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Being as this whole M.I.A. saga was started by the New York Times, I’ve found myself following it kinda closely. If you missed it, the NYT magazine published a whacking great article about M.I.A. last week. The article was written by Lynn Hirschberg, who some might remember from the hatchet job she did on Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain many years ago. M.I.A. clearly wasn’t happy with the article – unsurprisingly, as it portrayed her as a simpering fool happy to spout political rhetoric from the luxury of her LA mansion – and responded by first publishing Hirschberg’s number online, then posting snippets of the interview that she’d apparently recorded clandestinely herself, along with a new song lambasting Hirschberg and journalists in general.

So far, then, it’s a case of handbags at ten paces. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the article was essentially another Hirschberg stitch-up job. The precede asks “Is the Sri Lankan musician’s political rap more than just radical chic?”, and you get the impression that for Hirschberg, the answer was “no” from the start. Too often, her prejudices show through in her writing, and on the whole, this is a spectacularly bitchy piece. Judging by the comments it’s received on the NYT website, it’s done its job: one after another, anonymous haters – who’d probably never heard of M.I.A. before now – come out of the woodwork.

Obligatory M.I.A. picture

Given that M.I.A. did have a falling out with the NYT earlier this year (fair warning – there’s a really horrible image of a dead baby at the other end of that link), the publication of this article does raise the question of whether there was any payback involved. If so, it’s a truly nasty situation, and the NYT should be ashamed of themselves. But who’s to say? Only those involved really know.

But either way, the article’s a shitty piece of journalism. Clearly, there are some valid questions to be asked about M.I.A.’s politics. She’s been vocal in her support of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatists over the years, and there’s been a nagging sense that her views on the issue are kinda simplistic, and either way, her fiery rhetoric isn’t particularly helpful to the cause she’s espousing. This point was raised by the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum’s Ahilan Kadirgamar, who Hirschberg interviewed for her article. “People in exile tend to be more nationalistic,” he said. “And Maya took a very simplistic explanation of the problems between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and the Tamils… When Maya does a polarizing interview, it doesn’t help the cause of justice.”

Sensible, restrained, well-argued. So what did M.I.A. have to say in response to this? Here’s the rub: it doesn’t appear that she was given any opportunity to give her views on these points at all. Clearly, Hirschberg had plenty of time and chances to raise these issues with the singer, so you have to conclude that she chose not to do so.

Instead, here’s how Hirschberg wrote her article. The paragraph where she spoke to Kadirgamar ends with a quote from him: “[M.I.A.] doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do.” It’s begging for a segue into the singer’s response to his accusations.

But no. Instead, what you get is this: “But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal.”


Big, swinging, pendulous bollocks. How many of these fans has Hirschberg actually talked to? What sort of basis does she have for making a generalisation like that? I’m gonna guess: none. It’s the journalist’s own preconceptions showing through here, which makes for the laziest and most meaningless sort of writing.

In this respect, Hirschberg’s article represents a missed opportunity. She had the chance to ask relevant, sensible questions; she had the chance to challenge M.I.A.’s rhetoric; she had a chance to explore the article’s key question, of whether the singer’s “political rap [was] more than just radical chic”; and she didn’t. She took the easy way out. She bottled the chance to ask the difficult questions, and that’s the most depressing aspect of this whole sordid business: isn’t the most fundamental and important role of the journalist to ask questions? Good questions? People like Hirschberg, who hang out with someone for a week and then stick a knife in their back, are surely part of the reason why musicians are reluctant to grant journalists much access in the first place.

Even more depressingly, the majority of the fallout from the article isn’t even about politics. No, it’s about… french fries. Here’s another quote: “‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.’”

Yes, you get the implication, don’t you: here we have a hypocrite, munching on truffle-flavoured french fries while she bangs on about being an outsider. Unfortunately for Hirschberg, M.I.A. may or may not be politically naive and unduly self-aggrandising, but she’s no-one’s fool: it appears that she also recorded the interview, just in case, y’know, she was misquoted.

