Flower, Song and Kitsch: A Story of How Immigration Rescues Irony
Amidst the ghosts of empire’s graveyard, an apparition arises, a wondering soul from Conquest’s ashes, he commands, he conjures. With the wave of his hand, he reclaims irony, and sprinkles it like fairy dust upon the audience.
During a clammy summer night last year in the East Village, Cafe Tacuba’s lead singer, Ruben “Nru” Albarran, declared, “It’s so good to see a little garden of Mexican flowers in New York.” Typical of the florid speech of Mexicans, his remark reminded me of an Aztec philosophical concept, “flor y canto”— flower and song. Of the concept’s many meanings, at its core suggests that empires come and go, but what always remains is art and poetry. Little remains of the political power of the former Spanish Empire, yet we can see that culturally the so-called conquered peoples remain vital (there’s even a famous article from the 1920s, “La Raza Cosmica”—the Cosmic Race—that claims that Mexican culture is hypercivilized because of its hybridity). Consequently, in the midst of the crowd gathered to see Café Tacuba, Mexico City’s leading alternative rock group of over a dozen years, dignitaries of the Mexican Diaspora eagerly articulated postcolonial dynamism. It reminded me of the disintegration of the nation state depicted in Neil Stephenson’s sci-fi novel, The Diamond Age, in which national groups break off into corporatized enclaves around the world. If the international tribe of Mexicans had a space in his book, it would be as the Aztlan Nation, named after the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, the calling card of Chicano activists.
Aesthetically what binds the Aztlan Nation is the subtextual practice of “rasquachismo”—a kind of “lowbrow” appropriation of pop culture. It’s the Mexican equivalent of post-ironic kitsch popularized by “Williamsburg” style. As a matter of survival, descendents of Iber-America have long hacked genres, cross-dressing borders as the ultimate scavengers of pop culture. From Pre-Columbian tricksters to Don Quixote to Cantinflas, La Raza Cosmica has managed to survive empires through the great tradition of satire, playing the all-important role of court jester to the imperial Lords of America. Consequently, rasquachismo is not practiced by elite urbanites, but rather is a bottom-up “psykitsch” defense against the juggernaut of multinational corporate media. Think Bart Simpson with a poncho, or a Starbucks logo inserted with Poncho Villa instead of the trademark mermaid. Rasquachismo is not self-conscious, it’s a natural flow between pop culture and survival, a kind of assimilative mechanism that social critic Mike Davis calls “magical urbanism.” Case in point: at the Café Tacuba show, it was hard to tell if the moshing kids were in a slam pit or lucha libre rink. Many of the punky youth wore Mexican wrestler masks as they bashed into each other’s sweaty bodies, several tattooed with the “hecho en mexico” label on their neck’s backs, or pre-Columbian designs wrapping their arms. It’s not affected humor, but the germination of cultural pride combined with cynicism of power.
Irony is a tricky weapon that can cut both ways. For example, culture jamming—the intentional redesign and fucking-up of advertising like altered billboards—has now been incorporated into the language of marketing. Whereas culture jamming, arguably a tradition that goes back to dada and later resurrected by Yippies, Situationists and punks, used to be an effective mental resistance against propaganda and ads, it is now difficult to tell the difference between a jam and a commercial. It raises the postmodern conundrum of being unable to distinguish a sales pitch from genuine art. Its mainstream equivalent is embodied by post-ironic kitsch: a hipster variant of humorless, banal and gutless sarcasm that makes the appropriation of culture jamming so seamless in a commodified society.
At issue is a sense of “authenticity,” a semantic grenade often carelessly tossed around. Still, we know it when we see it. ¿Que no? As someone who came out of old school punk, I’m constantly hungry for a sense of cultural authenticity, the same way I crave organic vegetables over canned, irradiated Soma so readily passed off as food. Artificially flavored cardboard is artificially flavored cardboard, no matter how hard you chew it. Empty calories abound as much as empty signifiers. Such was the case at last year’s Village Voice Siren Music Festival, held for free at Coney Island the day before the Café Tacuba concert. The aesthetes of post-ironic kitsch are clearly at home with Budweiser, which gladly was the overlord of the music festival. Also present at the fest was the military. Failing to recruit poor people to make the oil war quota, the Army hopes that drunken twenty-somethings enamored with nostalgia and a pastiche of fashion’s past, would be silly enough to buy into its marketing campaign of an “Army of One,” which constantly sells public service guised on the worn fatigues of WWII. Talk about post-irony. X-Box, also a festival partner, linked with Bud and our War Department, making the perfect multi-headed marketing hydra for post-ironic generation: inebriation, virtual violence, fake democracy and ersatz rock and roll. Yeah!
