I've acquired so much new music lately that I'm facing an enormous backlog of discs I plan to write about here sooner or later. They'll all have to wait while I report that this afternoon I purchased a CD with the single most appalling cover in my collection (aside from a couple of Blowfly albums from the early 1970s, but I'll cut him some slack because he's ... well, Blowfly).
The album in question is called AXÉ BAHIA 97; I bought it used (and cheap) out of growing curiosity about what axé music sounds like. Gringos like me generally associate Brazil with bossa nova, samba, and tropicalia, and that's about it. But the stuff the majority of Brazilians actually listen to these days is apparently axé, and so I felt I had to hear it for myself. (For the record--based on very limited exposure--it's your basic transglobal party music, big and unsubtle and designed with machinelike calculation to get large numbers of intoxicated people dancing when played at top volume. Lots of singalong choruses and synthesized drums and horns. At my most generous I'd say it reminds me of the soca albums I heard sometime in the mid80s, but to be more accurate it just sounds like the disposable "Latin pop" that was supposed to be the next big thing in the wake of Ricky Martin and company. The group that strikes me as most interesting on the first couple of listens is Banda Eva; I was a little disappointed with the Timbalada selection after reading a lot of promising stuff about them.) (On another sidenote, if anyone reading this can recommend some truly enjoyable axé, please post a comment.)
Anyway, the cover: it's two women's bikini-clad butts in close proximity to each other and not much else. (Hell, why depend on mere words? Here, you can see it for yourself.) The back cover is more of the same, only we can make out a little more in the thigh and bosom department and the butts are nudging ever closer. Open the jewel case, and underneath the disc itself the two butts are at last in direct, if awkward, contact with each other. I was really embarassed to approach the counter with this thing; kinda reminded me of the day I had to buy a copy of Playboy for work because of an album review it contained. Even if I were a straight man, I can assure you this is not the kind of image that would float my boat. (Believe me, there are dozens if not hundreds of equivalent packages for gay circuit party mix CDs, and they're just as tacky.)
Just what does any of this have to do with music? Nothing, and everything--because I've always contended that you really can judge a book by its cover, and an album by its graphics; maybe not completely, but it's all about context. Would I have bought an equivalent album of Stateside party music--say, "HOOTERS PRESENTS BOOTY-BOUNCIN' HITS OF '97"? (That's a hypothetical example, but I guess the JOCK JAMS series is the real-life one I'm looking for.) Easy answer: Absolutely not.
I'm sure I'm not the only armchair admirer of Brazilian popular music with selective tastes. (Okay, so I bought AXÉ BAHIA 97, but that was more of a sociological experiment, and one I'm not likely to repeat.) Likewise, I love lots of electronic stuff (Autechre, Aphex Twin, etc) but have very little interest in most of the stuff that actually gets played at raves and clubs these days, and my fondness for country music doesn't really include most of the chart-toppers of the last two or three decades. As for my beloved Beach Boys, the only reason I own a copy of "Kokomo" is that it's on the same boxed set as the previously unreleased SMILE tracks I really wanted.
In other words, I confess I'm one of those people who often feels more comfortable studying pop culture from a safe distance than getting down and dirty with the real thing--like my friend who teaches Cultural Studies courses in Orlando but wouldn't dream of going to Disney World for the fun of it. (Analogy #2: I grew up in Louisiana, and had zero interest in Cajun music until I moved two thousand miles away.) I remember reading a review of Lee Breuer's "Gospel at Colonnus" -- the musical adaptation of the Oedipus story featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama (or was it Mississippi?) -- in which the critic pointed out that 90% of the audience digging the gospel tunes Off Broadway wouldn't be caught dead in a black full-gospel church.
Is this distance such a bad thing? I don't really have a simple answer, or any answer at all for that matter. I don't see any harm in constructing my own highly selective version of Brazilian music (heavy on Caetano, light on the lambada) or electronica (Underworld yes, white-label hit-of-the-moment no) or country (thumbs up for Robbie Fulks, thumbs down for Brooks & Dunn) or whatever. The only real danger is when a student of a given culture convinces him or herself he's a native -- that he sees the whole picture when he's really only looking at the parts he finds the prettiest.
As Arto Lindsay observes in a 2002 interview in THE FADER: "I don't see myself as Brazilian, even though I make Brazilian music. ... If you move to New York, you're a New Yorker in six months. If you move to Brazil, you'll be the gringo even if you live there your entire life."