It turns out that she was – one of the two clips she published shows that she was indeed misquoted at least once. The other clip reveals that… drum roll… it was Hirschberg that ordered the truffle fries.


*deeper sigh*

*Marianas Trench sigh*

"She started it!" "No, she did!"

That’s how we’ll leave this whole saga. M.I.A. might be naive, she might be hypocritical, but Lynn Hirschberg’s article isn’t gonna resolve those questions either way. Not when the best that can come out of it is an argument over who ordered the truffle fries. God help us all.

Hey, today was the second installment of my monthly column in Melbourne’s Inpress magazine. Click through to have a read!

My name in print, vol 2

(That’s me down the right hand side, trying to squeeze as many words into that tiny little space as possible. If it ends a little abruptly, that’s because the last paragraph got edited, but them’s the breaks.)

The 15-minute phone interview is a staple of Australian music journalism. You get a quarter of an hour on the phone with a musician who’s doing press to promote a tour or a record, enough time to make slightly awkward small talk and ask a few questions about said tour or record and whatever other interesting things you can think up in order to make the experience somewhat more pleasurable for both parties.

As a promotional tool, it’s a winner – the artist can knock over most of the press they need to do in a couple of days, everyone can get their own interview to run with, you get enough quotes to fill our your half-page article, and everyone’s happy.

As a tool for actually learning anything about the artist and/or the art in question, however, it’s almost totally pointless. This does to an extent depend on the artist, but generally, how much can you learn about a person in the course of a 15-minute conversation? If you met someone in the supermarket queue and had a chat to them, you wouldn’t go off and write an article about them.

More fundamentally, the whole 15-minute phoner model represents something that I’ve come to dislike about the music press: music magazines these days are largely centred around getting to know the artists, rather than evaluating their work. Interviews occupy the bulk of editorial pages; reviews are pushed toward the back and generally given minimal word counts. They’re also where new writers are started off, before they can graduate onto the serious business of doing interviews.

Back in the day, when print media was profitable and magazines like Q and Select ran 10-page features, this wasn’t the case: they’d send journalists on tour with bands, or to spend a week with them in the studio, or whatever. But these days, it seems, no-one has the budget to do this any more, and record companies are disinclined to submit to such requests anyway. Thus, the phoner rules supreme.

But either way, the pre-eminence of the interview says something about us, I think: we want to know about the people who make our entertainment. You can see it in our obsession with celebrity – we want to uncover the person on the other side of the camera, to know everything detail of their lives, to prove to ourselves that they’re human like us, with all our foibles and failings. And we don’t trust our opinions. We want to know the full story. We want validation. Next time you go to the gallery, count how many people read the little plaque explaining a painting before they even look at the work.

We all do this to some extent – I know that certainly when I was younger, whenever I came to like someone’s music or writing, I wanted to go off and read up about them, to know everything. But really, art should stand on its own. It should speak for itself. You shouldn’t need to know everything about the artist. A good song, or a good painting, or a good book, speaks to you on its own. You can be struck by the visceral power of Francis Bacon’s images without knowing the first thing about him. A song like Famous Blue Raincoat is emotionally affecting and evocative, even if you don’t really know what it’s about.

This isn’t to say that all interviews are worthless. Musicians are often interesting people, with a lot to say on all sorts of subjects. As a result, some of my favourite interviews – both mine and others’ – have been about everything but the artist in question’s music. In some cases, knowing an artist’s backstory can also make their work more compelling – listening to Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible in view of Richey Edwards’ disappearance, say, or reading Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy in the knowledge that he committed suicide the day he finished The Decay of the Angel. But both those works also stand on their own two feet even if you have no idea of the context.

In fairness, the advent of the music blog has begun to alter the critical landscape. The absolutely fucking awesome 20 Jazz Funk Greats, for instance, gives you pretty much zero information about the artists whose music it distributes. I’ve been enjoying listening to the music of these mysterious faceless artists and knowing nothing about them. It’s refreshing. The limitless space of the internet allows people to devote thousands of words to criticism and evaluation, allowing for really interesting discussions of music. But for now, the print media’s totem pole still places the artist well above the art.

