Mr. Citizen and the Defective Android:
Tom Zé and the Idea of Citizenship in Brazil
Christopher Dunn, Tulane University
Recalling his early experiences as a popular musician, Tom Zé has written that he was inspired by the figure of the homem da mala [man with a suitcase], his term for the itinerant troubadours, or cancionistas, that he saw perform at the Saturday markets in his hometown of Irará in the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike conventional entertainers who count on having a stage, a demarcated space governed by a “tacit accord” between the artist and the audience, the homem da malahas to instantly transform public space into a place of performance in which “totality is created from nothingness” (Zé, 44). These homens da mala had distinct performance strategies to address politics, social problems, and satirize everyday life in small-town Brazil. When Tom Zé first performed for a mass audience in 1960 on the variety show “Escada para o Sucesso” on TV Itapuã in Salvador, on which he lampooned the program with the song “Rampa para o Fracasso,” he took inspiration from the homens da mala to achieve the following effect: “I planned to make my body a stage set, with my pockets filled with an arsenal of small objects, symbols of the most pressing issues of the day: the illiteracy rate of 55% documented in the census, the tragedy of the drought that year, the strong cruzeiro, etc. It was a veritable scenographic cornucopia” (Zé, 44).
Tom Zé has described his music as a form of “imprensa cantada” or “jornalismo cantado,” calling attention to its debt to the cancionistas who used the song form as a vehicle for commenting on current events while paying acute attention to changes spatial and temporal contexts. Traditional cancionistas work with an established song repertoire, introducing variations in lyrics and arrangements depending on the context and immediate situation. Likewise, many of Tom Zé’s compositions are contingent and incomplete, available for topical alterations according to the context. Several of the songs discussed here were written decades ago, but have been revised and resignified to address present concerns. His work is also indebted to classical and avantgarde composition (baroque counterpoint, romanticism, duodecophonic technique, electro-acoustic experimentation, aleatory music) learned at the University of Bahia in the 1960s before embarking on a career in popular music. In recent years, Tom Zé has theorized this aesthetics of contingency and imperfection by presenting his recordings as mere versions among multiple possibilities. His live shows often seem more like rehearsals, with abrupt interruptions to explain the lyrics, make tangential commentary, or address a technical problem with the sound. Much of his music is presented as a work-in-progress that, despite its appearance of spontaneity, is a conscious and often planned performance strategy. His approach to musical form and performance is a unique response to his particular project of engaging simultaneously the cancionistatradition, inspired by the homens de mala, avantgarde composition, learned at the university, and pop music, his chosen profession of the last fifty years.
Tom Zé’s approach to music composition and performance as “imprensa cantada” informed by vanguardist experimentation and within the realm of pop music also entails specific ways of addressing politics, society, and artistic production in Brazil. It is possible to trace the contested idea of citizenship in his music, from the earliest days of military rule in the mid-1960s to the present context of Brazil’s uneven or “disjunctive” democracy (Caldeira and Holston, 716-17). This essay examines several phases of Tom Zé’s career with particular attention to the ways he has approached the question of citizenship in his music. His early career as a pop artist developed simultaneously with the rapid expansion of the mass media and culture industry in Brazil, which he observed with a measure of ambiguity and ironic distance. He was a key figure in Tropicália, a cultural movement that was particularly expressive in the field of popular music, which often celebrated the power of mass media while attempting to maintain a position of critique within it. Consumer capitalism generated novel forms of collective identification and participation, but also established new mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization. Of all the tropicalist musicians, Tom Zé was the most skeptical mass culture in the 1960s, showing how consumption had played a role in constituting modern citizenship but also limited it.
In the 1970s, Tom Zé often represented citizenship in terms of class privilege, social distinction, and political control during the period of authoritarian rule. He later developed a distinctly biopolitical critique of citizenship that addressed the various modern discursive and practical techniques for disciplining bodies, controlling populations, regulating sexuality, and establishing regimes of exclusion based on “race” or other markers of difference.[i] With the reemergence of civil society and slow redemocratization in the 1980s, Tom Zé’s work reveals a more affirmative notion of citizenship premised on the discourse of self-representation among working-class subjects claiming participation in the political process. Here the notion of biopower in the Foucaudian sense of social control and regulation is revised to account for individual and collective agency in political and social struggles. Tom Zé’s most recent work references for insurgent forms of cultural citizenship in contemporary Brazil involving historically marginalized and impoverished urban communities within the context of neo-liberal globalization.
