Is the term ‘world music’ relevant?

When I write about ‘world’ music, it is often styled with quotation marks. The term can be problematic, because virtually any music which is considered the least bit exotic, or different to that to which we have become accustomed is pigeon-holed into the category of ‘world’ music. This category of music is wide-ranging and expanding to suit the demands of a consumer market. While the original purpose for this interest in the music of the ‘other’ may have been anthropological, the commercial production of music necessitates a shorthand, a catch-all term that can be used to classify a certain type of music and meet consumer expectations. A 2019 article in The Guardian speaks about the “flawed and problematic” nature  of the term. Yet it’s continued to be used. Is the term relevant, and how can it be understood?

In a sense, using ‘world’ music as a catch-all term destroys the concept of world music; taken literally, it can mean music from the people of the world, thereby allowing any music into this genre. In the same way, ‘pop’ music is obviously short for ‘popular’ music, implying not just a wide appeal, but also the music of the people, the populus. To most, however, the term world music usually implies music from countries other than one’s own. This definition is superior to the literal interpretation in that it defines quite clearly which countries are involved, but the subjectivity of this approach is its downfall.  Many  people accustomsied to Western popular music would not, for example, describe Paul McCartney as ‘world’ music, but to somebody living in another country, his music might be significantly different, possibly even exotic, and so could conceivably fall into that category. What is culturally unfamiliar and unrelated to one person will inevitably be the ‘home’ culture of someone else. Yet even within what we call ‘The West,’ distinctions are made, defining Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, both of whom are best known for their work with Irish group ‘The Dubliners’ as performers of ‘world’ music, yet there is constant disagreement over whether or not the Icelandic Björk falls into this category, or if she is a pop artist. ‘World’ music seems to be the category that a lot of music will be put into if it defies other classification; an argument can always be made that a particular piece is ‘world’ as whoever created it was from a certain area and, more often than not, associate their ethnicity or cultural background with their work. This is a problem, as the term should not be reduced to a byword for miscellaneous. Yet, there seems to be no logical criteria to define such genres, yet numerous possibilities. 

To understand how ‘world’ music could be relevant, we need a new approach that will reinforce not the idea of music from a particular country, but music of a particular group. That group could be within our own country, just less familiar than what’s in the mainstream. However, this comes with its own challenges. The paradox that the record company faces is that while the public may cry out for ‘authentic’ music of other people, they may be just as likely to reel away from it, taken aback by just how different it sounds. The record company then faces the dilemma of whether to merely present the original music in the same way in which it was intended, or to approach the music in the same way a jeweller might approach metals – to source the raw material and filter out all unwanted aspects of it, leaving only a purified finished product which the consumer will find appealing and beautiful. This latter approach, unfortunately, usually triumphs; thereby skewing what the consumer is led to believe is ‘authentic’. 

Authenticity itself is a loaded term and, in the course of my doctoral research, I developed a taxonomy of authenticity that explored the nuances of this notion. In the course of this research, it became increasingly apparent that defining a genre is a complex process that must take into account the numerous contextual factors that surround music — audiences, history, performers, language, culture, physical spaces, visual cues, to name a few. 

The question of whether ‘world’ music is a relevant term is, as we have seen, difficult to answer. It is also necessary to distinguish between the relevance of the term (what we call it), and the relevance of the music itself to its listener (what it means to someone, whether that someone is listening to it in a bar, wedding, or festival, or streaming the music from the other side of the world). What is needed is to acknowledge two important problems. First, ‘world’ music may be subjective, but it remains a convenient term when it comes to selling music, so a redefinition of the term may be needed. Second, what a consumer may see as the ‘authentic’ music of a culture different to their own may not be all that authentic after all. Both of these problems can be traced to the need to package and commodify music in a way that is easily recognised by diverse audiences.

This discussion gives rise to a few main issues which will be discussed in future posts. One is the way in which authenticity is understood and experienced when music is commercialised and packaged. The other is about how diverse audiences can enter into meaningful discussion with music, and how this dialogue can be facilitated by performers and educators. These aren’t easy questions to tackle, and we need to be more mindful than ever of the social and political contexts in which conversations about racial and ethnic identity occur. Music has the power to connect people, but it’s hard work to ensure that discussions of it are grounded in mutual respect. This is why a critical, analytical approach is so important — we need to ensure that we examine or at least acknowledge the presence of our own preconceptions when we talk about music. This is the approach that we will take when we delve into questions about authenticity and audience engagement, in an effort to see music as a way of understanding and accessing a culture without othering it or reducing it.

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