|Street scene near Galleria Umberto, a public shopping gallery in Naples, southern Italy. Here, author Jason Pine discusses the city’s neomelodica music scene that makes celebrities out of young singers—and the politics of gaining such fame.|
BY JASON PINE
Assistant professor of anthropology and media, society, and the arts at Purchase College, State University of New York
In 2001, the beloved Italian singer Mina ended a near quarter-century absence from public view when she released footage from her recording sessions, Mina in Studio, on the Internet. In the midst of fieldwork in Naples in 2002, I watched on a pirate TV broadcast an alluring music video in which a young boy, Giulio, sang the Neapolitan language song “Passione,” written in 1938 by Libero Bovio. Clearly referencing Mina, the boy’s music video was set in a recording studio. Like Mina, he wore headphones and sung into a mic, but he lip-synched the lyrics, staging liveness.
The gesture was endearing to me. The boy, with his pre-pubescent voce bianca (white voice), pulled it off well. He sang the classic Neapolitan canzone soul-style, set to a slow synth beat and peppered with auto-tuned flourishes at the end. He sang with confidence and verve. He was talented.
When I called the cell phone number that scrolled across the bottom of the screen, the boy’s father answered. I explained that I was researching contemporary Neapolitan music and wanted to meet with them to talk about his son’s experiences on the music scene. The man, exuberantly enthusiastic, offered to bring his son to my apartment at Piazza Garibaldi later that week. They lived in a provincial town outside of Naples over an hour away.
When the boy arrived with both his parents, I had pastries and coffee ready for them. We talked for a long time and enjoyed each others’ company, but I found it virtually impossible to make conversation with directly the boy. I learned little more than that his real name was Fulvio, he was 12 years old, he liked to sing, and loved Michael Jackson’s music, and even this meager information was filtered through his parents. Both mother and father spoke for their son, interrupting me each time I tried to initiate a conversation with him.
I followed the family for several years, getting to know them very well and learning a great deal about the neomelodica music scene. Fulvio’s father, a veteran musician from the milieu, was adamant about guiding his son safely through the treacherous territory it spanned—a contact zone with the organized crime networks called the camorra. The success that he believed lay at the other end of this precarious journey often appeared to me to recede into the shadows. On many occasions, at wedding and baptism gigs and at pirate TV stations, I watched dodgy impresarios approach Fulvio and his father with offers to “make the boy grow.” The errant trajectory of Fulvio’s “becoming a man” took a prominent place in the ethnography I composed.
In 2011, the fourteen-year-old neomelodica singer Fortuna (fortune, luck), already one of the most talked about and favored singers on the scene, recorded “Lady Lucky”:
“Hollywood, for me, is ‘A Sanità,” (La Sanità is a comparatively poor central neighborhood of the Naples) she sings, “This street, for me, is the world.” They call her Lady Lucky, and like Lady Gaga, she sings for these people, “my people.” In an expansive gesture toward authentic Neapolitanness—a theme found in the repertoires of many neomelodici singers—Fortuna declares, “Not even for a million would I change my life; I want this life of mine to stay the way it is.”
The “authenticity” of neomelodica music has been a point of contention on the neomelodica scene and beyond it. Aesthetically, neomelodica music is decidedly local, saturated with the vernaculars (lyrically, melodically, performatively) of its milieu. Songs can become enormously popular among the hundreds of thousands of fans listening across many regions of southern Italy and among southern Italian immigrants abroad, particularly in Germany, France, and Belgium. But the “authentic Neapolitanness” of these songs tends also to be the very feature that restricts their circulation among other audiences both in the south and nationally. The mixture of worn-out synth disco beats, Neapolitan language lyrics, and microtonal melismas signals for non-fans obstinate, regressive provinciality.
At the same time there is very little to call authentic about a song that is but another note emanating from the massive song production that animates the scene year after year, decade after decade. In musical structure, melody, and in lyrical content and style, the song is quite like the many, many other songs young performers sing as they compete for the attention of neomelodica music fans. However, “Lady Lucky,” written by one of the most successful neomelodici singers to date, Gianni Fiorellino, is more polished than the average song—as is the music video. Fortuna’s success on the scene is most certainly linked to this higher grade in quality.
But some protagonists on the neomelodica music scene, like Fulvio’s father, allude to a kind of counterfeit success. This is when they say that some singers “have certain people backing them.” You can “sing like shit” and yet get plenty of gigs on the wedding and baptism circuit, they say. They are referring to singers who are affiliated with crime boss impresarios who apply pressure to the markets of their circumscribed territories by activating their networks to facilitate the circulation of some singers and the marginalization of others. The result is distorted markets, manually managed mini alternative culture industries each with their affirmative culture.
On the neomelodica scene there are always many morphing rumors that circulate speculations, suspicions, and “certainties” about who is who and how they got their success.
“Counterfeit success” is also the allusion discernible in the critiques of non-fans who describe the neomelodica scene in ways that make it out to be the bad copy of dominant music industry scene, in both its aesthetic and economic practices. Because neomelodica music is produced, circulated and consumed largely in the contact zone where the so-called “informal” and “illicit” economies overlap, it inspires reactions ranging from bemusement and outrage when people see local Neapolitan “stars” performing celebrity like uncanny imitations of dominant music industry icons. The mimetic gestures that conjure in Fortuna’s music video the young “Lucky starlet” (the name she calls herself in her song) operate at the threshold of parody (unwitting, of course) and perhaps threaten in some small measure to expose the artifice of mainstream celebrity and the sinister nature of its affirmative culture.
Jason Pine is assistant professor of anthropology and media, society, and the arts at Purchase College, State University of New York. He is author of The Art of Making Do in Naples. His next ethnographic research topic is methamphetamine and the biopolitics of performance enhancement in the rural Midwest of the United States.
“Exploring musical performance as a pathway to the Neapolitan underworld, Jason Pine shows how the improbable becomes persuasive as he passionately embraces the challenges of uncertainty and vagueness that mark a highly stylized but passionate arena of social interaction. In the intense theatricality of their shape-shifting kaleidoscope of relationships and identities, Pine’s vivid interlocutors challenge the realism of anthropological description through an aesthetic realism of their own, one that dissolves the boundary between art and life.”
—Michael Herzfeld, author of Evicted from Eternity
“With the eye of a cunning journalist and the descriptive skills of a fine novelist, Pine illuminates the murky world of the Camorra and Naples’ neomelodica scene. This is writing culture at its best.”
—Fred Gardaphe, author of From Wiseguys to Wise Men: The Gangster and Italian American Masculinities