A review of Between Two Monsters: Popular Music, Visual Media, and the Rise of Global Indie in 21st Century Uruguay, by Rachel Lears.
Indie is a slippery subject. By the time the fieldwork is finished and the interviews transcribed, it will have already morphed into something altogether different. Ethnographers, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists who care about global indie music scenes are few and far between, and from all our toil we can only hope for but a snapshot of a time and place, a link in a chain that is always already irrelevant with respect to the present tense of indie. Which makes Lears’s dissertation all the more captivating as it reads more like a film than an image, spanning nearly a decade (from July 2002 to January 2011) and following a range of Uruguayan indie cultural producers through major economic, political, and cultural shifts. Lears’s fieldwork research in Uruguay is bookended by the spillover of the banking crisis which hit Argentina in 2001 and the beginning of the Mujica tenure. The results of her research provide an intimate glimpse of the shakeups and consequences of two major historical upheavals for Uruguayan cultural producers, Latin America’s left turn and the contemporary ubiquity of digital media.
In the Introduction, Lears fleshes out her ethnographic focus, euphemistically referring to this group as “[t]he people who like color in a gray city” (p. 2). They are a diverse group: indie musicians, visual artists, audiovisual and/or design professionals who live in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. They are relatively young, born roughly during the civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay (1973-1985), and, as such, represent the first generation of national artists to come of age alongside digital media. They identify primarily as white and middle class, which is par for the course for Anglophone indie, and as Lears demonstrates, for most of Uruguay. These artists make up part of the tightly knit circuito cool montevideano (a recurring issue in this study revolving around the challenges and opportunities tied to practicing, performing, and producing within a scene in which everyone knows everyone). The majority of the cultural producers Lears references are, in one way or another, connected to the sole indie record label in Uruguay, Contrapedal Records. Lears draws from a variety of fields in her research, including ethnomusicology, visual cultural studies, Latin American studies, performance studies, media studies and political science. Her research frameworks tie together popular music theory (Simon Frith), subcultural (Dick Hebdige and the CCCS) and post-subcultural studies (David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl), indie anthropology (Wendy Fonarow and Matthew Bannister) with concepts of nations (Benedict Anderson) and fields (Pierre Bourdieu). Lears also deftly tackles some of the core concepts of indie ontology (aesthetics and sensibilities, D.I.Y. production, authenticity, connoisseurship and subcultural capital, etc.) within the cultural field of the circuito cool montevideano, the Uruguayan national market, and in relation to recent transformations in the global music industry as a result of the evolution of digital media.
In Chapter 1, through a skillful handling of social, economic, cultural, political, and historical processes, Lears concisely traces a series of fundamental transformations that would form a sense of national identity in twenty-first-century Uruguay. A series of dichotomies (folk vs. elite cultures, rural Blancos vs. urban Colorados, European immigration vs. African/indigenous decimation, Bakhtinian “barbaric” vs. “civilized” carnival practices, revolution vs. “revolution,” etc.) are interwoven into national soundscapes to give clarity to the notion of “the popular” in the Uruguayan context. Certain national tropes emerge as a consequence of these processes which Lears integrates throughout subsequent chapters: Uruguay as white in a mestizo continent, a national inferiority complex, cultural mimetism, the co-optation and commodification of popular and youth countercultural creations, and the campaign to repeal the Ley de Caducidad. Having established how tango, carnival, and rural folk musics came to be considered emblems of the national-popular, Lears rounds out her chronology with a concentrated focus on various waves of Uruguayan rock scenes as well as transformations within canto popular, candombe, murga, and fusion scenes which grounds the reader in oppositional dimensions of the popular, the nationalization of rock, and the consequences of both with respect to contemporary Uruguayan cultural production.
In Chapter 2, Lears hones in on the power dynamics underlying tropes of indie musical/visual production and connoisseurship as transformations in digital media have allowed for dramatic shifts in musical knowledge understood as both episteme (classificatory knowledge) and techne (practical skills) (p. 135). Lears remaps Sarah Thornton’s notion of subcultural capital back onto class in the context of the circuito cool montevideano, highlighting the ways in which “knowledge of mass-mediated popular culture can be very much linked to anxiety surrounding social difference and inequality” (p. 147). Lears transitions from a careful analysis of the democratizing effects on knowledge acquisition made available by the Internet and digital piracy to an analysis of the social capital of collaboration and the importance of the visuality of music within this scene as well as within the broader context of global indie. A unique characteristic of Uruguayan D.I.Y production demonstrates that wide-scale access to technical knowledge through formal or autodidactic training in design, film, and audio production within a scene in which “everyone knows everyone” allows for collaborative creativity and better overall aesthetic results despite limited economic resources. Such collaborative investments in affective labor displayed as knowledge can generate social tensions as labored visual aesthetics tend to connote elitism, the deployment of significant economic capital, and, thus, a lack of authenticity.
