Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Transnational Contradictions

The transnational subject seems the primary agent of the present historical moment. That statement, true though it appears, nonetheless is fairly hollow. Immigrant laborers, disenfranchised lumpens working everywhere in the heartlands of capitalist modernity but invisible to the majority except when in need of scapegoats for what ails the body politic, are transnational subjects. So too are bourgeois “world citizens” who feel an affinity for faraway places, feel at home in “foreign” cultures, and are fluent in the cultural codes of modernity, whose vernacular is always consumer culture or mass media. (This is you and me, in case you hadn’t guessed.) These constituencies, whose worlds often overlap on opposite sides of the retail counter in the global marketplace, cannot really be analyzed in satisfactory terms through theoretical optics that apply to both of them at once. Yet they are both hailed at the same time by forms of popular music that reveal the aesthetic and socio-economic contradictions embodied by transnational subjectivity.

Manu Chao’s “Welcome to Tijuana,” for example, takes into account the experiences of subaltern transnational subjects. “Welcome to Tijuana/Tequila, sexo, marihuana/Welcome to Tijuana/Con el coyote no hay aduana,” he sings. Manu Chao uses Tijuana to symbolize the uneven economic conditions between first world surplus and third world poverty. Tijuana in this song is a space in which the rules of the modern order are suspended. But that suspension signifies different things to different people. To a first world tourist traveling south, Tijuana means being able to purchase the suspension of legal and moral norms. To an immigrant from the global south, Tijuana makes possible the clandestine evasion of geopolitical boundaries in search of a better life. Even while it takes into account subaltern experiences, “Welcome to Tijuana,” I think, presupposes a bourgeois transnational audience. The song’s uncompromising linguistic dexterity, its unblinking realism, and its avant-garde musical structure limit its popular appeal. Let’s be real, this is the kind of shit university students dig the world over.

Shakira’s “Addicted to You” I hear on Latino commercial radio all the time, however. I have to say that as much as I appreciate the critical impulse of Manu Chao’s music, the sense of social justice that pervades his work, his inventiveness, I think that Shakira’s song is in a sense much more democratic. Her work aims to reach a much broader audience: Latin Americans, Latinos in the U.S., and random white people. Granted it’s a fairly shallow kind of democracy, we’re really just talking about commercial demographics here. The four words of English in the song perfectly capture its transnational pandering. But its rhythms (awesome), its subject matter (totally relatable), and the unique lyrical quality of Shakira’s voice (foxy and not threatening) make this a song people want to listen to regardless of their social or political position.

So to return to the dilemma of transnational subjectivity, while Manu Chao’s music deals with a wider range of transnational experiences, its appeal is limited to a much narrower demographic than Shakira’s. Conversely, her song addresses the transnational experience only superficially but it appeals to a broad spectrum of transnational subjects from every level of society. Crap.

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