One thing I've learnt from feminism is that being a contrarian can sometimes be a good thing.
Last week, for instance, my daily newspaper published a strip of notoriously racist Norwegian goth comic Nemi, in which the lead character claims all male toddlers who get dressed in pink by their parents will turn out homosexual. (I can't find the strip on-line, unfortunately.) My immediate instinct was to rush out and tear down baby-blue children's wear off the shelves, dress my own future man-kids in the pinkest outfits I can find, and if they turn out gay then I'm going to be DAMN PROUD OF IT.
Childish, sure. But somehow I don't think that type of reaction to a social norm is wrong at all. Demonstratively rejecting the status quo is always a powerful statement. Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat in Montgomery, was a contrarian. It can expose the way the world works. Let women take as much room in a debate as men have always traditionally done and watch the hypocrisy on the faces of the patriarchal powerful. Contrarianism can bring out new perspectives you haven't thought of before, it can invigorate and kick-start discussions.
Heartfelt contrarianism, wanting to reject something you dislike or put it in perspective and thus (as a method) embracing its opposite, is way different from wilfully amoral trolling. I hope there's a little bit of this kind of contrarian in all of us.
Contrarianism is clearly present in music, too. Musicians are always out to embrace opposites, trying to find that extreme that no-one, so far, has liked.
I like to think there's a little bit of this kind of sentiment underlying the rejection of much of western musical theory that hip-hop stands for. Out of jazz's relative eurocentric sophistication funk, then hip-hop has removed thematic tranformation, cadences and chord sequences, a whole large part of structure... all changes that are antithetical to "taste" or the status quo's way of measuring quality. The simplest, most child-like hip-hop is then also the most sophisticated in its complete rejection of musical values and seriousness. Or one could embrace other concepts of complexity, contrary to the western tradition, like vocal equilibrism, polyrhythmicality, whatever. Am I wrong in thinking the classicist piano cadence at the beginning of A Milli represents what's left behind?
I think this is a possible reading of Wayne's big post on Orientalism in hip-hop as well. An analogy to the Romanian Roma in manele might be apt here - spurned by their European society they've taken to copying Asian music full scale, even going so far as being inspired by Thai lukthung in some of their tracks. (Discussion in comments thread here.) Could it be that the hip-hop producers' use of Indian music is similarly an attempt to turn their backs on the western tradition? Meanwhile their embrace of belly-dancing traditions could be, just as possibly, an attempt to foster a counter-Eurocentric bloc - we all like partying, and partying together, we reject your oppressive morality. And we reject the rockist/white supremacist/Orientalist notion that the ideal expression of black/Arabic music is an ancient, wise, wizened mississippi bluesman/sufi mystic.
Certainly a lot of us new-generation music bloggers can agree to the above statement, I think. As late as the eighties and nineties, a majority of white, well-off fans of of so-called "world music" and african-american music still believed in authenticity in the sense of rootsiness, ancient traditions, folk music. This seems to have been rejected pretty wholesale by the current generation (starting somewhere around here), who embrace modernity, fruity-loopsiness, hard-edged young styles. Contrarian? You bet. The constant search for new trends in this kind of music, often bemoaned, is probably closely connected to this - look, here are these kids in Angola who are not following the primitive norm they're expected to follow, aren't they breaking the pattern in a great way? (Novelty for a positive purpose, who'd have thunk? More on this below.)
Contrarianism also helps explain one aspect I've puzzled over in my own music blogging within the context of that new generation - why do I embrace communality so much in music, when I carefully cultivate my own individuality in appearance and opinions and refuse to join any subculture? I'm being contrarian! True individuality (i.e. not the market kind) involves going against the status quo, which in this case is the Romantic notion (thanks, Gavin) of the individual genius as the sole purveyor of creativity. I think this, too, is a significant reason why so many of us new-gen bloggers are stoked up about scenes and communities.
There's a danger, though, to this kind of wholesale embrace of a contrarian position. Aren't we building towards another cliché, set in stone? Isn't the little favela scene, creative in its poverty, itself an overused archetype of our western narrative? Aren't we just as sinful as the rockist roots people when we reject heavy metal Thai-Laotians off our list?
Unfortunately, I think this might be how the process works. In order to understand why this is so, I think we need to look at the logic of news journalism and what is probably one of contrarianism's less appealing characteristics.