Spoon’s frontman Britt Daniel was the only one onstage that I heard all day draw attention to this weird combo (although Saul Williams also engaged in some radical politicking). No matter, progressive sloganeering was lost among the repeated mantra of Bud ads that were broadcast through out the day on the PA system in-between sets. The kitsch ambience of Coney Island was the perfect theme for the faux-rebellion, “Williamsburg” fashionistas who wholeheartedly took Bud’s message to heart as they downed cheap beers (because that’s cool) and puffed expensive cigarettes (because that’s hot). Truth be known, I don’t mean to pick on Williamsburg, and I thus refer to it only in quotations to delineate it as a sign for the current fashion trend that combines trailer trash chic with punk rock and urban tribal ghetto. Still, we must acknowledge that even Target features this look. Take the L train and you will catch my drift. Anyhow, something was missing at Coney Island, some kind of glue, some kind of “itz,” the Mayan word for essential emanation, as in wax, sap or blood. As an ancient punk in the midst of this scene, it felt weird to see kids running around in freshly silk-screened Germs and Adolescents t-shirts, bands I thought had long disappeared down the memory hole; but now seeing their logos on the chests of kids who weren’t even born when Darby Crash died is stranger than frat boys at a Grateful Dead concert.
So it was quite amazing to see a kind of energy that I thought had died with Lollapalooza and Kurt Cobain sprout like dormant seeds at the Café Tacuba show at Webster Hall the following night. In the crowd of swirling Mexicano/as, chicano/as and Latino/as, I felt an energy I hadn’t experienced since seeing the Minutemen and Meat Puppets over 20 years ago. And then it hit me. What I was vibing in contrast to the Siren Fest was the difference of feeling a part of a tribe versus being a mere demographic. To be fair, Coors was sponsoring the Latino youth spectrum of things at Webster Hall, yet somehow I did not feel overpowered by these marketing overlords the way the Voice event did for me. Whereas at the beach I felt targeted every which way with all my senses, at least in the midst of the moshing Mexicanos, I felt among them a sense of identity that no commercial beer cacique could deprive. There is no inventing a sensibility.
Other distinctions abounded. Among New York’s white hipsters (I don’t mean white in the pejorative sense—I am white, too), there’s an all-too-familiar prepackaged look emanating out of Brooklyn that is now quickly regurgitated in malls across the country (recently, I saw a bit of the “Williamsburg” look being sold at Hot Topic in Omaha, Nebraska). I never got the Seventies, self-conscious eclecticism look in the first place. Why people emulate pornographers and wife swappers from that by-gone era is beyond me. Either way, we can call it an extension of postmodern fashion that conglomerates and appropriates all styles simultaneously, from New Wave to punk to disco to rocker and back again. Fashion is the only thing Americans seem to recycle. At the Siren Fest what I saw behind aviator glasses, ripped Izods and pink camo is a bunch of empty signifiers feigning passion, contriving cool while desperately searching for meaningful reality. The nonchalant, detached Disneyland-of-Bohemia crowd is crying for some culture, some meaning beyond the latest demographic trend, a return to the sacred that once existed in the now lost tribe of rock and roll.
Mexican punk lacks the empty slogan of modern “indie” rock. For example, several years ago I was in the Yucatan hanging out with a crew of Mayan punks in the city of Mérida, when I found myself engaged with the singer of a local hardcore band, Suburbanos. I was suggesting that the Internet would be a great way for the regional scenes around Mexico to network. “In the future…” I started, then Ruben, the nose-pierced singer with a Mayan motif banding his wrist, interrupted me and waved his hand as if he were swatting flies: “No. No. No. No hay futuro.”
No future. A song lyric I had heard since I was a mid-schooler in Los Angeles in the late Seventies. But like all the other skateboarding kids absorbed by the ennui of smoggy LA stage diving into punk, I had a future. I was white and I lived in the United States. Ruben, and his cohorts, on the other hand, were in the midst of a crashing peso, guerrilla war, and hopelessly corrupt pseudo-democracy (hmm, sound familiar?). As we sat on a bench in an old colonial plaza, another punk dude had no problem telling me the obvious. Pointing at Burger King, he said, “You have this. We at least still have our culture.” He swept his hand in a broad gesture that embraced both his indigenous past and colonial heritage. Indeed, just across the park was a church with a clearly visible limestone brick from a dismantled Mayan temple. The entire area was a reconfigured ancient Indian metropolis, home of la raza cosmica, the mestizo (mixed blood) cosmic race.
What I experienced at the Café Tacuba show was something that I have been longing for since the demise of punk (in its “authentic” form at least). As I have thought about punk from the time of its inception through a vibrant fifteen-year period that ended in the late-eighties, was how it had become a surrogate clan for a fucked-up, dysfunctional family that had difficulty coping with Vietnam and the ill social affects of the Sixties counterculture. As kids trying to survive our therapy-induced parents and divorced households, many of us became punks to join a tribe, not unlike kids of color who join gangs to be part of a familia.
Of course, complaining about authenticity is a judgment; it goes without saying that all people are humans searching for some connection to their hearts. No doubt. Perhaps what I long for is some deeper reflection among the culture producers today to question the whole-hearted integration of commercialism into our daily thought processes. Thankfully, the Mexican punk enclave still maintains its familial identity throughout the United States. It has to. Living in exile, faced with a prejudiced society in denial of its power dynamic with one of the most vibrant countries in the world, the “punx” of New York still have a gathering of nations to go to. May the city’s lost tribe of Bohos also find a way home.
Antonio blogs at blogdisease.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.