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America the not so beautiful
Caetano Veloso looks to the US

Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso has called his new album of American cover songs A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch). The title comes from one of the songs he reinterprets, Bob Dylan’s "It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding," on which Dylan sings, "You feel to moan but unlike before/You discover/That you’d just be/One more person crying//So don’t fear if you hear/A foreign sound to your ear." But it resonates as more than a mere Dylan reference. It’s a way of describing what Veloso does to American popular music — he turns it into a foreign sound, the music of a country not his own. On the one hand, this may seem elementary. After all, Veloso is a Brazilian singing "foreign" songs by Irving Berlin, Kurt Cobain, Stevie Wonder, David Byrne, and Cole Porter. But what’s the last time you heard American music described as foreign?

In the liner notes, Veloso cites a character from his 1986 film O cinema falado who calls English "the language of domination." In much the same way, American music is the music of domination, the most used and commercially available musical language in the world. Calling American music "foreign" upsets a global balance of cultural power that reigns as self-evident. American music is the norm; everything else is world music.

Veloso’s album flips this logic by making the dominant sound a foreign one. To make sure we get the point, he starts A Foreign Sound with "The Carioca," which was written by Vincent Youmans for the 1933 film Going Down to Rio. A tribute to the dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perform in the film, "The Carioca" is a classic bit of South American pop exotica ("Now that you’ve done the carioca/You’ll never care to do the polka/ And then you’ll realize the blue hula and bamboola are through") with enough elegant sentiment ("When music and lights are gone and we’re saying goodbye") for Veloso to turn it into an oddly wrenching, erotic ballad.

The original "Carioca" played on the foreignness of Brazil while constructing it at the same time (complete with Mexican actress Dolores del Rio passing as Brazilian). By doing his version of the song, Veloso imitates an imitation of his country and hands a representation back to its creator instead of accepting it as true. Although this doesn’t happen in the same way when he sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" or, yes, "Feelings" (on which we get to hear the ridiculous becoming the sublime), A Foreign Sound still can’t help feeling ideological — a subtle, beautifully rendered inversion of American chauvinism.

And as an album anchored in perspective and interpretation, it could not have arrived at a more important political moment. Perhaps more than at any time in recent history, America is being forced (cue optimism) into a state of extreme self-consciousness and national insecurity and forced to look directly at the dangerous and humiliating fallout of maintaining the transparency of American might and right. The recent emergence into public view of the Abu Ghraib prison photographs has exposed the lies of American international morality.

Yet as Frank Rich has pointed out in the New York Times, Rumsfeld’s initial shock had less to do with the content of the images (soldiers violating and humiliating prisoners; Iraqi men attacked by dogs, then dragged across the floor on a leash as if they were dogs) than with the administration’s lack of control over their production and proliferation. "Their power to enforce their own narrative of this war has waned," Rich wrote of Rumsfeld’s inability to monitor the nearly 1800 images he maintains he never knew existed.

The result has been the Veloso effect: America as the object of the international gaze, not the subject of it. Suddenly, American standards like democracy, humanity, and equality — however flawed they might have been in the past — are the most foreign sounds of all. All over the world, columnists and pundits are weighing in on the loss of American values, the corruptions of absolute power, and the brutal lie of humanitarianism. "What’s the difference between Saddam and Bush?" the prison torture shots prompted an al-Jazeera commentator to ask. "Nothing!"

The point is not to make an easy conflation between Bush and Hussein but to pay attention to the atrocities committed in their names. An image from Francisco de Goya’s "Desastre de la guerra" series suggests that America has become its own "fiero monstruo!", the slovenly beast that even in victory vomits the corpses it has devoured onto the field of battle.

There could be no better time, then, for a foreigner to be dusting off "It’s Alright, Ma." The handcuffs have been found, the fake morals have been acknowledged, and the president of the United States is left, as the song goes, standing naked. "Say okay, I have had enough," Veloso sings. "What else can you show me?"

Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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