Arts & Entertainment, Pop Rhetoric

What’s wrong with world music?

On what grounds do we describe music that breaks with Western traditions? Does the simple label “world music” suffice? Unsurprisingly, this term was not popularized by so-called world musicians. Rather, like much of the language we use to describe music, it was the creation of profit-minded record label executives. In 1987, industry tycoons were looking to capitalize on the success of Paul Simon’s South African-influenced Graceland to start selling more music by African artists to Western audiences. They settled on “world music” as a broad marketing term to denote music not originating from Europe or North America. 

In many ways, the top-down nature of this term’s inception and its formulation in the absence of any actual musicians is reflective of its problems. World music casts an otherness upon the music it encompasses, demarcating it solely by the fact that it’s not Western, rather than what it sounds like or how it was composed. It’s clear to any listener that the Brazilian Tropicália music of Caetano Veloso bears no more, and arguably much less, relation to North-Indian classical music by Ravi Shankar than it does to Western pop or rock music. To lump the two artists under one bracket ensures that the designation of “world music” is defined by its proximity to our narrow conception of Western music. This reinforces a Western hegemony that casts foreign art and culture as less high-brow or unsophisticated. This has pervaded the way we engage with art throughout history, both in terms of how it is marketed and how consumers perceive it. 

Such a characterization fails to grant non-Western artists the individuality they deserve. When it comes to Western artists, entertainment media is more than willing to hyper-taxonomize, creating ever-more specific genre labels to describe the next progressive-metal-influenced mathcore band or post-punk revival act. Pigeonholing artists into overly narrow labels can itself be unhelpful, but this tendency of music journalists highlights that they can be specific in their descriptions of artists when they actually make an effort. Identifying the specific genre of a foreign artist operates as a basic courtesy that would crucially enable such artists to forge their own musical identity distinct from their nationality. 

Besides the lack of respect the term “world music” affords artists, the designation lacks any utility for listeners. At their best, genre labels help differentiate between different kinds of music, describing how an artist sounds or the movement they belong to so that listeners can gravitate towards music they are more likely to enjoy. A broad-strokes term like “world music” fails because it reveals so little about the fundamental basis of music: How it sounds. What types of instruments does an artist compose with? What kinds of harmonies do they employ? What lyrical themes do they explore? Labelling an album as world music does nothing to answer any of these questions. 

The perniciousness of this term is symptomatic of one of Western music media’s major failures: It can’t challenge the premises on which its viewpoints rest. Panels for music awards, such as the Grammys, regularly shoehorn Black artists’ musical achievements into the category of rap, or until recently, “urban” music, in spite of music often not fitting into those characterizations. Meanwhile, the Golden Globes’ critic panel decided to place Minari (2020) into its foreign film category due to its dialogue being predominantly in Korean, despite the American-produced film’s central tenet being the promise of the American Dream to U.S. immigrants. These examples demonstrate how the merits of the works of non-Western artists and people of colour are routinely conceived of through a white-centric viewpoint. 

Ultimately, what “world music” gets wrong is that, for its artists, world music is just music. Labelling music in binary terms based on its Western or non-Western origin is not just disrespectful: It’s bad music journalism. 

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