Lears delves further into questions of authenticity in her third chapter as they relate to performance. Via detailed case studies of three performing acts—Dani Umpi, Vieja Historia, and Closet—we see how ideological tensions play out between conflicting attitudes regarding authenticity and spectacle. One cannot help but notice the embedded quality underlying Lears’s perspicacious observations related to the performance of visuality, which indexes complex relationships among sexuality, class, and commerce within this scene. The professionalization of the live performance in Uruguay is a continuation of the theme of knowledge production studied in the prior chapter in which similar issues surface: “band members must be ‘rich kids’ if they consciously choose ostentatious display over the social obligation to appear modest and humble at all times, even on stage” (p. 218). Bands like Closet, though hampered by limited economic resources, deliberately cultivate celebrity personae in order to deliver an experience for their spectators. However, such artifice can at times alienate them from their audience as traditional social conventions that frame popular music performance in Uruguay demand authenticity.
In Chapter 4, Lears analyzes representations of the body, place, and time in a variety of music videos by bands in the Montevidean indie scene to consider the ways in which shifts in audiovisual production and consumption provide a rich context to understand historical, economic, and cultural ruptures (specifically the dictatorship, the banking crisis, and digital media) in Uruguay. Lears dialogues with David Harvey’s concept of “time-space compression” with her own notion of “spaciotemporal coordinates of belonging” to elucidate certain anxieties, aspirations, and artistic abilities of Montevidean cultural producers as they subjectively position themselves within space, place, and time through these signifying practices.
Chapter 5 begins an exploration of contemporary cultural production in relation to shifts in national cultural industries and policies. Lears concentrates here on tensions arising from a qualitative clash between supply and demand of cultural exports in Uruguay, specifically as they relate to national audiovisual and musical industries. Recent transformations in these industries have permitted and promoted a more sophisticated cultural production (the “professionalization” of the audiovisual sector, and a surge in international clients for their products, and public-private initiatives toward further investment in the music industry). The issue of cultural identity as a national resource that can be exported drives much of the aforementioned tension with respect to defining exactly what is meant when one refers to the Uruguayan brand: “proponents of national cultural branding stress pluralism over antiquated, monolithic notions of ‘tradition’ or ‘identity’” (p. 325).
Beginning with a detailed analysis of the Frente Amplio’s cultural policy (“Uruguay Cultural”) in the final chapter of her dissertation, Lears goes on to ground George Yúdice´s concepts of “the expediency of culture” and the “privatization of culture” within the context of contemporary Uruguay cultural production and exploitation. Lears also fleshes out the perceptions and realities related to the advantages and disadvantages of large vs. small domestic markets with respect to cultural production. The changing market conditions made available by digital technology (Lears dialogues here with Chris Anderson´s notion of the “Long Tail”) has brought about its own challenges and opportunities for digital entrepreneurship on an international scale. Lears finishes by adroitly tying together the various branding strategies–national cultural brands, bands as brands, branded citizens, and branded opposition (here to the Ley de Caducidad)–to attain a broad conceptual overview of an ever-increasing, multi-layered frenetic positioning within the competitive global marketplace and of new creative strategies to achieve social justice for Uruguay.
In Between Two Monsters, true to the title, there are many dichotomies beyond the historical and geographical that squeeze Uruguayan cultural producers. In a sense there is a universalizing quality inherent in this depiction of being and acting between two monsters which is really part of a long geopolitical history that has in part defined the entirety of the third world. And yet nothing is left so black and white as Lears consistently eschews simplified notions of monolithic antagonists. One of the core contributions of this study is its adaptability to larger global contexts as they relate to developments in local and independent artistic communities in metropolitan centers across Latin America. This fascinating ethnography will serve as a rich resource for researchers and educators in all of the fields that have informed her scholarship (mentioned in the second paragraph of this review). Rachel Lears masterfully handles her topic as she circles above Uruguay, Latin America, the Global South, centers and peripheries, global places and cyberspaces, weaving together a theoretical, cultural, and socio-historical tapestry before descending to Montevideo, to a neighborhood, to a single band or musician, breathing life and meaning into so many complex global flows.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish at the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
University of Miami
Multi-sited participant-observation ethnography
Musical and audiovisual texts
New York University. 2011. 420 pp. Primary Advisors: Thomas A. Abercrombie and Faye D. Ginsburg.
Image: Photo by Author.