Friday, November 30, 2007

Sound-System Bikes and the Modernities of Hauling Music

When I first started my bicycle blog a few weeks ago, I thought it would be an excellent outlet for me to relay stories and observations of my car-less day-to-day life in Los Angeles. What I never expected, however, was how rapidly I would begin to make connections between my life as a musicologist and my life as a cyclist. And then I saw this photograph:

Yesterday, the nation’s “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, published a piece about bicycles in Queens equipped with sound systems. While I think it is wonderful that the Times is covering this alternative mode of blasting music into public spaces, I have to wonder why it has taken so long for this most esteemed newspaper to notice what has been apparent to me for a very long time: people will carry anything they can on a bicycle if the situation demands it, and they will even do it in ways that prevent efficient riding. From touring bicyclists who sleekly carry all their supplies for extended rides to homeless people who obsessively collect and stack their belongings on old bikes, the range of persons who improbably carry large quantities of material on a bicycle is huge and has been this way for a long time. In my area of LA, it is perfectly normal to see people riding to the laundry-mat with their bikes loaded with baskets. And I am describing a supposedly affluent area.

What bothers me about this sudden “discovery” of sound-system bikes is that there is nothing really new about it, whether you are describing the precarious stacking of equipment on a two or three wheeled self-propelled vehicle or the creative use of technologies to remake urban spaces. How many times have you seen someone riding by on a bike with a boom-box? Yes, it is interesting and even “strange” to see people improbably carry large amounts of cargo, but it isn’t a foreign concept to me. Go to any Critical Mass Ride, for example, and you are likely to hear music moving with the multitude of bicycles. Where is it coming from? Fully-loaded cargo-bikes.

But in our techno-savvy culture, people doing things on bikes is a signal of poverty and even development.* Or, in much more rough and inaccurate terms, bikes are orientalist while iPods, cars, and other narrow definitions of modernity are occidentalist.** From my perspective, modernities are apparent all throughout the world, especially in the ways that people use and experience music. Yes, you can see more large objects on bikes and scooters all throughout Rio de Janeiro. And when the city closes down roads on Sundays for beach-crowd use, you can sometimes hear music coming from self-propelled and disabled vehicles that coexist with pedestrians in car-free spaces. The same is true for carnival: the labor for distributing beer, ice, and other beverages throughout the multitude of dancing people does not fall on cars but rather the efforts of those people who work carnival by hauling their cargo on bikes and crates instead of partying to the music. In other places like “developing” and BRIC countries, cargo-carrying bicycles are even more prominent. In some places like the big cities in China, bike lanes get the same amount of space as those for cars. But other places that fall outside this apparent development/modernity binary also have many examples of such bicycles (i.e. the Netherlands, Portland OE, Seattle WA). It just doesn’t work as neatly as one would expect and yet it persists and is reinforced in our popular media.

Take for example the opening photograph of Time Magazine’s article on the iPhone as the Invention of the Year for 2007 (print version only). In this photograph you see a fully decked out self-propelled vehicle apparently doing the same things as a woman carrying an iPhone. Also notice how the racial and gendered messages of the person who uses “low” bike technology as opposed to “high” Apple technology is mixed: it’s a white man pushing the super-loaded bike and an asian woman who holds the iPhone. According to the development/modernity dichotomy, one would expect the opposit portrayal races of the persons in the photo. My friend and colleague billtron has already written about the political and cultural consequences of such messages on new technologies of the iPod (and it was he who first told me about the NYT article). He, along with many others, notes the role of increasingly mobile music in the changing formation of communities around the world. Clearly it isn’t entirely sweet and pretty nor ugly and dehumanizing. That would be too simple an answer. Superethnomusiblogger, wayne&wax, recently presented a stunning paper/presentation (on a Saturday morning SEM panel...) on the rise of global ghetto-tech in blogosphere representations of the global south, among other things. All of this points to a not-so-subtle fetishization of technology and poverty/"the ghetto" in recent uses of mobile music, fully-loaded bicycles included. (NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon does his part to reinforce this representation of ghetto-tech by emphasizing the racial difference of his interviewees in the above article.)

And I wonder, as gadget lust spreads throughout the world, what that means for those people who see no problem with strapping some speakers or a boom-box to their bicycles? Or better yet, what would it mean to the U.S.’s persistent posturing as a fully developed country if it were to consistently show signs of poverty through public displays of creative consumption of old technologies, like bicycles and analog stereo systems, mostly known in places of the global south? Such very large questions.

Which brings me to the larger theme of this blog. Fundamentally, every aspect and connection I make about music, modernities, and their connection to improbable uses of technology draws from a plurality of identities. I am a musicologist who specializes in Latin America with a serious affinity for sound culture studies and urban spaces. I also ride a bike. Sociologists and linguists sometimes call these modes of identities and idioms "codes"; in this instance, I am code-switching more than I normally do. Very rarely do I get to flex so many different critical muscles at the same time, but in such cases of recent portrayals of bicycles, technology, and "the ghetto," it is entirely necessary that I do so. In a recent invited music lecture at my home university, a professor in the audience likened finding one's theory/methodology to cooking from what's available in your refrigerator. I love that metaphor. My response today is shaped by so many aspects of who I consider myself to be in this very moment: it just so happens that I am currently engaged in an extended visit in Rio de Janeiro which undoubtedly influences my reactions. Everything counts and eventually contributes to how we shape ourselves as scholars, especially those of us engaged in inter-disciplinary musicology.

*Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

**Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategis for Entering and Leaving Modernity, translated by Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. Lopez (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1995); Néstor García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts, translated and with an introduction by George Yúdice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

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