As you may know, I work at a newspaper over the summer, as a subeditor, writing headlines and putting together pretty pages. I'm a journalist by training, and one of the first things we learn in that course is a fairly complex system of news evaluation and valuation, for deciding quickly on a daily basis what news are better and more relevant. Needless to say I use this system, or my honed instinct of how it works, every day when constructing pages.
And of course this news logic has built-in support for contrarianism. "Man Bites Dog" everyone has heard of as the ideal measure of a news story - the unexpected overturning of the normal way the world works. This kind of opposition is generally considered high-quality news, if not in the sharpest category then in the type of human-interest material that a regional newspaper like the one I work for fills most of its pages with. You can notice, over time, that it's these contrarian stories that the big national newspapers pick up from us: the ten-year-old kid who wrote to the prime minister and got a personally worded reply, the shop owner who found the person who vandalised his shop himself because the police were doing nothing.
On the other hand, daily news journalism relishes and revels in pre-made narrative clichés. (Bourdieu would agree.) The thing is, these supposedly "unexpected" stories are actually the most expected of all - their form is set right from the beginning. "Man Bites Dog" happens to be an extremely tired cliché, whatever its value in describing good news stories. All the veterans around me in the newsroom sighed when the story of the kid who wrote to the prime minister came up - apparently the same thing happens every other year or so, and the newspaper always reports about it. They know, by their own logic and by their own system, that it's always a good news story. Just like those kids in that favela with that pirated copy of fruity loops fits into our narrative, our worldview.
In this way, contrarianism can lead to conformity. (How Anton LaVey!) Perhaps blogging's relatively fast-moving world (compared to traditional academia and publishing) is destined to produce similar cookie-cutter stories out of the desire to be different? Certainly, while the younger, harder type of genre is still in a minority, every new one is still a news surprise... but even a cursory look at a blog like Museke shows how wide-spread the hip-hop oriented aethetic is becoming around the world. Are we helping to create cookie-cutter genres?
Music journalism has its share of seemingly contrarian, yet ultimately clichéd news stories. Hands up anyone who hasn't heard of Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson and his commercial pilot licence? Here we've got the classic contrarian news story (heavy metal singer taking on square, everyday job for fun) yet it's been told over and over again so many times that it's no longer remotely shocking. Still it sneaks in every time Bruce Dickinson is mentioned in the news. Because it's still a good story.
Last time I saw it was in conjunction with the fact that Dickinson was flying his own band around on their current world tour. You have to think of how such a decision came about. Sure, he could have elected to do it for fun. Or it could be a calculated move, understanding how news media works, counting on someone asking him about it and then watching it spread across the pages of the world's newspapers. There's a name for this phenomenon, using "good stories" to get publicised in the media without letting anyone know it's actually a marketing move: murketing.
Murketing originally just referred, if I read the blog right, to marketing exercises that are disguised as art. Since then it has come to include anything that doesn't publicly reveal itself as marketing - no press releases, no official sponsorship - yet totally understands and exploits news logic to get written about anyway. The (now apparently old-fashioned) "guerilla marketing" way to get noticed in the blog world was to pay an influential blog to support your product. The murketing approach is to create a cookie-cutter story that the blog's internal news logic can't help but propagate, not realising it's all fake.
I guess we're used to fake, record company created bands like The Bravery (supposedly!) by now. But as record companies become better at understanding what makes blogs tick, expect to see lots more surreptitiously planted bands, genres, and stories that fit into what blogs think is contrarian news logic.
While we're on the subject of contrarianism and economics, I thought I'd bring up one final way to look at contrarianism, supposedly where the term originates from. Contrarian investing is the buying of stock that's currently out of favour with the market, in the hope that there's nothing really wrong with it and that it'll bounce back, earning a profit. It exploits the phenomenon of trendiness - certain stocks simply aren't trendy, yet can still be good investments in the long term.
See any flashbacks to the trendy nature of some types of news stories here? Picking the genres and stories that fall outside the pattern can often be beneficial, if not in the short term. Maybe by posting about Thai-Laotian metal hybrids or Bhutanese pop I'm simply hedging my bets on this kind of music gaining popularity in the future - an investment in potential future popularity if not in actual stocks. No-one remembers your predictive failures, but if you start a trend you can bet your "stocks" will rise.
One thing I've learned from feminism is that contrarianism can often be a good thing. But I guess not always. And you do have to keep an eye on your behaviour to avoid the worst excesses of groupthink and avoid falling for the insiduous methods of the large corporations.
Heck, maybe make sure just to be yourself. As if that was an easy thing to do.
Essential EP’s #13
2 weeks ago