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Exotica Music and White America Nostalgia

There’s a reason why exotica music in America has become associated with tiki bars, tchotchke tourism, and perpetual bachelordom.

Early in 2021, I fell down the rabbit hole of combing through album releases in obscure genres on Rate Your Music. While perusing, I came across Martin Denny‘s 1959 album The Enchanted Sea. The album cover amused me, as did the corny song titles (“Song of the Islands” and “Beyond the Reef”), yet it gnawed at my curiosity. What is this?

The music is soft and relaxing; vibraphones, marimba, and piano weave together on the opening song, “Trade Winds”, while every so often castanets clatter in the background against the sound of a soft breeze. As I struggled with anxiety and depression, I found great comfort in the album. Its breeziness calmed my nerves, lulling me into a stupor that lasted long enough for me to answer a few emails.

Despite its non-Western instrumentation, the music is little more than easy listening/lounge music dressed in vaguely “exotic” garb and atmospherically placed on a beach. The Enchanted Sea contains many familiar Denny trademarks, including the use of non-Western sounds and instruments as aural decoration and having model Sandy Warner, a white woman, recline seductively on the album cover. The album promises to lift the listener from drudgery. The music is supposed to transport you to a land brimming with scantily clad women and multicolored birds. In this place, the erotic and the exotic orbit one another in a constellation of rote clichés and musical stereotypes. One only has to glance at other Martin Denny album titles to notice a pattern: Primitiva (1958), Forbidden Island (1958), and Afro-Desia (1959).

The purpose of this article is not to definitively prove that exotica is racist or an example of cultural appropriation. Despite (or because of) its overt “orientalism”, if you will, the genre fascinates me. It is music that revels in its kitschiness, it knows how artificial and disposable it is, and its fixation on places and cultures are so vaguely defined that they straddle the border separating the outer reaches of fantasy from the surreal.

 Music scholar Shuhei Hosokawa identifies three aspects of exotica music:

1.   Geographically, exotica focuses on the South Pacific and islands in general.

2.   Aesthetically, it is oriented more towards mood and effect than towards attention and contemplation.

3.   It comprises a fantasy of travel, an imagined experience of transport to exotic places which is intended to relax listeners.

– Shuhei Hosokawa

Exotica operates on an assumption of fantasy and power, but the genre’s stereotypes have their roots in a particular historical context. Its images and sounds reflect the post-WWII American culture in which it rose to prominence. In other words, there’s a reason it has become associated with tiki bars, tchotchke tourism, and perpetual bachelordom.

Among other things, postwar America saw the rise of an increasingly affluent and consumerist white middle class, the growing population of suburban neighborhoods, and general optimism for the future in the face of pending nuclear war. According to music professor Rebecca Leydon, the genre’s popularity depended on modern technology, particularly advanced home listening systems, cars, freeways, and the suburban home. This drive toward the future via consumption seems at odds with exotica’s fixation on an unlocatable “somewhere” where a seemingly premodern utopia exists. Upon closer examination, however, it is apparent that this disparity is central to understanding its rise.

Exotica was a thoroughly “modern” kind of music. But one should place the genre alongside the music of its time. It is a subgenre of easy-listening music, similar in style, instrumentation, and aesthetic to genres like lounge (i.e., Henry Mancini) and space-age pop (i.e., the Tornadoes or Esquivel). These are styles of music that promise luxurious movement: You can explore space! The “mystery of the islands”! All from the comfort of your living room Hi-Fi set.

This central paradox of exotica that Leydon identifies plays out in two main venues: the suburban home, where the records were privately listened to, and the hotel lounges where many prominent exotica artists regularly performed. While the suburban home promised escape from the city, an expansion into America’s interior, and shelter from “outsiders”, the hotel lounge signified… an escape from the doldrums of suburbia, the affluence required to travel to “exotic” sites, and shelter from an unknown place where one didn’t live. 

Hotels then come to resemble suburban homes that have been compressed and stacked on top of one another. In the lounge, one can hear music that suggests the exotic played at a volume that doesn’t disturb intra-table conversations or the clinking of glasses. In addition to affluence, hotels designate transience. After all, one doesn’t often stay at a hotel for long; it houses folks seeking a getaway from the routine of middle-class life. But the midcentury suburban lifestyle resembles a hotel visit’s transience, both in terms of access to it and its duration. Moreover, this similarity becomes more apparent in the broader context of American political and cultural developments in the latter half of the 20th century.

As the Cold War cooled off and struggles for civil rights became more widely accepted, the suburban rush faded. But the suburban home has taken on newly politicized meanings in our contemporary moment. In the wake of several economic recessions and moral panics over the fight for sexual and racial justice, the suburban sanctuary is once again under a perceived threat from “outsiders”, a position notoriously embodied by “NIMBYs” [Not In My Back Yard]. Moreover, with wealth inequality exacerbated due to the stagnation of wages and the precarity of modern labor, affording a house today seems like a pipe dream.

This period was fleeting yet has become a totem of an idyllic America unmoored from history. The suburban home was conceived of as a shelter from communism and the threat of nuclear war, from African Americans who weren’t allowed to live in these communities, and from LGBTQ+ folks who were fighting for a right to exist, among others. Exotica’s portrayal of various indigenous cultures and peoples as “out of time” eerily mirrors this persistent collective nostalgia for a period in American history that lasted for a short while.

This nostalgia is more curious than might seem, considering that exotica’s popularity spread far beyond the boundaries of easy-listening music. Artists from across the landscape of American music embraced the genre and released exotica or exotica-tinged albums when it was at its peak in popularity. 

Country stars like Marty Robbins on albums like Song of the Islands (1958) and Island Woman (1964), jazz giants like Ahmad Jamal on Macanudo (1963) and Wes Montgomery on Portrait of Wes (1966), and Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys on their acclaimed album Pet Sounds (1966) toyed with the sounds of exotica. Artists outside America have also toyed with the genre’s tropes, such as Japanese artist Harumi Hosono in his albums, Pacific (1978) and Tropical Dandy (1975). Exotica music’s influence speaks to the role of nostalgia in creating art as a way to retreat from or make sense of one’s current moment. 

As with so many other things, however, the explosive popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, coupled with America’s imperial ventures in Korea and Vietnam, signaled exotica’s decline in popularity (Hosokawa). The genre experienced a minor revival in the ’90s with the release of several popular compilation albums and bands like Stereolab (with “Ronco Symphony” and “Diagonals”), and Pram (with “Serpentine” and “Sea Swells and Distant Squalls”) making tongue-in-cheek callbacks to the music of exotica and lounge artists. But the genre has never again approached the zeitgeist, consigned now to the $1 to $5 discount bins in record stores and thrift shops that belie their strangeness.

It’s a fitting end for music that is as ignorable as it is interesting, to paraphrase Brian Eno. Exotica was the disposable soundtrack for a moment when the utopian dream of riding a wave of consumption into the future was ubiquitous. But when the future arrived, that moment was sanitized and removed from any historical context, with the music persisting as a curio reflecting this period from a tiki torch’s dim light.


Works Cited

Hosokawa, Shuhei. “Martin Denny and the Development of Musical Exotica”. Widening the Horizons: Exoticism in Postwar Popular Music. ed. by Philip Hayward. John Libbey. 1999.

Leydon, Rebecca. “Utopia of the Tropics: The Exotic Music of Les Baxter and Yea Sumac”. (ibid)