"Refugees run the seas cause we own our own boats."
Well, Jesus Christ.
Of course I'm thinking about all the stories, all the photos, all the statistics I've seen about Syrian and Libyan and Sudanese and Colombian and Honduran and Burmese and Tibetan refugees since 2006. Of course I'm thinking about the parallels that are being inexorably drawn between rising anti-refugee sentiment in the US and Europe and the doors which were slammed in the faces of German Jews during the lead-up to the Holocaust. Of course I'm aching with a bone-deep misery over the gap between the triumphant utopianism of pop and the squalid murderousness of the actual world.
I understand that, faced with that gap, one reasonable response is to reject pop as a hollow illusion, an opiate of the masses, Huxley's soma drip-fed into our veins to keep us pacified and unprotesting while Orwell's Big Brother raids our pockets for its unending wars. The squalid murderousness is the fact: triumphant utopianism is a useless and possibly dangerous fiction that obscures our view of reality, reassuring us that everything turns out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Well, maybe. But Huxley and Orwell aren't the only midcentury British writers to engage with the effects of totalitarianism on the human spirit. In The Silver Chair, one of his books for children, C. S. Lewis includes a sequence in which the adventuring heroes are lulled into a trance by the Queen of the Underworld, who induces them to believe that their memories of the Overland, including vegetation and the cosmos, are entirely made up, a story they've been telling each other, and that no world but hers, hewn from rock and glimmering fragilely in the endless darkness within the earth, exists. The spell is only broken when the gloomy, sensible, semi-amphibious character Puddleglum stamps out her fire, and makes the following speech:
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”Philosophically it's unconvincing -- the argument that because humans can imagine a better world than this one, one must exist, is a very debased theodicy -- but poetically it's magnificent. That, I think, is why I will always return to pop: because it can, and almost necessarily does, imagine radically better ways of living and relating to one another than exist today. But they can; four babies dreaming can't make Narnia exist, but millions of Black, brown, and poor folk working together can reshape the world. It's not going to be easy: all extant power structures and our long inheritance of human inequality are arrayed against us. But we have resources they don't: beauty, and joy, and community, and an equally long inheritance of human resilience and creativity.
That inheritance is on magnificent display in this song, one of the most purely perfect pop songs of the decade. Of course when I say pure I don't mean that it's not complex: a vast array of musical traditions, technological interpolations, and yes, capitalist funding went into it. Supposedly beginning life as a sketch of a song called "Lips Don't Lie" with which Wyclef unsuccessfully tried to tempt Lauryn Hill into a Fugees reunion, it was eventually included on the 2004 soundtrack to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights as "Dance Like This", a duet with Puerto Rican singer Claudette Ortiz. Listen to that, and you can hear the basic framework of the song, including the unmistakable sample of the trumpet flourish from Jerry Rivera's "Amores Como el Nuestro", but it just circles around itself over and over again, a mime of mutual seduction in which Ortiz sounds utterly anonymous and the song itself sounds bored, trailing off without ever having landed.
So when Shakira's label reached out to him for a remix to extend the life of "La Tortura", Wyclef said he had a better song that she would be perfect for. She rewrote the female duet partner's lyrics in her inimitably unidiomatic English and beefed up the production with Wyclef's producer Jerry Duplessis. Recording was done in Miami, Nassau, London, New York, Bogotá, and Vancouver; samples were cleared; and the single was released in February of 2006, three months after Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 was released to middling sales, a major disappointment after the way that "La Tortura" had boosted Fijación Oral, Vol. 1. But if you remember the summer of 2006 at all, you know that "Hips Don't Lie" was inescapable no matter where you were in the world (a Spanish version was also released, but I've never met anyone who heard it). 2006 was the absolute nadir of my engagement with contemporary pop music, and even I loved it.
I love it more now, twelve years later, as the world has grown crueller and more hateful toward the refugees Wyclef keeps repping in the song, as outright hatred (rather than ignorance) of Hispanic and Caribbean culture has grown more vocal and regularized in the Trump era even while Spanish-language and Spanish-English hybrids have become the lingua franca of international pop. The boiling insanity of xenophobia, isolationism, and apocalypse-mongering in the Anglosphere feeds back on itself until it becomes a white hunger for Black and brown death that can't be shocked back into sensible morality by reading stories of boats sinking in the Mediterranean or seeing images of dead babies on beaches.
As counterpoint to which a recitation of seduction between a Lebanese-Colombian and a Hatian-American, both millionaires, as formalized and mannered as a Noh play with its symmetrical verses and inevitable rap-verse peroration, might seem less than effective.
But the heraldic fanfare which opens and punctuates the song seems to announce more than a mere two-person exchange of intimacies: it is the opening of a tournament, a call to arms, a reveille, but most immediately of all it is a summons to the dancefloor. And "baile en la calle de noche, baile en la calle de día" is a utopian ideal, quoting Fernando Villalona's classic 1985 merengue "Carnaval" but in spirit stretching back to at least the liberatory utopianism of "Dancing in the Street" and perhaps even the celebratory 1902 ragtime song "On Emancipation Day" by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar. (En Barranquilla se baila así, of course, and the soundtrack to liberation has never been exclusively in English; but I still know the Anglophone canon best.)
Of course it can go either way: the organization of culture purely by the logic of capital means that oppressor as well as oppressed can draw cheer, comfort, and hope from subaltern popular music. Which is why the ground is always shifting, why yesterday's utopian promise is today's banal muzak, why every triumph is also on some level a surrender. Like Carnival itself, a Dionysian space carved out of the Church calendar which only reinforces its control over all the rest of the year, pop has been assigned its quarter, and the eschatological promise it makes of dancing in the streets day and night, when the shackles of labor and the promise of state violence have finally been smashed, can only be an endlessly deferred IOU. Until it isn't. Lord haste the day.