Globalization is rightfully considered one of the major influences shaping the modern world. Aside from its direct influence in economic and political areas, its impact can be traced in social, cultural, and artistic domains, including music. However, the connection between globalization and music remains among the least popular topics for researchers studying globalization and its effects, and as a result, it does not receive sufficient coverage in academic literature. The following paper presents evidence showing that starting from the late 1980s, pop music was absorbing ethnic elements that had previously been limited to specific genres, and that this process can be attributed to the process of globalization.
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The relationship between globalization and music is at least as promising as other cultural and social manifestations of its impacts. In the following paper, we argue that the emergence of globalization facilitated the creation of a new musical genre early in the course of events and eventually reshaped the broad genre of pop music by increasing its uniformity and diversity.
Globalization and Cultural Uniformity
Before we address the principal argument of the paper, it is important to highlight the core quality of globalization responsible for the observed effect: its contribution to cultural uniformity. While the direct goals of the phenomenon of globalization aim at bringing about economic benefits by facilitating international trade and cooperation, the success of both ultimately depends on the efficiency of communication that, in turn, depends on cultural proficiency and exchange of ideas.
As a result, globalization has long been credited for the creation of a more uniform cultural space. Some scholars point to the domination of American values and concepts in the process and suggest alternative terms such as Americanization or McDonaldization to underline the effect (Pieterse, 2015). This argument, however, is not universally accepted as numerous pieces of evidence point to the fact that cultural penetration is multi-directional, and therefore, the resulting cultural space absorbs elements of all the cultures to which it is exposed (Pieterse, 2015). Therefore, it would be reasonable to consider the changes in genres of music as attributable to cultural convergence resulting from globalization.
One of the direct effects of globalization is an increasing familiarity with foreign cultures and a simultaneously increasing access to the manifestation of those cultures. This effect can be traced in the progression in music over time, with the gradual introduction of multiple ethnic motifs in familiar genres as well as the emergence of new ones. However, it is important to acknowledge that while the presence of music from other cultures was observable in Western society for a relatively long time (e.g., jazz, Hawaiian guitar, and rumba), the phenomenon of globalization coincided with a standalone musical genre currently known as world music.
The latter had several features that allow viewing it as a distinct product of the phenomenon rather than a continuation of a previous trend. First, instead of being “pure” (i.e., as close to the original parameters as possible), world music merged several key characteristics with a number of new ones and was also adjusted to the tastes of the Western audience. Second, it capitalized on the fusion between traditional motifs and elements of the previous form of pop music, thus appealing to wider audiences without dispelling the sense of ingenuity.
Finally, musicians working in the genre, such as Peter Gabriel and Brendan Perry, frequently used rare musical instruments to play conventional musical patterns, allowing them to achieve a distinctive sound and retain their appeal for a large target audience. Overall, despite being original and clearly resembling ethnic music, world music as a genre was more inclusive and demonstrated greater diversity than the majority of genres of the time, which led to its growing popularity and a small but steadily increasing following.
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Convergence with Pop Music
The inclusiveness observed in the world music scene aligned well with the homogenizing properties of pop music, a firmly established leader in setting both cultural and economic trends. The fact that world music steered away from strictly determined boundaries and oriented itself within the extension of characteristics rather than maintaining a focus on roots music made it easily adaptable by pop music artists who pursued similar philosophies (Panteli, Bittner, Bello, & Dixon, 2017).
By the early 1990s, numerous pop music performers widely incorporated elements that were initially perceived as exclusive to ethnic music. One of the better-recognized examples is the Deep Forest, a project that started in 1992, combining contemporary electronica with samples of African chants and native tribal songs (Taylor, 2014). The rhythm used in the resulting songs is consistent with the fast tempo characteristic of techno and EDM, and the minimalistic harmony structure resembles that of the synthetic sound of the underground dance scene (Arnett, 2015).
