Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Can we claim a song as entirely "American"?

When the Filipinos that Appadurai describes sing old American hits, are we to presume that they understand the words that they are singing ? This is not a rhetorical question—in European countries where English-language pop songs are popular, it is only barely possible to distinguish those who speak the language from those capable of near-perfect phonetic mimicry. Are we to consider the “nostalgia without memory” transferred from this global flow to coexist with an understanding of the song’s ostensible “meaning” (as packaged in the English language), or from the song in-and-of-itself as a Western export ? We see how these songs are significant from the perspective of global flows, but what do they mean to Filipino culture themselves?

I wonder also how we might characterize these songs as nostalgia. Did these songs emerge into Filipino culture roughly simultaneously with their release in America? This would, in a sense, give a song both an American and Filipino “life-span”, and would dually become just as much a part of Filipino culture as American. So, is their nostalgia really one without memory? Appadurai argues that they are a nation of “make believe Americans,” but described less pejoratively, can we not allow them full custody of a song as it has existed for them, rather than assume that the song exists for them as a signifier of a “past they never lost”?

In France this past Spring, I had the privilege of watching several popular American films dubbed into French – a somewhat excruciating, but nevertheless fascinating experience. As it happens, for every American actor, there is only one French “voice-artist.” The man dubbing Will Smith in “Les hommes en noirs” is the same as in “A la recherche du Bonheur”. The “voices” are utterly incognito. While playing half of Will Smith’s role for an audience of millions, there is no acknowledged differentiation between them, aside from a line in the credits. How does this modification of an American cultural product affect its situation in French culture. For a French audience, does dubbing make the film more or blatantly less French ? Unlike American songs, we might consider the dubbed film a warped cultural product—does this necessarily affect its situation in French culture or its status as a piece of nostalgia ? (Perhaps Will Smith, a contemporary example, wasn’t the best choice here…).

1 comment:

ian said...


I was also bothered by the passage that describes the pop music phenomenon in the Phillipines as the product of American 'missionization and political rape' -- doesn't this conflict with his definition of a landscape as a 'perspectival construct'?

Also, your post reminds me of what my friends have told me about Bollywood. Apparently, some of the Indian actors that are more comfortable with English than Hindi have to be given phonetic transcriptions of the screenplay. Also, in contrast to the French voice-over actors, Bollywood playback singers are often as famous as their on-screen counterparts.