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  • Writer's pictureGuy G. Gorman

Other Worlds

We're fascinated with the idea of other worlds, other realities. A place where we aren't bound by the rules that so hinder us here. The popularity of science fiction and fantasy attest to this: Star Trek, Star Wars, all those zombie apocalypse things. We can go way back with this: Jules Verne, Norse sagas, Greek gods, Gilgamesh.

Just about every one of us has said something like, "If I were King of the World. . ." Back in the day, my completion of the sentence usually involved aggressive DC cab drivers.

Philosopher John Rawls created a thought experiment to help us refine our ideas for creating a just world. Imagine that you are about to be born and that you have no control as to where on Earth you will appear. In our current world you might end up the daughter of King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands. Or you might end up the daughter of a sex worker in Bangladesh. (And, of course, probability dictates that you're much more likely to end up as the latter.) In his thought experiment, you get to create the kind of world you would like to be randomly dropped into, one that you'd like to live in no matter where you ended up. (I'm betting that it wouldn't look like our current one.)

As one who has become more cosmopolitan (or so I'd like to think) in recent years, I've been fascinated with the fact that different cultures are different--yeah, I'm a pretty deep thinker. Here are some admittedly trivial examples from my personal experience.

Years ago we were in a restaurant (St. Hubert) in Montreal that advertised all-you-can-eat coleslaw. The thought of all-you-can-eat coleslaw as an incentive to patronize a restaurant seemed ludicrous to us Americans, but it must have worked in Quebec. (Being the open-minded guy that I am, I went back for seconds.)

Swiss chard is a popular vegetable in Uruguay. It's commonly found in dishes (delicious dishes such as savory pies, I might add) where Americans would use spinach instead. Most U.S. residents reading this are probably going, "Huh, what's chard?!" I'm pretty vegetable oriented, and I had only enjoyed colorful bunches of chard at the market or in seed catalogs before I tasted it in Uruguay.

So what's going on here? Canadians and Uruguayans are not so different from Americans. The people of both countries trace their roots back to many of the nations that supplied the U.S. with immigrants. The climates aren't that different. But the tastes in vegetables (and other things) are.

Music is another area where this phenomenon is evident.

U.S. musician Willy DeVille is well known here in Holland. You at least get a smile at the mention of "Spanish Stroll." Some of my friends even broke into song and started to bust a move or two. I may have been in my own little world, but I think of Willy and his band Mink DeVille as a footnote in the history of New York New Wave, a name recognized only by afficionados in the States.

British musicians and bands like the Small Faces, Cliff Richard, The Move and The Shadows were very popular in the UK but hardly made a dent in the U.S. charts.

An extreme example of this involves American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. He put out a couple of albums in the early 70's. Both albums were complete flops in the U.S. Rodriguez retired from music and worked in house demolition for a couple of decades. Somehow his music made it to South Africa during Apartheid times and became immensely popular there--more popular than Elvis'. No one was aware of this in the States (except for the man who was cashing in on his South African royalties.) See below for more info on this very cool story.

After all this popularity seems pretty random, and it probably is.

One study I read about involved a social media platform that was divided into ten separate "worlds." Each world shared and rated the same songs independently. There was no correlation among the worlds regarding the popularity of the music.

Studies have shown that how much someone likes a given work of art relates to how familiar he or she is with that work of art. As an example, the Mona Lisa was considered a minor work by da Vinci until it was stolen. (It was so minor that the theft wasn't even noticed for a couple of days.) The painting received lots of publicity as a result, and from that time its popularity increased until it became synonymous with female beauty. (I myself am a "Girl With The Pearl Earring" guy.)

So where am I going with this? Am I hoping that my music is topping the charts in Lower Slobovia or on the planet Xenon? (Yes the thought does make me smile.) Am I saying that I'd be as popular as the Beatles if I only had the right manager or publicity agent? (I don't think anyone believes that even on Xenon!)

I think we have a tendency to believe that our preferences are based on some sort of objective criteria, i.e., I prefer Coke to Pepsi BECAUSE IT'S BETTER, not because I happen to like it more. And of course some of us prefer one thing over another thing that we have never even tried (I'm guilty of this too.)

We can create objective-like rubrics, but they're really subjective .

Are there bigger implications for our increasingly heterogeneous, multicultural world?

You decide.

All I know is that there is a lot of cool stuff out there waiting to be appreciated. Whether it be coleslaw or Cole Porter (I only started to appreciate him after hearing the older recordings) get out of your own little world, forget about what is cool or "good" and give something new a try (or a couple of tries). You'll enjoy the experience and you may even discover a new fave rave or two.

More about Sixto Rodriguez:

Music by:

The Small Faces: Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Cliff Richard & the Shadows: Move It

The Shadows: Apache

Cole Porter: Let's Do It




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