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How many times have you heard someone critique people for niche interests? Politicians and pundits will mock college students for supposed useless degrees. Obsessive fans are targets of twisted humor. If you haven’t experienced this kind of insult, you’re either lucky or boring.
I would like to defend this “going down a rabbit hole” intellectually, academically, and personally. Instead of some highbrow argument, let’s talk my latest musical interest, and how it expanded my mind and made me a better person.
What kind of music? Well those who know me would assume it’s either electronica, experimental metal, or parody. Nope, my latest musical obsession is what’s popularly called “exotica” or “space age pop.” Yes, I got into the kind of music you associate with 50’s and 60’s cocktail lounges and kitschy bars.
This is going to be a ride.
I never thought about this style of music until I heard of a show called The Retro Cocktail Hour at http://www.retrococktail.org/. As I’m fascinated by musical oddness, I gave this show a listen and realized I liked this style. It had a relaxing, moody quality that reminded me of another favorite – lo-fi Jazz. Since I’ve been trying to broaden my musical horizons by trying new things regularly, I decided to dive into exotica – and got surprised.
Exotica is alive and well these days. There are bands of older folks who’ve done it for ages, and young bands that have taken to the style. These performers are all over the globe – the younger performers I found were in Europe. Exotica, which I’d associate purely with America, was global – and sometimes being made by people who could be my kids.
Exotica also wasn’t just jazz infused with a serial-numbers-removed sound-fantasy of Oceana that I thought it was. There was South American influence. There was some African influences. There were also attempts to add even more sounds from all over the globe. Over the decades exotica was more of an attempt to integrate many influences – albeit one that could be ham-handed and appropriative (more on that later).
As I learned more about the global reach of this style, I found that exotica inspired or blended into other forms of music. I discovered “space disco” or “cosmic disco” with it’s powerful, far-out sound. “Acid Funk” and it’s trippy beats came to my attention. Thanks to a friend, I found exotica intersects with the music from the Tropicália art movement – an influential and at-times attacked movement I’d never heard of and clearly need to learn more about.
Musical styles weren’t the only thing that exposed me to politics and sensitive issues. Exotica is inevitably associated with Tiki bars and the cultural appropriation they embody. As Tiki bars have gotten a revival, there are documentaries and articles noting how these bars, and some of the music, doesn’t acknowledge its use/misuse of Polynesian/Hawaiian/Oceanic culture. Suddenly my newfound musical interest seemed less innocent.
(And I kicked myself for not seeing it earlier. This musical rabbit hole required me to confront the insensitivity of me and people I know.)
Now I was listening to these documentaries and reading articles on Tiki bars and their history. First, I learned about the influences and cultural appropriation, its own rabbit hole of wartime experiences, sexual repression, wild cocktails, and repurposed Asian food. Then I learned about the revival of the culture in America (and apparently around the world). These cheesy bars and the culture associated with them has a long and continuing history I’d never seen before.
These issues also included serious questions of cultural appropriation, insensitivity, and acknowledgement of history.
At this point, I began noticing how some exotica bands seemed to deal with these issues. I noticed some removed “Tiki” influence from their later albums. Others embraced the kitsch in the first place and probably didn’t care. Some bands seemed to treat it as an aesthetic, a fantasy world like Middle-Earth, and didn’t worry either. Finally, some used the midcentury modern art style on their album covers, and avoided (most) inappropriate imagery.
Now our story comes to a close with me listening to a style of music that led me to ask hard questions about history, culture, appropriation, and style integration. I put more effort into evaluating the morals of my musical purchases and stylistic choices. A single online recording of a radio show sent me down a rabbit hole that wasn’t just fun, wasn’t just history, but required me to think about ethics.
So that’s my story. I discovered a musical style I’d rarely thought of, found out more about it, learned about new styles, and ended up facing painful issues of cultural appropriation. I’m still in this rabbit hole, learning about history, food, style, and historical cycles.
All because I decided to go get obsessed for awhile.
Go embrace your rabbit hole. You don’t know where it’s going to go, but that’s the point. Take the journey, and if you keep on it, you’ll grow as a person.