Anyway, this is all stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, but this particular blog entry was catalysed to a large extent by an excruciating interview – yes, a 15-minute phoner – I did with Lou Reed the other day. The idea of interviewing a hero of my teen years, someone whose music I’ve admired immensely, should probably have been more exciting than it was. Unfortunately, Lou’s reputation precedes him – he detests interviews and also seems to detest journalists.

You can kinda understand why:

But whatever the case, his palpable contempt for the entire interview process makes speaking to him a singularly disconcerting and largely unpleasant experience. Personally, it was a disappointment – I thought my questions were pretty sensible and could have done with some more respect. But in a broader sense, I can understand and empathise with Reed’s disinclination to share any more of himself than he chooses to do so via his music – although, in that sense, you’d think he’d just include a clause in whatever contract he signs to say that he won’t do interviews.

"What sort of a question is that??"

The experience has certainly crystallised my dislike for the whole phoner process. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and things like the the piece I wrote for The Big Issue recently, because they let me write about a subject that I care deeply about – music – outside the strictures of needing to whack together some interview questions and knock out an article.

Anyway, they say you should never meet your heroes. That might be true. But what’s definitely true is that you should never meet your heroes in the context of a 15-minute phone interview.

It’s at least a week since I wrote here, and I’d like to say that it’s because I’ve been out doing all sorts of amazing interesting stuff – I have been doing various things of various interest, but really, I haven’t been writing anything as I’ve been a) drinking and b) watching the Australian dollar take a slow and graceful swan dive into oblivion.

BUT! I’ve also been trying to teach myself to use Ableton to DJ, in the hope of getting a DJ gig here. I started off trying to make a mix CD that’d convince people of my worthiness on the turntables, but what I ended up with was a largely downtempo mix of interesting tunes that hasn’t got a hope in hell of getting me any sort of work in public. I do kinda like it, though, so I thought I’d post it here as the inaugural NY Conversation megamix!

Grand Master! Cut faster!

I make no claims on being any sort of a turntablist, and the mixing on this ranges from passable to downright bodgey, but there are some great tracks on there – some old, some new, largely electronic but with a smattering of guitars thrown in for good measure. Have a listen!

NY Conversation vs May 2010

(Warning: it’s a kinda big file – 90MB or so – but, like, totally worth it…)

EDIT: And here’s the tracklist, which I neglected to include before

Dean & Britta – Anne Buchanan Theme
Secret Circuit – Roll
Memory Cassette – Asleep at a Party
Magnetophone – Rae and Suzette
Balam ACAB – Heavy Living Things
Oneohtrix Point Never – Betrayed in the Octagon
Royksopp – Silver Cruiser
ISAN – One Man Abandon
Julianna Barwick – Cloudbank
St Helens – Coffin Scratch
Erasers – Lost///Found
Grouper – Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping

I recently got asked to write a short piece for Drum about the “underground” scene in New York, à propos of the Vivid Festival in Sydney, which Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are curating.

This got me thinking about what sort of “underground” exists in New York these days, and what the term even means. We’ve spent a fair bit of time doing our best to permanently pickle our livers by going out pretty much every night to warehouse parties, small gigs and similar events of late, and it’s been interesting exploring what’s happening beyond the glitz and glamour of Manhattan.

Clearly, I haven’t been here for long, but it’s pretty obvious that the NYC you grow up in Australia romanticising – a mythic Manhattan of Bowery bums and ramshackle rent-controlled lofts and furtive street corner drug deals – just doesn’t exist any more, and hasn’t for some time. This is what I touched on in the post a few days back about Patti’s pessimism.

Admittedly, this is stating the obvious – no-one could expect the city to be the same today as it was in the decade where it gave birth to punk and then no wave – although it’s still interesting to observe just how different Manhattan is today to the grimy black-and-white photographs you see in Victor Bockris’ biographies and books like Please Kill Me.

