When I was a teenager, I had a “friend”
named Barry Tell. By “friend” I mean someone who hung around the
house a lot and never seemed to leave. He was a crackhead and he
lived in a camper behind an abandoned warehouse. He cooked Ramen
noodles on a kerosene stove.

My family had a cat named “Velma.”
She was a calico. When she was a kitten, she had a twin named
Daphne. However, Daphne died young from an allergic reaction to a
flea medication, and Velma turned mean. She was one of the meanest
cats that I ever met.

Barry came over to the house one day,
and he tormented Velma. I told him, “Barry, don’t fuck with the
cat! She will rip you apart!” He laughed and carried on.

When I was in another room, he put a
shower curtain grommet around Velma’s front paws, so that she was
handcuffed. She fussed and squirmed, rolling around the floor,
trying to break free.

Finally, Barry reached down to release
the grommet from her paws. As soon as she got one paw free, Velma
wildly swung her paw through the air, claws fully extended, and
ripped the flesh from Barry’s hand. Barry screamed madly as jets of
blood shot onto the linoleum floor.

“I told you not to fuck with that
cat,” I told him. “She’s mean. You’re lucky she didn’t go for
your throat.” He went to the hospital, and he had to get 17
stitches. I still chuckle about it to this day.

What is “is”?

Today we had a riveting discussion in “Music As A World Phenomenon.”  Our professor, who happens to be a hot blonde Byelorussian (you don’t see enough of them strutting around in high heel boots), played four samples of music, and we were supposed to identify whether it counted as “music” or not.

I successfully identified the first sample as an Arabic prayer chant from the Middle East, and made mention of the fact that many religious fanatics do not consider it “music” because (a) it is part of their religious observance, and (b) music is forbidden.

The professor is stressing the need for a “relativistic” approach to world music, in which we respect the products of other people’s culture and we do not pass judgment on whether one kind of music is “better” or “worse” than another.

However, I raised the objection that Muslims who live in the United States tend to be more liberal and more influenced by Sufism (which is more open to music), and those who claim that Arabic prayer chants are not “music” are making a claim based on a dictate of religious orthodoxy and not on any objective definition of music.

In other words, since (a) music is forbidden, and (b) we happen to like Arabic prayer chants instead of spoken word recitations, we will therefore define Arabic prayer chants as “not music” so that we can have our cake and eat it too.  In a like spirit, if I were a fundamentalist Muslim, I would declare that punk rock is “not music” (and many old ladies would agree with me), and therefore I could still listen to punk rock since it is “not music.”

So I questioned whether we should “respect” every aspect of a totalitarian culture, especially when it seems to be intellectually dishonest and engaged in imposing bizarre definitions on the masses purely in order to manipulate and control them.

She said yes, because we should respect other people’s cultures even when we don’t agree with them.  But on a more fundamental level, I would question whether the imposition of religious orthodoxy is an organic development of the popular culture and not just the result of a power struggle in which one faction (the anti-music faction) happened to seize power and impose its will on the people for a long enough time that outsiders will look at it and say that it’s part of their “culture.”

In other words, can a “culture” be coerced?  And does one have to respect the definitions of a coerced culture, in which a privileged few are shoving their opinions down the throats of the masses, the same way that one would respect the products of an authentic popular culture?  And will I get shot for saying all this?