All Commentary
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

No Sleep Till Johannesburg

Searching for Sugar Man and spontaneous order

Popular culture should always threaten the established authorities: It summons new loyalties, spontaneously, across populations. It can even define entirely new ones (think Trekkies or Twihards). The process defies prediction and control.

These aren’t prescriptive statements; they’re diagnostic: If there’s nothing going on in popular culture that could stir up at least a Footloose-style shake-up of local, informal authority, there’s something rotten somewhere. 

Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t approach its subject this way, but it illustrates power of pop culture to make us comprehensible to ourselves and remake the world in the process.

Malik Bendjelloul focuses his documentary on American singer Sixto Rodriguez and his South African devotees, particularly two—Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom—who were rescued from the stifling atmosphere of apartheid by Rodriguez’s music. They return the favor, almost single-handedly, by reviving his career.  

The constricted scope lends shape and drama to what easily could have become a big, wooly jumble of narrative threads, however compelling they might have been individually. The stakes are already there in what the music meant to its fans, and the context in which they heard it. Their relationship to the music winds up adding meaning to the context, rather than the other way around: It exposes the shakiness at the heart of authoritarian regimes trying to accumulate enough power to become totalitarian.

33 1/3 Marginal Revolutions

The elevator pitch here is pretty straightforward: Rodriguez made music in the late 1960s and early 1970s that seemed destined to make him an icon. But it failed to sell and his career ended before he made any impact. Except in South Africa, where bootlegs spread quickly and he became a generation’s favorite singer. After apartheid, one fan (Strydom) published an article detailing his and Segerman’s (futile) attempts to replace the myths surrounding Rodriguez with hard fact. Mainly, it documented their failure to do so. The article made its way to Rodriguez himself, he got on the phone to Johannesburg, and next thing you know, he’s standing before thousands of adoring fans, nobody really believing that it’s actually happening.

So there are at least three main stories here, themselves made up of several others. There’s what Rodriguez’s albums meant for a generation of young South Africans who hated apartheid but, subject to the State’s fanatical controls, did not know what they could do about it. They just knew there was reason to fear disobedience. This one includes a variation of the story of the Velvet Underground in Czechoslovakia, only the odds were arguably longer: At least VU had critical acclaim and were highly visible during their brief run.

Then you have Rodriguez’s career. That story looks like it’s one of those piercing, small tragedies, albeit wrapped in layers of myth and legend. The beginning needs to be lifted for fiction if it hasn’t been already: Two recording engineers make their way to a sketchy bar swathed in fog and belching out smoke, down on the Detroit riverfront. They’re there to see a singer they’ve heard impressive things about. A restless crowd waits for an excuse to riot. The singer sits with his back to the audience. It’s impossible to see anything. The only thing that cuts through? This voice, and these songs. They make converts almost on contact.

And that’s the real heart of the film, this conversion process. Nobody expects it after he’s dropped from his label because nobody bought his records. Even the documentary doesn’t really account for how Rodriguez’s music made it to South Africa, let alone how it spread. There’s an apocryphal story about an American girl—the patient zero—visiting her boyfriend and bringing an album in tow.

For the first few years, it wasn't all that remarkable that nobody seemed to know anything about the guy. They knew they were shut off from the world; if his music had made it through, Rodriguez must be a huge star. Eventually they’d hear something.

When they didn’t, more legends filled the void: He’d killed himself onstage in 1973, frustrated at his futile music career. He finished a song, said a goodbye, and either put a gun in his mouth or doused himself in gasoline and lit a match. Fans in South Africa scoured his lyrics for clues about where he was from and who he was. And they kept buying more records.

Lost and Found and Lost

If it had ended there, Rodriguez’s story would have been a tragedy. But it wouldn’t have been much of a story: You could fill a medium-sized city with artists who never got so much as a lower-middle-class living out of their art. You probably couldn’t run it, but still.

There are several lessons here about art, entertainment, and markets, and I don’t think any one of them is “the” point to be gleaned. There’s the obvious fact that subjectivity dominates. There’s also a point about nobody really knowing anything about “the market,” in large part because it’s not a singular thing with fixed properties. In Rodriguez’s case, his former producer, a hit-maker with a house that’s got one of those really expensive California views, still seems baffled. He puts on a song and you see how music works: The pleasure rolls a smile over his face even before he remembers the rest of the story. Then you see him remember and pain curls up the edges of the smile. He guesses maybe people thumbing through record bins saw the name, assumed it was “Latin” music, and kept going.  

Which underlines the fallacy at the heart of assuming anything about the relationship between sales and merit, at least when it comes to art and entertainment: They’re two different kinds of transactions that overlap irregularly, when they overlap at all.

And this is where Sugar Man really shines: It connects something as intimate and individualized (and ultimately unknowable) as a single life and the art that’s meant most within it to the people who share similar loves—either in their objects, or their intensity, or both of those and more. The things that seem like necessary components—ethnicity, nationality, contemporaneity, marketing push—have to do with predetermining or even defining these relationships. It’s not like Sixto Rodriguez was writing songs about apartheid, and nobody in South Africa had any inkling that he was living through Detroit’s rise and fall—and doing so as the sixth child of Mexican immigrant factory workers. Neither can really know exactly what either thing really meant. But there’s still some kind of communication that remains possible. It might even be the most important kind. His music certainly became essential in a way that becomes more urgent and more intense as life becomes more closed and constricted.

