Anyone who’s taken the time to listen to Arcade Fire’s “Normal Person” will hear lyrics pertaining to middlebrow culture forever seeking its zone of comfort (i.e., “And they will break you down ’til everything is normal now”; think — for instance — of the running critique of how The Daily Show and The Colbert Report may satirize X or Y, but they never actually change X or Y), the colonial absorption of another culture (“You dream in English now / in proper English, look how / You’re just the same as me”), and the natural twitch and twinge of rebellion inherent in the face of those situations (i.e., “I’ve never ever really met a normal person”). In other words: steamrolling someone into benign cultural compliance today isn’t really possible if you fight, or — at the very least — if you’re aware that you have to fight, which — again — is something that the song encourages you to do. It’s politically akin to Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail.”
This seems to have been altogether lost on Hayden Higgins at The Atlantic. Even though Arcade Fire has had Kanaval masks for up to two years already (see their promotion for Sprawl II), Higgins is dismayed to see them and other items put to use in promoting Reflektor, saying that “there’s a troubling dynamic in play when Arcade Fire alone— rather than the people of Haiti together — is the sole arbiter of what is worth passing on in Haitian culture.” It’s a statement that’s somewhat baffling: I can pull up any aspect of Haitian culture delivered by Haitians in a matter of seconds using something I like to call “A Google Machine.” I can read Edwidge Danticat, Chomsky railing against Woodrow Wilson’s incursion, Eloge de la Créolité, La Savane, Jik dèyè do Bondyé, La Dernière Java de Mama Josepha, Léon Damas, and others whenever I’d like. (And even though he’s technically from Martinique, I just have to parenthetically add — Raphaël Confiant is a particularly good writer.)
And — given the content of “Normal Person” alone — that somewhat invalidates a sentence like, “Use seemingly ‘exotic’ cultural elements, regardless of their original context, to grab attention; profit.” The exotic doesn’t have to stay ‘exotic’ for long. You can investigate a culture and then consider the art of the culture in relation to a piece of art. You can think critically about each and then draw a conclusion. Or — let me put it another way — just because an artist has done the research necessary to draw upon the influence of a culture shouldn’t prevent you from being able to research that culture yourself. Sitting back and saying, “Why aren’t ‘the people of Haiti together’ coming to deliver me their culture?” is as lazy and as incurious as the exploitation you seek to condemn. Alan Lomax was there 77 years ago, recorded beautiful music, and yet this writer seems to be more preoccupied with the near-term effects of marketing ‘invisible’-izing the African diaspora than either arguing for the economic shift necessary to create a truly even global cultural playing field, doing the work necessary to highlight the true and actual lions of mizik rasin (and — again — Alan Lomax was there 77 years ago: it’s not like Higgins would have had to have gone far to start figuring out who was being exploited and who we should exalt instead, be it the sweetly funky and deeply compelling work from Ayizan, Nemours Jean Baptiste, Sanba Zao, or whomever), or working in a way that wonkily engages both the album and the country.
Higgins does gets one thing right, though: there is a problem with race when it comes to this kind of pop-culture marketing. (The scene in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. examined the covers of beauty magazines in Brazil is easily repeatable here in the States. Think of the way in which people reacted to not seeing a black woman on Saturday Night Live (which — by the way — there should be, as well as — eventually/hopefully — as many different backgrounds represented as possible.)) When something reaches that level of attention, it does serve as a kind of introduction to people who might not know better (and people get this kind of stuff wrong all the time — St. Vincent’s last album was almost entirely about sexual assault, but no one really commented on the fact at all), but beneath all the marketing, it’s worth emphasizing that history exists and identities run deep.
And though the immediate story might be in that the marketing for Reflektor was a little too exploitative, I think it’s worth arguing that cultural differentiation and cultural identity can’t be destroyed by a marketing campaign alone. Some may accuse me of having too much faith in the strength of a culture and cultural identity — or of giving ground in a rhetorical situation where one shouldn’t give ground at all — and point to people like Yeats, the destruction of The National Museum of Iraq, or the fact that Lomax came to Haiti when Haitians were trying to forge a new national identity once again, but art partly exists as a storehouse of memory, and an act of art isn’t a marketing campaign: it’s universal. Joyce used to joke that if Dublin was ever wiped off the map, they could reconstruct it using Ulysses, and I could easily imagine Cabrera Infante making the same sort of crack about about Cuba and TTT. (Also — is Paul Thomas Anderson exploiting Cuba because he lifted shots from Soy Cuba for Boogie Nights?)
And I’m responding in such a broad, thematic way partly because Higgins flirts with accusing the act of Arcade Fire’s art-making as being exploitative in and of itself, not just the marketing. “The band’s music used to feel interesting by virtue of its heart-on-sleeve confrontation with mortality” Higgins writes. “Now, it borrows its edginess by leaning on preconceptions about a foreign region.” And reading about Régine Chassagne’s time in Haiti really emphasizes how insincere and exploitative her motives are — i.e., “We’re happy to see people appear genuinely happy about the music. So we play our hearts out. No super fans, no journalists. Just us, the townspeople, Ti Zwazo [“His voice is pure gold and reverberates off the stone walls”] and RAM …”
God forbid we should try and build bridges between cultures to increase empathetic understanding of either side, though I’m certainly glad Higgins wrote the article he did, and it definitely did a good thing in that it sent me back to re-read ‘Love and Theft‘ and fret over the dance between culture and power, which is certainly something we shouldn’t let drop.