Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Performing Transculturality

Reflections of Globalization in Popular Music

Dr. Ana Sobral


Since the late 1990s, Western popular music has witnessed the rise of migrant musicians to stardom and international fame. My research project centres on three renowned artists in Great Britain and North-America whose roots lie in such varied places as Eastern Europe, Somalia and Sri-Lanka. The importance of these musicians is twofold. Firstly, they use pop music in order to advance the interests and to celebrate the cultural heritage of diasporic communities in the West which may be under- or misrepresented in mainstream culture. Secondly, they produce new visions of community that correspond to their transnational audiences, thus subverting the construction and articulation of collective identities along national, ethnic and religious lines. In this way, the work of these artists reflects the development of a new “world culture” in the wake of globalization.

In most examinations of globalization on the cultural level, popular music is granted a noteworthy reference, being one of the fields most evidently marked by cultural hybridization. Whether writing about Chicano punk in California, Southeast-Asian dance music in England, Arabic hip-hop in France or North-African diasporic musicians in Europe, several scholars have stressed that the immigrant background of many musicians and their ability to blend elements of pop with the musical traditions of their country of origin not only represent a new stage in the development of musical culture, but also influence the self-perception of the nations in which this music is produced and consumed.

In spite of this, studies dealing with the development of a new type of “transnational” music have devoted little attention to two crucial aspects. Firstly, musical culture involves an important textual dimension, namely the song lyrics. With the aim of highlighting the strong relationship between popular music and people’s search for common values and ideals, my project looks at song lyrics as an important contemporary means of cultural expression. The textual analysis of songs is particularly useful in order to examine the construction of a discourse of cosmopolitanism which envisions a global community composed of different ethnicities and cultures. The performance of difference, or what Homi Bhabha calls “vernacular cosmopolitanism”, is crucial here, because it contradicts the notion of cultural homogenization.

The second aspect which remains largely unexplored appears at a first glance to contradict the abovementioned argument for focusing on song lyrics. As a performer, every pop musician creates a character, or more accurately a persona that carries on beyond the stage and the recorded music. Parallel to lyrics, interviews, newspaper articles, album reviews, web pages, and the musicians’ participation as protagonists in documentaries and films contribute to the expansion of the persona’s influence well beyond the music. This aspect of popular music not only as a multimedial product but also as a multimedial narrative has still not been researched in depth, in spite of recent endeavours by literary scholars to apply narratological categories to the study of pop songs and artists. While many migrant musicians admittedly have a less-than-usual biography, they carefully select specific aspects of their experiences that fit the format of song lyrics, autobiographic accounts and interviews. The biographic construct becomes part of a discourse with which the musicians promote themselves or get promoted by their recording company, management, spokespersons, etc. It contributes significantly to the public image of the performers with which audiences come in contact through diverse media beyond music and that ends up influencing their reception of the music itself. Precisely this intersection between narrative and performance is stressed in my research.

Popular music transcends the realm of aesthetic performance, which is usually circumscribed to explicitly staged situations in clearly defined settings. Instead, it would be more adequate to refer to the career of pop musicians as “social performance”, which operates in the realm of everyday life and professional roles. Leaning on the findings of cultural sociology, my project explores the implications of performance in the wider sense for the articulation of transculturality. As the cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander notes, every performance feeds on shared memories and myths. This raises interesting questions for the discussion of migrant musicians, whose narrative of struggle and triumph straddles two or more cultures. Because the target audiences of these performers are (ideally) spread across different nations, the effort to achieve recognition is amplified by the search for a “global” common denominator.