So there are jumping-off points aplenty, even for talking about markets and art/entertainment. But Sugar Man is especially compelling in the way it points to much subtler points about this relationship than you typically hear. Generally when people talk about sales, popularity, and artistic merit, they’re speaking based on a theory of how these things relate. Which is really nothing more than a set of unspoken desires for how these things should relate. Which is why you’re generally talking past each other when you use terms like “hipster,” “elitist,” “mainstream,” or maybe even when you use “art” and “entertainment” as if there’s a bright-line distinction between the two.

The punch line of Sugar Man is that Sugar Man might be found, but Sixto Rodriguez remains absent. Put another way: Sixto is introduced to Rodriguez, and he seems pleased enough to meet him, but the two never perfectly coincide. A music journalist near the end says, with a hint of complaint, that Sixto isn’t very forthcoming in interviews. We see this when he makes his first contemporary appearance in the film: Backlit in the run-down house he’s been occupying for 40 years, he seems baffled, even a little embarrassed, as his answers trail off. He doesn’t seem unwilling to answer—in fact, he’s all smiles, all throughout the thing, and appears to enjoy his triumphant return as much as the fans packing out every show. He just seems to know there are questions the filmmakers want answered, but neither questions nor answers can be fully articulated.

Schrodinger’s Musician

So Sixto is simultaneously there and not there, on several different levels. He was expected to be really big in the big markets (North America, the UK, Europe)—Dylan with a gritty, industry-town foundation—but wasn’t. In South Africa, though, he was bigger than Elvis or the Rolling Stones.

That Dylan reference? Well, his music has some folkiness to it, and something ethereal, but we hear a guy who knew him for three decades as a blue-collar laborer explain that “Sugar Man” is about this guy they all knew as Volkswagen John, the neighborhood drug dealer. Sixto was of this world, materializing to meet with his producers on these street corners, but was grouped with a guy who evokes boxcars and dusty back roads. Even Dylan’s a kind of oxymoron: He’s as mainstream as music gets now, but was avant garde when he hit, but his music was based on the kind of music made by everyman.

In more contemporary terms, Rodriguez’s albums were reissued for the North American market in the mid-1990s by an independent label, placing him among the people who, depending on your perspective, either put their money where their hearts are or simply produce the furniture of “indie” and “hipster” preciousness. But when he played in South Africa, he packed the house with two generations of fans.

When his music first arrived there, Rodriguez was the dead symbol of protest, even at the cost of one’s own life, in the face of futility. Meanwhile Sixto himself was clearing out soon-to-be-demolished homes while raising three daughters with the understanding that the world of high art, and political authority, and everything outside of the margins, was every bit as much for them as for the wealthy. He was a failed city council candidate with a philosophy degree staying put while the rest of the city burned down around him. None of this, it turns out, fully defines him; many bits contradict other bits. And none of them is irrelevant or untrue.

Rodriguez, then, doesn’t become an actual person in this documentary; he just keeps on acquiring symbolic depth. He illustrates the noninstrumental good of art created at the margins of society. I’m not saying anyone or any group should be marginalized. But I think the art residing outside of hype cycles and big sales numbers is where the action is. This touches on one of the shared assumptions of a lot of people who talk about music (beyond the assumption of knowledge about other people’s choices): It’s assumed that the ideal is for this stuff to come into the middle. It’s assumed that something should dominate, that everyone should like X or Y, and if they don’t, there’s something wrong with “society,” usually meaning, “everyone else.” Stakes is high.

But if, absent a State-sponsored catastrophe, wealth grows and spreads around, bringing with it more political and social freedom, and freeing more time and money for leisure, then you’d expect an ever-expanding, chaotic pluralism to replace the monoculture (if such a thing ever existed). You’d expect more cultural product, and more people to investigate more nooks and crannies of the world and themselves, and to find more ways to fit these together. You’d expect increasing individuation, and a decreasing ability to say much about any one person—let alone a collection thereof, however arbitrarily defined—based on what he or she likes. The discussion of markets and art is usually fraught, in my experience, with so much unarticulated (and inarticulable) desire, belief, memory—and often fear of the unknowable—that it drives a search for villains. Or at least villainy. Greed, maybe. Record executives. The coarseness of popular taste. The elitism of art critics, or people with the nerve to pretend they love things that never moved the needle. Nowhere in any of this is an actual person, beyond the one doing the speaking, and that guy’s always talking mostly to himself.

Sound Engineer

Sugar Man ultimately brings all of this together and, if it tells one story, it’s about how little we can know or control. That scene with his pained former producer is kind of a “Rosebud” moment. But juxtapose it with another: The former official archivist of South Africa pulls out the State’s copy of a Rodriguez album and shows us where the authorities had some schmuck sit down with a nail or something and actually scratch out the tracks that were forbidden. This far removed from the end of that regime, it’s farcical.

And it’s also inspiring. No society can be engineered without devouring the humanity of those subject to it. But it never does so entirely. And nothing jumps from one speck of humanity to another quite as quickly, or with quite as much power, as music does—sparking across the spaces between them like a lightning bolt branching from one electron to the next. It seems like the music itself has agency, quite independent of the desires or knowledge of any of the people involved with it; quite outside of the grasp of people whose lives are devoted to authority, control, leadership—and their obsession with messages and messaging. Rodriguez’s story is the purest example you’ll ever hear of music doing just this, on its own merits. It entered a world that could scarcely have been less hospitable. Merely a set of stray vibrations, it evaporated into its home atmosphere and should have bounced right off the dome that the architects of apartheid build specifically to snuff out things like this. Somehow it made it through, though, illuminating the lives of everyone it touched. Sixto, by all appearances, chose to go on living in the margins, and remains in the shadows. Rodriguez emerged from the networks between them.