How Exotica Conquered The ’90s

1. What is Exotica, anyway? It’s a question not easily answered. Somewhere at the core, though, is a tropical island, palm trees and grass skirts and the sound of foreign drums. But look more closely: playing the drums is a white guy with slick hair and an avuncular grin, and behind him the sweeping arc of the beach is matched by the smooth curve of a cocktail bar. And look again: it’s a record sleeve, and the sleeve is in the hands of a girl with pink hair and thick black glasses. It’s 1994, her hair matches the fluoresced lighting of the club she’s in. Two streets away and five years later, someone walks into a record chainstore and buys a copy of Music To Watch Girls By, and on that cover Sinatra and Martin and Lawton walk across an airstrip, cool forever. There are no tropical drums on this disc, not a hint of grass skirts, and yet somehow that other old record and these old records feel linked by some invisible web of context. Like two drinks with different ingredients, but the same colour parasol.Ten years ago, Exotica was pop’s graveyard: now it’s a musical interzone, where a hundred questions about purism, authenticity, appropriation, art and fun pop up and fall back into the lounge bar chatter. The 90s ‘Easy Listening’ revival is somehow that decade’s most typical trend – sample-culture’s mania for rediscovery dovetailing with a prosperous, ironised market dovetailing with the collapse of rock’s grand narrative. And behind it all are some of the best and worst records ever made.


Exotica isn’t world music, of course. The presumption of ‘world music’ – at least the stuff which makes it to mass awareness in the UK or US – is that what’s being presented is the uncontaminated sound of another culture, and that it can teach us something. The most successful world music – like Buena Vista Social Club and its endless spin-offs – is marketed like this, with the expertise and complexity of the musicians and their music an understated given. As Chuck Eddy has pointed out, the question of whether the people who actually live in these countries listen to the music in question is discreetly veiled.

Exotica, in contrast, is entirely colonial – it may be fascinated by “the other”, but it’s keener to absorb and blend than to preserve or ‘understand’. The impulse that led the pops orchestras and bandleaders of the 50s to reach for Hawaiian or Mexican rhythms and sounds is the same impulse that led dance music producers of the 90s towards muezzin chants or sitars and tablas or Eastern European folk music: entertainment first, culture later. Exotica as a music prefigures the sampler principle in its cheerful, open exploitation of sources.


The textbook take on Exotica casts it as a response to post-war America’s fascination with the foreign, born out of the country’s renewed confidence and awareness of its world role. Hawaiian and Tahitian culture, especially, could be sold to the hi-fi owners of America as unspoilt, liberated, and seductive. Crucially, though, there was little suggestion that by consuming Pacific-themed records listeners would be supporting and sharing in this unspoilt-ness: the Exotica idea was more that by showing themselves as open to other cultures, consumers could raise their standing in their own. The most valuable export of tourist countries has always been sophistication.

This was as true in the 1990s as the 1950s, but the currency of sophistication had shifted, with the consumption of exotic goods and fashions coming a passé second to the consumption of experience, and preferably an experience forged and tempered by a certain amount of hardship. When even Antarctica had its own Lonely Planet guidebook, where could you go if what you wanted from tourism wasn’t self-improvement but self-indulgence? Where was the mystery, wit and armchair cosmopolitanism that Exotica had once stood for?

The last lost continent turned out to be the past: ‘thrift store’ culture and the easy listening revival of the last decade. The renewed interest in Exotica was stoked by two impulses – on the one hand, a desire to retrace and explore the paths the likes of Denny, Licht and Esquivel had taken and the sounds they had made; on the other, a desire to reject the orthodoxies and authenticities of rock culture as utterly as possible.


Exotica as conceptual art: with records like these, the fun is rarely in hearing them. The record shop where I used to work had a section titled “Never Mind The Music – Check Out The Sleeve”. Albums which ended up there never lasted long. After a while somebody had the idea of just selling the sleeves on their own, and even more money was made.

Re/Search Magazine’s “Incredibly Strange Music” books did more than anything else to spark the 90s interest in Exotica. They fell between two stools – partly impassioned defenses of neglected pioneers like Juan Esquivel, partly gawk-ready compendiums of freakshow record covers. The Incredibly Strange Music boom was the most contrary response to the colourless punk rock/Britpop orthodoxy of the mid-90s: a strange and shifting alliance of genuine enthusiasts and jaded scenemakers looking for a quick way to show how post-taste they were.

The Exotica revival was predictably assumed to be ironic. For a while that was entirely true – my own motives for scouring record shop basements to emerge with Salut À Mexico and Strings Of Pleasure Play Bacharach were utterly impure. I thought they had funny sleeves and would sound pleasingly naff: in fact the Bacharach people, and Geoff Love’s orchestra, were way too professional to sound anything but solidly entertaining. The appeal was less ironic than kitsch, and even that rested on the shaky notion that these records had been taken at face value when they were made. The assumption that 50s consumers didn’t know tack when they saw it is about as safe as the assumption that 50s teenagers didn’t have sex.


Scratch an ironist and you find a purist. While metropolitan record shops all over Britain and America were busily setting up ‘ultra lounge’ sections, the hardcore Exotica types – the original audience for Re/Search’s books – had a different agenda. Strange Music for them was the tip of an iceberg of forgotten obsession and outre artistic practise: a Folkways album recording the sounds of a man’s digestive system represented the final historical outpost of unmediated, unmarketed culture. It’s no coincidence that so many ‘weird record’ sites end up linking up to ‘outsider art’ sites – the two are joined in an understandable but futile nostalgia for a time when art wasn’t codified and analysed. Whether that time ever existed or not is irrelevant, compared at least to the much greater problem that once something has been named as ‘strange’ or ‘naive’ it immediately becomes quite the reverse.


What we’re left with is the music, disc after disc after disc of it: noir scores, TV themes, Martin Denny reissues, TV-advertised crooner compilations, porno soundtracks, test card muzak, stereo test records, Radiophonic Workshop experimentica. An overwhelming flood of the stuff, in short, whose only common denominator is ephemerality. That’s the one true irony of the Exotica story: that a music which started out as a way of exploring other cultures turned into a prime driver of the ongoing attempt to make sense out of our own.