Sunday, May 5, 2013

Come and Get It

The tabla gets your attention when you hear it on commercial radio. On the intro to Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” it is arresting. Then the song opens up from the vague South Asian gestures of the introduction to the luscious layering of sounds that one expects from thoroughly considered and executed pop. The rumor is that the song is about Justin Bieber. This song isn’t what people have in mind when they talk about “world music” but it counts just the same, doesn’t it? A Latina singing about a white Canadian in the international lexicon of pop, backed by traditional “third world” instruments, what’s more “world music” than that? The song overcomes the cultural borders that separate people, moving toward the multicultural utopia that goofball first-worlders soundtrack with world music. I’m kidding, of course, but the global character of the song nonetheless expresses a certain sensibility that is peculiar to our age. The song’s ability to seamlessly interweave traditional sounds within a highly commercial framework functions as the musical form of the singer’s own ethnic identity, which is both marked by racially coded signs like her name and skin color and rendered secondary and insignificant by a popular appeal that allows her to transcend the ethnic aesthetic pigeonhole that she might otherwise be placed in. The musical, racial, and global fluidity of “Come and Get It” makes it a document of postmodern culture and it can be celebrated in the way that postmodern culture often is. By refusing to abide by the distinctions that shaped older forms of popular culture, “Come and Get It” can be seen as containing the emancipatory impulses of our times, impulses which have made many archaic differences seemingly insignificant.

But there is another way of looking at it. The song's novel combination of cultural and racial vectors can also be seen as a necessary outcome of the acceleration of capital’s drive for profitable new commodities. In other words, the collapse of the old distinctions between say popular music and traditional music, between ethnic or racial identities, or between local musical forms and transnational commercial music is the effect of late capital’s ever-increasing, ever-accelerating search for different commodities. Because the rhythms of consumption have increased in our times, the cycles that allow us to consider something new or fresh have become shorter, thus mass cultural products like popular music have been forced to seek new sources, try new combinations in order to capture an audience that wants novelty—familiar versions of novelty anyway. So the postmodernity of which “Come and Get It” is a part is not so much the liberation from the categories that stifled human flourishing, rather it is evidence of the scope of capital’s power. Capital erodes the boundaries between what had been separate realms in order to expand the possibilities of what can be turned into a commodity. Let me put it this way: the tabla as a devotional or popular instrument in South Asia could not be brought into capital’s circuit. As part of the commercial output of world music, the tabla could be commodified, but its profitability was always circumscribed by the small reach of that genre. As an instrument that provides the musical counterpoint to a song that is produced for high popular appeal, it is finally made productive in capital’s profit-driven logic. The sound of the tabla in “Come and Get It,” then, is less the sound of borders coming down than it is the sound of capital overcoming a border in its hunger for profit.

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