At the same time, the samples used throughout the songs clearly reference root cultures of West Africa and, due to their initial dance-related nature, align well with the general pattern of contemporary genres. Despite an evident orientation toward the dance scene, the project eventually gained recognition for its exotic sound and was invited to work on several film soundtracks.
Other artists took a subtler approach. Instead of boldly emphasizing newly incorporated elements, they chose to use these elements as discreetly as possible and composed music where the elements of different cultures were indistinguishable from the Western base.
A good example of this approach is Sting’s 1999 single “Desert Rose.” While the techniques used in the song are consistent with the standards of contemporary pop music, it famously includes part of an Algerian Raï song performed by Cheb Mami, as well as several samples of traditional musical instruments used in the song. While some critics commented on the feature and characterized the song as having a world-music vibe, the majority of the audience perceived it as a conventional pop song (Hammond, 2005).
The song gained significant popularity, reaching top 20 billboards in several countries and being re-released in several remix albums in Europe. Notably, the Raï chant was retained in all versions, including those with major changes to the song’s tempo and rhythm. This fact confirms the strength of the bond that had formed between popular and ethnic elements in music by this time.
Approximately at the same time, similar transformations could be observed in the European musical scene. The then-popular genre of reggae found its way into the dance segment of pop music in the early 1990s, with “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base probably the best-known example. This example was soon followed by other musicians, such as Mr. President, and the resulting genre was eventually termed Euro-reggae (in reference to the parent genre of Eurodance). However, the majority of European performers soon adopted reggae elements while retaining a traditional sound, eventually rendering the distinction redundant.
The described progression is far from over today. The developed countries retain most of the trend-setting capacity since nearly all major music labels operate within their borders. At the same time, these countries are not exempt from the cultural effects of globalization, and arguably, the impact of these effects is stronger today than ever. The cultural convergence described above can be observed in numerous aspects of our lives, and as can be expected, music promptly reflects these changes.
Shakira’s song “Waka-Waka,” written as an official song of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, includes African motifs both in rhythmic choices and in vocals. While the song was marred by controversy at the time of its performance, it is hard to miss the fact that it aims at aligning with the values of diversity and inclusiveness of sports in the globalized world. In fact, the controversy confirms that in this type of setting in 2010, such elements in the official FIFA World Cup song are almost inevitable.
The increasing power of media also contributes to the effect. The combination of local folk motifs and contemporary popular music, usually labeled in accordance with the country of origin (e.g., Korean pop), becomes both visible and influential on the global scene. A study by Bekhuis, Lubbers, and Ultee (2014) suggested that such genres remain popular mostly within their native environments and that the influence of globalization actually increases the effect. Nevertheless, because of visibility ensured in part by the Web, the exposure to various fusion styles inevitably produces interpenetration of different elements and further homogenizes contemporary pop music across the world.
Globalization creates a more culturally inclusive landscape by exposing individuals and communities to each other’s influences and prompting the adoption of new factors. The information above outlines the described process in music: Starting from individual merges, it created several subgenres, with world music being the most prominent. However, over time, the borders between these genres eroded, and they converged into what is currently known as pop music.
While the process is certainly incomplete, it has already created a product that differs significantly from its counterpart of thirty years ago, and it would be reasonable to expect further changes in this direction in the future.
Arnett, K. (2015). “Music in our hearts, not music in the charts”: An analysis of the contemporary electronic dance music scene. Web.
Bekhuis, H., Lubbers, M., & Ultee, W. (2014). A macro-sociological study into the changes in the popularity of domestic, European, and American pop music in Western countries. European Sociological Review, 30(2), 180–193.
Hammond, A. (2005). Pop culture Arab world! Media, arts, and lifestyle. Santa Barbara, CA: Abc-Clio.
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Panteli, M., Bittner, R. M., Bello, J. P., & Dixon, S. (2017). Towards the characterization of singing styles in world music.
Pieterse, J. N. (2015). Globalization and culture: Global mélange (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Taylor, T. D. (2014). Strange sounds: Music, technology and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.