They say travel broadens the mind. But tourism is a multi-million dollar industry and there are still a lot of pretty narrow minds out there. Still, one of my fellow columnists has traveled the world (for free!?), and can also boast one of the broadest minds around, so maybe they do go hand in hand. I haven't done much in the way of exotic traveling myself (unless you count traversing continental Europe or a good swathe of the US in the back of a van) but there are certainly parts of the world I'd like to see before I die. To give you one particularly ludicrous example, I've lived in California for ten years and have never visited Mexico. I never got that urge to grab a backpack and a Lonely Planet guidebook and 'do' Central America, or Thailand, or India, or wherever else you might find intrepid twenty-something blue-eyed westerners gripped with an unquenchable desire to visit the world's Internet cafes. I guess it's the "cheap holiday in other people's misery" syndrome, or just white male guilt, but there's something unsettling about the idea of plopping oneself in the middle of some third world country to 'absorb the culture' and ogle the natives. It's not that I necessarily think there's anything wrong with traveling per se, I just have a hard time with the imbalance of it all. The western tourist (or traveler if you prefer) has the agency and privilege to visit just about any country he or she pleases, but often, the people of the visited country barely have the means to make it out of their immediate town, never mind their country. Again, I'm not trying to condemn anyone for visiting other countries or whatever, but maybe someone who has done some traveling can write and tell me if they thought about this stuff before or during their trip, and how they dealt with it?
I read an interview in the new issue of Herbivore Magazine with writer Inga Muscio, who says she only goes places she's been invited. That struck a chord with me – perhaps that was why I felt so much discomfort at the idea of being the privileged western traveler. If you have been invited somewhere, then presumably you have made some sort of personal connection with someone living in that country. This goes a long way towards solving the dilemma. Of course, it's rare for the average person to come home from work one day to find a note on the doormat from a random stranger in Costa Rica inviting him down for a two-week stay, all expenses paid. There's still a certain amount of privilege implied in being a writer or artist who is invited to foreign countries to share his or her work – or worse, to experience exotic places on our behalf, and report back in their art on the cultures they 'discover'.
While it might be unrealistic to expect everyone to nurture personal relationships with locals from any country they might be planning to visit, it might be a way (for the hopelessly guilt-ridden, like myself) to be able to travel and actually feel okay about it. (Note: whatever it seems like, this column is NOT a thinly veiled solicitation for invitations to your country. Honest.)
Actually, with the growing popularity of communication and networking tools like MySpace and Skype, there's a lot of potential for traditional geographic boundaries to become less important. It certainly makes it easier and cheaper for people to foster international friendships – assuming one has access to a computer with an internet connection (that problem of privilege again.)
Actually, perhaps the most pragmatic and honest way to approach travel is to acknowledge the economic realities of the situation – "I can go to this country because I can afford it, and the economy of this country depends on tourist dollars." Accept the fact that the locals probably see you purely as a vehicle for bringing your western wealth to their impoverished area. Stay in a luxury resort, get plastered on cheap margaritas, tip generously, and have a blast. A few shots of Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo tequila probably goes a long way to alleviating that liberal guilt, huh..?
If all is going according to plan this issue of the magazine extends last month's focus on punk business. With your permission, I'd like to address the topic a little more.
We punks are quick to get up in arms when one of 'our' bands signs to a major label or sells their music to be used on a TV show or in a commercial. It's one of the unwritten principles of punk rock that it cheapens your art when you use it to sell things. In recent times though, the mainstream media and commercial culture have sought to incorporate even the 'edgiest' and most rebellious strains of art and music into their efforts to market consumerism and materialism. Maybe instead of being pissed off that they're using the Stooges to sell luxury cars, we should ask ourselves why they're using the Stooges to sell luxury cars. The answer is, because it works. At this point, I doubt there's a style of music out there that couldn't be used to sell something, and if there is, it's certainly not punk rock as we know it. Almost any song by your favorite bands could be played over a commercial for something – maybe not luxury cars, but some disposable consumer product or other – and used to market that product so some demographic. These days, it's become almost the point of making music for some people.
I guess what I'm saying is that at any given time, your favorite band could be offered an unthinkable sum of money for one of their songs to be used in a commercial. If they're a super-political, DIY band with no interest in making money from their art, or at least no interest in being exploited for corporate interests, they'll probably say no. If they're a somewhat political band who could use the money, they might say yes. They may justify it to themselves and their fans by saying they deserve the money because they need health insurance (and why not?) or that they are getting their message out to a wider audience via that 30 second spot between Desperate Housewives and Law And Order SVU or whatever (I don't even know if they're on the same network, never mind the same night…). If they're a pop-punk or skate thrash or metalcore or whatever band with no politics in the music to speak of, they might just take the money and be glad of it, fuck anyone who complains. These are just three scenarios, but the fact is this situation probably plays out differently for each and every band that finds itself offered such an opportunity. Whichever reason your favorite band gives for taking the money and doing the commercial, you will probably feel slightly betrayed.
As members of the punk scene, we derive much of our collective identity from what we perceive as shared values. When we discover that someone we respected didn’t share all those values after all, we feel abandoned. However, we all have different ideas of what those shared values are – generally speaking, the one thing that seems to unite us is this: "we are into bands that don't sell out." Obviously, what 'selling out' means is open to interpretation but I think the basic point is true. And when we tie ourselves, our community, our values, our sense of who we are to the whims of individuals in rock and roll bands we sell ourselves short. Maybe we need to readjust our values and beliefs, and devote more attention to the facets of our culture that are less easily defined.