No Musical Flag

By: Marcelo Báez

“These assholes, they’re Italian?” said a bewildered concertgoer. “They look like hipsters from Bushwick.”

He was talking to his friend, a teenager with a Skinny Puppy shirt, while Soviet Soviet, a band from Pesaro, Italy, were doing their sound check. It happened a few weeks ago at 285 Kent Ave, a Brooklyn venue whose interior decor consists of spray-painted walls, a couple of possibly bed-bug-infested thrift-store couches and a bar with handwritten cardboard menus.  

Punk rock, dude.

It makes one wonder: when these teenagers found out that an Italian band was sharing the bill with three local bands—all of them sorta goth, kinda punk, slightly industrial—what were they expecting? That the members of Soviet Soviet would look like the Super Mario brothers? Or maybe like the cast of Jersey Shore but with black eyeliner instead of a tan?

Skewed perceptions of what foreign musicians should look like—and, by extension, what they sound like—are surprisingly common in America. Probably because the average American listener mostly consumes English-sung music from home, Britain, Canada and a handful of other English-speaking countries. (Hi, Lorde!) Perhaps things are different now than, say, 10 years ago, thanks to the Internet, but it’s still rare for a non-English-singing act to get any attention in the US. (Hi, Juana Molina and PSY!)

Other countries tend to be a lot more inclusive. Michel Teló’s “Ai Se Eu Te Pego!,” for example, charted very well in all of Latin America and Europe, even though it’s sung entirely in Portuguese. A similar thing happened with Kaoma’s cover of “Lambada” over 20 years ago. And throughout the ’90s, the Turkish pop singer Tarkan enjoyed solid success both home and abroad way before releasing his first English record in 2006.  

Can we fault the typical American for his or her xenophobic record shelves? Not really. The American music industry is the biggest in the world and that means there’s a lot of product to be examined, dissected and consumed. And just like the French are not precisely eager to buy cheese from the Russians, most Americans can’t be bothered to peruse through some foreign band’s website because, well, it’s full of gibberish and gibberish-sung music.

But do you want to know what really confused the teenagers from the first paragraph? It wasn’t Soviet Soviet’s seemingly normal appearance—well, normal for Brooklyn. It was the fact that they sounded like a British post-punk band even though they are Italian. I could see a bubble floating above their heads with the following words inside: “What, no tarantellas?”

Here’s a theory: most (though not all) of the foreign artists, bands and performers that manage to make a name for themselves in the States do so because they sound like stereotypical American bands. The Buena Vista Social Club, for example, sounds like what most Americans perceive as Latin (brass section, shakers, cowbells, timbales, etc.). That’s easy to grasp because it’s the sort of music that’s played at Chevys restaurants or in racist cartoons. But introducing the idea that other types of music—specifically music that is generally not associated with the country from where a song or band is coming from—becomes confusing.

French music? It will only make sense if it has some sort of accordion, not a drum machine. The Swedes? It better be pop à la ABBA or Ace of Base, not alternative rock. Peruvian punk from the ’60s? What? Naw, let’s stick to Carlos Santana and his brand of psychedelic rock, thank you very much.

Of course, this is the average music fan we’re talking about here, not a nerd like yourself (if you read this far down, you’re probably one). Music nerds tend to be the same regardless of their demographic. Case in point, Soviet Soviet’s “1990,” the first single off Fate, their recently released second record, came to my attention by way of a Mexican music blog.

Speaking of, towards the end of Soviet Soviet’s set, the skeptical teenagers were nodding their heads in rhythm. Did the band manage to win them over? Well, the kids were looking at the band and their smartphones remained inside their pockets, so... possibly?

Wonder, it makes you.

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.