Consumers and Citizens in the Tropicalist City
The central theme of Tom Zé’s first LP (1968) may be found on the back of the album cover in at the beginning of a manifesto-like statement: “We are an unhappy people, bombarded by happiness.” Despite Brazil’s international reputation for carnivalesque exuberance and its modern self-fashioning as a place of easy-going pleasure, Tom Zé’s statement may be located squarely within a tradition of melancholic critique of national dilemmas (Scliar, 170-71). With its direct, matter-of-fact diction, his statement echoes the famous opening line of Retrato do Brasil (1928), Paulo Prado’s canonical treatise on national character: “In a radiant land lives a sad people.” Prado’s statement is about the melancholic disposition, regarded as both congenital and historically determined, of “three sad races” (the Portuguese, the Indian, and the African) who live in a sunny, tropical land. Tom Zé’s opening salvo is about the false promises of media-driven consumption in a land of social inequality and frustrated desire: “Today, the smile is industrialized, sought after, photographed, expensive (sometimes), and marketable. It sells tooth paste, travel tickets, cold remedies, diapers, etc. And since reality has always been confused with gestures, television proves daily that nobody can be unhappy.”
In the context of cultural politics during military rule in the 1960s, Tom Zé’s position of negativity was not unique. In various ways it was shared by many other prominent left-wing artists of the time who were wary of mass-mediated culture (Ricardo, 60-64, Ridenti, 323-34). Yet Tom Zé was also a tropicalist, participating in a movement that largely embraced the culture industry, pop music, and mass-mediated youth styles. The urban, industrial context of São Paulo, then supplanting Rio as the dominant center of mass entertainment, advertising, and cultural production, was decisive for the tropicalist project. Tom Zé’s first hit, “São São Paulo,” received first prize at the 1968 Brazilian Song Festival of TV Record, providing him with national media exposure. The song was endearing to the middle-class paulista audience in the way that it lovingly satirized the city’s hurried, work-obsessed environment from an outsider’s perspective:
São oito milhões de habitantes
De todo canto e nação
Que se agridem cortesmente
Correndo a todo vapor
There are eight million inhabitants
From all places and nations
Who courteously trample each other
Running at full steam
We have here a snapshot of São Paulo as a global city with inhabitants from “all places and nations” who experience of citizenship or local belonging in terms of formalized civility that masks hostility related to competition in a large modern city.
Much of his music from that period was influenced by the guitar-organ driven pop of the Jovem Guarda, the Brazilian version of post-Beatles rock, known asiê-iê-iê, which dominated the airwaves at that time. At the same time, Tom Zé was also interested in the musical avantgarde, having received extensive training in experimental music at the School of Music at the University of Bahia under the direction of Swiss composer Ernst Widmer between 1962-67 before moving to São Paulo. In Salvador he had also worked with the Swiss musical iconoclast, Walter Smetak, who was engaged in microtonal experiments with invented instruments made from local materials. After moving to São Paulo, he worked with several composer-arrangers connected to the vanguardist Música Nova group of São Paulo, most notably Damiano Cozzella.[ii] Unlike his Bahian colleagues, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa, his music evidenced little affinity to bossa nova, the great innovation within the samba tradition developed by singer-guitarist João Gilberto and composer-pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim in the late 1950s. In fact, Tom Zé has described his particular musical approach as a compensatory solution to his inability to master bossa nova, which so influenced the generation of artists that came of age in the 1960s under the banner of MPB-- Música Popular Brasileira (“Fala Tom Zé”). By 1968, when the Tropicália movement was in full swing, his music was a sui generis mixture, or juxtaposition, of Brazilian iê-iê-iê, northeastern satiric ballads, and contemporary avantgarde music. At the level of composition and arrangement, his music of this time was disjunctive, based on a dual tension between urban modernity and northeastern tradition and between pop appeal and formal experimentation. He cultivated an image of a modern cancionista, appearing on the famous album cover of the tropicalist concept album, Tropicália, panis et circensis, with a leather suitcase reminiscent of those used by the homens da mala who frequented the marketplace in Irará.
Tom Zé was both fascinated and disturbed by São Paulo in the mid-1960s. His aesthetics of juxtaposition and disjuncture was a musical response to issues of mass culture, consumption, and citizenship in São Paulo. The album cover of his first LP, a pop rendering of a São Paulo commercial street with neon-like signs and billboards, features a photo of the artist framed within a television screen under the advertisement “Grande Liquidação: Tom Zé” [Big sale: Tom Zé]. The song “Parque Industrial,” which was also featured on Tropicália, ou panis et circensis, places advertisement, industry, and consumption at the heart of civic life under authoritarian rule:
retocai o céu de anil
bandeirolas no cordão
grande festa em toda a nação
despertai com orações
o avanço industrial
vem trazer nossa redenção
touch up the blue sky
streamers on a string
a great national festival
rise and hear the orations
has brought our redemption
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