But the scene isn’t dead; it’s just different. There’s still an absurd amount of culture to be devoured here. Certainly, in Melbourne, you don’t find yourself walking into a fundraiser for the local communist party that features three levels of music – a rooftop bar with Clash singalongs, a mezzanine of earnest performance poetry with young bespectacled men and acoustic guitars), and a basement of slamming left-wing hip hop. It was really great and completely unexpected.

Nor, indeed, do you find yourself fleeing the NYPD through a strange Hasidic neighbourhood at 3am, which is what we found ourselves doing this weekend past. We were heading to a party called Rubalat, which is a huge warehouse party that’s been going for the best part of 15 years, and is now something of an institution. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s immune to being shut down by the police, which is what was happening right when we turned up.

We arrived at the party to find police cars out the front and several people in flamboyant costumes doing their best to edge discreetly away (difficult when you’re dressed as a giant pink palm tree). Happily our Melbourne black allowed us to blend a little better into the shadows, and we hightailed it around the corner before anyone noticed the bottle of cheap whisky that we’d been happily swigging from.

This after a half-hour hike around East Broadway in search of a liquor store, which are surprisingly few and far between, especially at midnight. Most likely, only five already somewhat pissed Australians would consider it a good idea to wander around the projects at night looking for a bottle-o. But still, we found one. And we found the party.

Eventually (after another close shave with the cops when answering a call of nature – apparently public urination carries a $100 fine, but hey, if you have to go, you have to go), we ended up at another warehouse, which seemed to be hosting some sort of techno party. On further investigation, it turned out that said techno party was actually a wedding reception, but the DJ seemed happy enough for us to stay. We debated the ethics of drinking the free alcohol for  a while, with predictable results. In our defence, we did do our best to stay out of the wedding photos. Still, we may well be going to hell.

The NYC underground, circa 2010

After the whole crazy evening, the Rubalat party – which we eventually got into at about 3am – was kinda a let-down, notwithstanding that it featured a swarm of bands and DJs and performance artists and crazy decorations. There were just way too many people – it seemed like a victim of its own success, a party that used to be dynamic and cutting edge and was now treading water. But then, no doubt there’s something else that’s gonna take its place. We just need to find it.

Anyway, the point of this whole anecdote is that there’s a fucking shitload of stuff to do and see here, and if that constitutes the “underground”, then all the better. But really these are just labels that mean nothing. What matters is that there are still people making interesting music and art – and there are. Loads of them.

Of course it’s massively easy to romanticise these things, and no doubt the scene is as plagued with politics and pretension as its antipodean counterpart. In a way, it’s nice not to know anyone – that way you have no preconceptions and are ready to experience anything and everything. And it doesn’t matter whose wedding you crash.

Yay! People actually publish this stuff!

Inpress column sees the light of day - click on it to actually, like, read it

(Loyal readers – ie. people who’ve actually read all the posts on this blog – may find some of this familiar. But still, have a read anyway…)

So I want to share this story that our new friend Lucy told us the other night. It’s possibly the best story ever.

Picture two fairly ghetto girls on the subway. Their conversation goes as follows:

Ghetto Girl 1: Remember when your mom had that tiger?
Ghetto Girl 2: Oh man, that thing was so cute!
(much fluffing about how cute tiger was as a cub)
GG1: But it got big!
GG2: That thing was as big as a dog!
GG1: What happened to it, anyway?
GG2: Well, it got so big that my mom threw it out.
GG1: She threw it out?
GG2: Yeah, she just threw it out the back.
GG1: What did it do?
GG2: Oh, it hung around out the back for a while, then it kinda just disappeared.
GG1: That’s a shame.
(more fluffing about how cute tiger was)
GG2: Oh, but do you remember? I saw on the TV a couple of months later that some guy got mauled by a tiger? Man, I was watching it on the TV and I was like, ‘BITCH, THAT’S MY TIGER!'”

This country is not like other countries.

