For the last few weeks I've been in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in South America and the 3rd largest city in all of the americas, to finish up the ethnographic portion of my dissertation research. This city is urban in a way that only few cities in the world can approach: the air quality is terrible, there is far more concrete and high walls than I ever imagined, and there is a vibrant cultural and intellectual community including a very exciting music scene. At the same time, São Paulo also has the occasional logistical disaster (read: metro stoppages, and yesterday DSL failed in the entire state) and constant fears of crime exacerbated by social class divisions (sequestrados or kidnappings are fairly common for the elite as are helicopter flights to avoid traffic jams). I provide the above summation to give you an idea of the stark urbanity that currently informs my perspective on beauty, or lack thereof.
São Paulo was not originally part of my dissertation. I had originally planned to focus on the music industry in Rio de Janeiro, a place that is much more frequently associated with beauty and tourism despite its alarmingly high crime rate. For many reasons, I opted to spend a fair amount of time here because the city is so important to Brazilian cultural output. My tiny ethnography is now officially multi-sited. Isn't that cool? But what this means is that I've been spending a lot of time talking to music industry professionals all around a city known for its intense work ethic. Rarely do we talk about such ideas as beauty. The closest I've come to direct references to the beautiful in music are concepts such as "risk," as in this label took a huge risk on releasing that artist's CD, "performance skill," and "quality." They generally don't talk about beauty. Even the musicians that I have interviewed don't mention beauty as an overriding concept. They will use words like "exciting" or "interesting" to describe music that they like, but not beauty, even if they are trying to stir my interest in a new artist.
Just yesterday I spoke with a very prominent and successful individual in São Paulo's music scene (in a stunning apartment overlooking Ave. Paulista). When the subject of James Blunt came up, I could not suppress my disdain for his music, and he concurred. Then he said something that struck me as surprisingly in line with a concept that has dogged many a scholar in popular music studies (and this blog) for quite some time : "there is a big difference between the music that I enjoy, and the music that I dislike but I know others will enjoy." Was he directly referencing beauty or ugliness in any way? No. But his comment reminded me that in a place like the music industry, there is rarely time to consider such questions as aesthetics. Preferences and públicos (the Portuguese word for audiences) are always at the forefront, though. I guess nothing forces out aesthetic relativity like the world of cultural commerce. I can't say I have anything to complain about on that matter.