western music, while Vampire Weekend grabbed Afro-pop rhythms for their indie pop tunes, subsequently taken back by Malawian Londoner Esau Mwamwaya. Jay-Z turned Panjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” into a worldwide hit and used it to protest the invasion of Iraq. Maori rappers showed up on my TV, and, when I downloaded M.I.A.’s Kala I found a new version of a song by some Koori kids from out Wilcannia that had already been a novelty hit here. And back in Internetland, the online émigrés watched as the digital Nisei created a wave of sounds that existed within Mediafire links on Wordpress posts: blog house, MySpace Teenpop, mashup, shitgaze, glo-fi, and — whether Uffie or the Cool Kids — a deluge of hipster rap.
None of us live in Internetland; we only visit for a shop and a chat. We live in real cities in real communities, just as we did in 1999. So if you live in Los Angeles and frequent The Smell, No Age is going to be something very different for you than it is for me. And though people from all over Internetland enjoy records by antipodeans like Cut Copy, Van She and Ladyhawke, they won’t sound for these acts as I do when I hear them wafting through the supermarket or out of my car radio. The difference between Internet music and real-life music manifested itself most obviously for me in 2004 when the Houston rap scene was taking over the American mainstream. I was in the States at the time, and I experienced “Still Tippin’” and its wake through the real life media of BET videos and billboards. The H-Town sound was part of the musical landscape there, and I could be reasonably assured that rap fans around me were encountering this music and experiencing it in much the same way I was. But when I returned home, the reality of Texas rap dissolved, and suddenly I found this new sound and its new stars only when sandwiched between Lolcats and Facebook status updates. Once I left the music’s geographic base, my experience transformed it into one more cultural product of Internetland.
If one artist straddled these contradictions and embraced the confusion, it was English art student Maya Arulpragasam — or rather, Sri Lankan refugee and Tamil Tiger-progeny M.I.A. She captured the attention of the blogosphere back in 2004 with some great singles and Piracy Funds Terrorism, her excellent mixtape collaboration with crate-digging Philadelphian Diplo. M.I.A. and Diplo were a good fit; they shared a savvy for self-promotion, a magpie’s approach to genre, and a fondness for sampling and cheap electronics. They scoured the globe to combine Western musics with South Asian and South American beats, dropping multinational brand names between dancehall-derived gunshot punctuations and African-Americans rapping about violence and crack-slanging.
M.I.A. said on her second album, Kala that she was “put[ting] people on the map that never seen a map,” but her music was never really about the Third World; like all the music in Internetland, it was about the First World. Us comfortable Westerners, in M.I.A.’s vision, were intrigued but threatened by the developing world, even while we sent them our brand names and weaponry, which they repaid to us with immigrants and asylum seekers. The construction relies on Westerners collapsing the Third World into an amorphous “other,” and Arulpragasam’s trick is to not disabuse us of the notion, but to appropriate it as a source of authenticity for her own work. It was exciting, inventive stuff, made of clattering rhythms and odd, recycled sounds jammed haphazardly together, but it demanded that its audience retain the ignorance its creator believed us to possess. Her sleight-of-hand assumes we think the lives of poverty-stricken Africans, Sri Lankan refugees, Brazilian favela-dwellers, rural Aboriginal-Australians and poor urban Americans are similar because they are not like ours. Knowing that these are all distinct cultural entities with no real similarity other than a general lack of access to a McMansion in the suburbs and a new SUV every couple of years makes the charade fall apart and removes any ability to read M.I.A.’s music — or the disparate source material from which she constructs it.
Is it any wonder that in their grand tour of global sounds, artists like M.I.A. and Diplo favor the same features that Princeton academic Imani Perry said made rap seductive to white America: hardness, deviance, and otherness? Sweet-sounding, optimistic foreign musics held little attraction to M.I.A.; with her militant imagery and ambivalent relationship to capitalism, M.I.A. created records reinforcing Western fears that the global south was dangerous, threatening, and getting ready to come get us.
This was the failure of Internetland’s capacity to make the musical globe genuinely borderless. Even when the online musical landscape seemed to be concerned about the Third World, we in the First World were really in control. The citizens of London and Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Virginia curated our entrée into the great musical other. We could hear a mixtape from Malawi and a singer from Senegal with much greater ease than in decades previous, and even, with a bit of help, examine their musical output without ever leaving our bedrooms, but we still relied on American labels and British curators to point the way.
M.I.A.’s real shift from Internetland to the mainstream occurred when her song “Paper Planes” became a worldwide hit. It was built around a sample of a song written by her fellow countrymen The Clash, a group that shared her fondness for pop internationalism. While we in the ‘00s have an easier time of tracking down those strange sounds from distant lands than Joe Strummer did, we still require the same gatekeepers and facilitators to direct us. No, the Internet hasn’t erased our musical borders, but in the ‘00s, it became just a little easier for those of us looking for some fun to find something other than the Four Tops all night.
– Jonathan Bradley