Tiger! Uppercut

I really, really, really like Patti Smith. I have immense respect for her and for the body of work she’s produced over the years. Discovering Horses and Rock’N’Roll Nigger and Birdland and her poems at the age of 17 was like a revelation, the idea that rock music could be as thrillingly cerebral and literate as it could be viscerally thrilling. In short, I think she’s pretty fucken awesome and generally spot on about stuff.

But this kinda shits me. Not because I think she’s necessarily wrong – I haven’t really been in New York for long enough to say if she’s right or wrong, to be honest, although it does appear to me that there are plenty of artists surviving and doing really interesting work in the process. Even if Manhattan is prohibitively expensive – albeit less so these days than a couple of years ago – there’s plenty of great stuff happening in Brooklyn and, no doubt, elsewhere.

No, it annoys me for two other reasons. One, it smacks of an attitude that I’ve noticed a bit here – that NYC was waaaaay better back in the day and today’s city is a pale, commercialised imitation of the place in its artistic glory days. You get a similar thing in Melbourne. It usually comes from people about Patti’s age, who don’t actually get out a whole lot these days to see new art or bands or theatre or whatever. Cities ebb and flow. Things will never be the same as they were in 1975, but that doesn’t mean that they’re better or worse. They’re just different.

And two, even if she is right on the first point, it annoys me because it’s defeatist. I started a course a few years back – a diploma in professional writing and editing at the CAE. It had its moments – some of the editing stuff was useful, in a deathly dull way, and the creative classes bulldozed me into finishing about three-quarters of a novel before deciding it wasn’t gonna fly and consigning it to the drawer, where it remains (for now, at least). But I eventually lost interest for a variety of reasons, one of which is relevant here.

One of the things we had to do was a kind of industry class. The idea was that it was meant to introduce you to various aspects of the publishing industry, but what it actually consisted of was a weekly gloom-and-doom session, where an endless succession of people would come and tell us about how wonderful their particular job was, and how lucky they were to have it, and how they wouldn’t like to be starting out today, and how everything’s so difficult, and how 90% of us were going to end up on the dole, and etc.

I eventually stopped attending because the whole thing shat me so much. Nothing is easy. If I didn’t think I’d be able to get some sort of editing job, I’d never have done the course in the first place. I had to go to India to get said job, but so it goes.

And I can’t imagine life for Patti Smith was particularly easy when she moved to NYC in 1967.In fact, I *know* it wasn’t, because I’ve heard her music and read two biographies. It was a struggle.

Patti and Robert, when it was OK to struggle in NYC

And it’s a struggle now. Thank god Leila and I have some savings, otherwise we’d be royally and comprehensively fucked. We may still be.

But that’s not the point. Of course it’s hard to be an artist or a writer here. But it’s hard everywhere. If and when I leave NYC, it’ll be on my own terms. If I fail, I fail. That’s fine. But I won’t be defeated or give up. In fact, I had some of Patti Smith’s words in my head when I first came here last year:

“And I got nothin’ to hide here save desire/And I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get out of here/I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train/I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City/I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City/I’m gonna be so bad I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return/Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory/And I will travel light.

Oh, watch me now.”

(Please note: I’m not going to be a big star. But you get the idea.)

America gave the world the concept of celebrity, the idea of stars who inhabit a rarified world that’s entirely separate to your own, one that you can watch on TV and dream about one day being a part of. In recent years, the whole idea of stardom has been undermined somewhat by the advent of reality TV, with its Warholian promises of fame for being entirely ordinary, but still, there’s a class of people who seem to dwell in a parallel universe of VIP areas and paparazzi. Stepping into that world, even for half an hour, is a strange experience.

So it is when I find myself sitting backstage at a Chelsea TV studio with Courtney Love, interviewing her for Jmag and Inpress. What’s she like? Well, she’s as you’d expect, really. She’s larger than life in every respect – a good 6’2″, brash, extroverted, referring to Lou [Reed] and Rick [Rubin] and Michael [Stipe] by their first names, full of outlandish anecdotes, punctuating them with sudden uproarious laughter. It’s hard to know what to make of someone like this, about who you’ve heard and read so much over so many years. It’s hard to separate the person from the persona. But my immediate and surprisingly strong reaction is that I like her.

