Thursday, February 14, 2008

Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture

Damon Krukowski reviews "Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture".
The late-'60s Brazilian pop music movement known as Tropicália or Tropicalismo is—like Dylan's "Basement Tapes"—highly "overdetermined," as they say in grad school, and therefore a good candidate for a Geertz or Marcus-like "unpacking." But Christopher Dunn's book on the subject, Brutality Garden, which began life as a doctoral dissertation, never reaches those fanciful heights. This is not to say that Dunn isn't in possession of valuable knowledge for non-Brazilian fans of this music, just that the cautious and formal academic tone of his book obscures the fruits of his research. Countless asides, like "In Hegel's formulation, the slave could only comprehend his/her reality as a reflection of the master's will and therefore lacked historical subjectivity and agency," dull one's attention and weary the soul. Likewise the many scholarly tics in his writing, such as the use of "reference" as a verb or the closing of each chapter with a section called "Conclusion." His numerous allusions to Adorno, Benjamin, Bourdieu, Horkheimer, Jameson, et al. do not advance the argument of the book; rather they seem intended to justify its subject as worthy of study.

No such excuses are necessary. There is a dearth of information available about Tropicália in English, and I suspect there are many people who, like me, are hunting for more. Tropicália—characterized by a genre-bending passion for both low and high culture, colored by kitsch but also by political urgency, its youthful interest in outrageous costume and style countered by a maturity in its lyrics and melodies—has in recent years attracted the excited attention of a wide range of musicians and music fans in the US and UK.
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