Which is interesting, because people hate her. HATE her. HAAAAAAAAAAAAAATE her. I’ve never really understood it. Sure, I’ve never been a massive Hole fan, but the degree of personal antipathy people feel for someone they’ve never met always bewilders me. The amount of (generally anonymous) abuse poured on celebrities over the internet is amazing; the flipside of people’s fascination with celebrity is their eagerness to judge those celebrities flaws – in a hilariously self-righteous and hypocritical fashion, if you ask me.

Courtney Love, live at Terminal 5, 27/4/10 - by Leila Morrissey

But even so, Courtney Love seems to cop more than her fair share. There’s something about this woman (and the fact that she’s a woman is surely something to do with it) that truly rubs people the wrong way.

Today, she’s eminently likeable, although I do get the feeling that I’ve got her on a good day, and I’m glad that’s the case. She thrives on being the centre of attention, the force of her personality taking centre stage. As you’d expect. This isn’t a derogatory observation, just a statement of fact. I don’t thin you get as famous as Courtney Love without somehow, somewhere, craving that fame. Call it narcissism or a simple refusal to be ignored, but there are some people who crave the spotlight, both on stage and off.

But she’s also polite, funny and quite charming. She dominates the conversation, as you’d expect – I ask a couple of questions and watch her go, chain-smoking and leaping from one topic to another so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up, let alone get a word in edgeways. Crucially, though, it seems to me that she’s real. Charging across the room to exhort me to Google something on the computer, going off on tangent after tangent, razor sharp beneath the ditziness: this is how she is. And I get to thinking, maybe that’s why people don’t like Courtney Love. Not because they think she killed Kurt, or that her fame outweighs her talent, or that she doesn’t get along with Dave Grohl, or that she’s a narcissist and shameless self-publicist. Because she’s imperfect and thus an easy target for our vicarious vitriol.

We like our celebrities super-human, and we like to tear them down when they can’t live up to our ideals. Courtney Love has always been all too human, all too ready to reveal her flaws in public. There’s none of the militant image control of, say, Madonna. When Courtney fucks up, we know about it. And she does. She fucks around, she fucks up and she comes back for more.

Back at the studio, the publicist calls time on the interview, which is probably a good idea or I’d most likely still be there. I slip out the back door of the TV station, which doubles as the delivery entrance, past the garbage cans, and emerge back onto 26th Street. Back into the world.

I don’t envy people like Courtney Love. I’m glad I don’t need the spotlight, don’t crave attention like she does. But I find people like her interesting. And it’s certainly an experience to share their space for a while.

Here’s a piece that was recently published in The Big Issue in Melbourne, inspired by the fact that people seem to insist on shitcanning Vampire Weekend for being white people playing black music. This sort of thing annoys me.

Paul Simon was down on his luck in 1985. His marriage had fallen apart, his career was on the skids and Art Garfunkel wasn’t speaking to him, mainly because Simon had expunged Garfunkel’s vocals from their last record and released it as a solo album. That album – Hearts and Bones – sold badly, leaving Simon with a tarnished public reputation and an irate long-term collaborator.

Imagine his delight, then, when he first heard the joyous sounds of South African mbqanga music. He apparently discovered the genre – a lively style that originated in the townships around Johannesburg – via a cassette given to him by a friend. A light bulb went off above his balding pate, and within a year, he’d decamped to Johannesburg to record his next album with a variety of local musicians.

The resultant album – Graceland – wasn’t the first album to marry Western and non-Western musical styles, but it was the first such record to trouble the charts, let alone land at #1. It dragged Simon’s career out of the gutter, and, along with Peter Gabriel’s work in roughly the same period, introduced the MTV generation to “world music” – the catch-all we-can’t-think-of-what-else-to-call-it genre that remains in most record shops to this day.

As well as being hugely successful, though, Graceland was controversial. There was a legal battle with Tex-Mex band Los Lobos, who played on one of the songs and were decidedly unimpressed to find that they hadn’t got a songwriting credit. More appositely, there was the fact that Simon had recorded in South Africa while the country was still under a United Nations cultural embargo due to its government’s apartheid policy. And then there were the whisperings that the whole thing was somehow exploitative, that Simon had swiped the sounds of Africa and passed them off as his own – when he performed at Howard University in Washington shortly after the album’s release, he was met with protests and accusations of cultural larceny.

Whatever your thoughts on Graceland, and on “world” music in general, it’s the last accusation that continues to resonate today. Apartheid has, happily, long since been condemned to the garbage bin of history. The Los Lobos spat came and went. But the concept of Western musicians taking on influences from outside their own cultural sphere remains contentious.

Recently, there’s been a similar furore over US indie band Vampire Weekend, whose second album Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart in February. Vampire Weekend make no bones about the fact that they love African music – frontman Ezra Koenig has dubbed the band’s sound “upper West Side Soweto” – and both their albums have been exuberantly cross-cultural, full of African and Jamaican sounds. They’ve been successful, but few bands in recent years have attracted a more furious critical crossfire.

Upper West Side Soweto

Some of the criticisms that have been levelled against Vampire Weekend are a latter-day echo of the whisperings about Graceland – the New York Times, for instance, accused them of “cultural tourism”. The common thread is that four privileged white kids from Ivy League universities shouldn’t be playing African music. They just shouldn’t.

But why not? No-one complains when African musicians take on Western influences. No-one accuses musicians like Senegalese desert blues maestro Baaba Maal or Indian slide guitar pyrotechnician Debashish Bhattacharya – both of whom bring Western influences to indigenous music – of “cultural tourism”. But when it’s vice versa, the music seems to be judged a priori as some sort of post-colonial hangover, whereby privileged whiteys appropriate the sounds of the under-privileged third world for their own nefarious purposes.

The idea that poor black artists can only look on as rapacious whites plunder their musical heritage is deeply patronising for all concerned. This view ignores the fact that genuine cultural interchange has to be, well, an interchange – something that goes both ways. It ignores the fact that such interchange has been going on for centuries. (Heading back to Graceland for a moment, mbaqanga itself evolved as a South African take on jazz, melding big band instrumentation with traditional rhythms and vocals. Jazz, of course, had its origins in the USA, but its roots in the West African sounds that came to the new world on the slave ships of the 18th century. And so on.)

And it ignores the fact that such interaction can be massively beneficial. In India, for instance, fusion music – the combination of Indian classical music with Western instrumentation and production techniques – has exploded in recent years, helping to keep Indian classical the living and breathing tradition that it is today (in contrast to its Western counterpart). Graceland brought mbaqanga to the world, and also revitalised the genre itself, the popularity of which had apparently been flagging in South Africa throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Clearly, the balance has often been unequal in the past – the case of Solomon Linda, who wrote The Lion Sleeps Tonight (an early example of African sounds making their way into Western popular consciousness) and died penniless, springs to mind. But then, as anyone who’s worked in the music industry can tell you, such exploitation isn’t inherently tied to race or culture. It’s about power, and the balance of power these days isn’t nearly as uneven as it used to be. Non-Western musicians can exist on a commercial footing with their Western counterparts – look at Pakistanisufi legend Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who in his last years moved from subcontinental superstardom into truly global appreciation. Or for a more prosaic example, look at Pussycat Dolls covering AR Rahman’s theme for Slumdog MillionaireJai Ho – who’d have thought even 10 years ago that a Hindi film song would hit #1 in Australia?

Albums like Graceland and Vampire Weekend’s output help to facilitate exchange in both directions. A white American kid discovering Fela Kuti from listening to Contra has to be a good thing. If such discoveries happen enough, then maybe the whole us-and-them concept of “world” music can be consigned to the garbage bin of history – to sit somewhere next to apartheid. Paul Simon and his contemporaries helped to broaden the West’s musical horizons. We should celebrate the fact that the 25 years later, a new generation of musicians is again looking to the world for inspiration, and look forward to the results of their search.