Forget video killing the radio star: MTV has since killed the video star, what with the fact that it no longer plays anything remotely resembling, well, music! Music videos are still being made—and at high quality, if you take a gander at Lady Gaga’s over-the-top glamorous vids—but where are people watching them? Online? Singers may have gone “underground” with their music videos, but in the Arab world, there are countless channels that play music non-stop. And their music videos are anything but dull or cliché.
Rotana Cinema is a huge media production company in Egypt, running several channels on TV and producing both films, television programs and music. Recently, I witnessed a “Top 20” countdown of music videos on Rotana, a concept that was born in America with MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL) program. The host was a woman with overlong extensions, a pleasant demeanor and definite collagen lip implants; like many other female personalities on TV, she could certainly use her lips as a life preserver if necessary. Myriam Fares and the never-dying Amr Diab were in the top 10, but the top 2 positions when to (2nd) a sheikh with a white headscarf and sporting a long robe accompanied by drums and a backup male choir; at number 1, a relatively young man with dark hair singing infront of a full orchestra a sad-sounding ballad.
The differences, stylistically, between the artists on this Top Countdown highlights the varied tastes in Arab music. “Popular music” in the United States is solely relegated to any music aimed at teenagers and the younger generations; if you can still find a Top 20 countdown, most of the songs will be rap, r&b, hip-hop, pop, a watered-down version of techno or, more likely, dubstep; a few country songs and an occasional rock song or oddball (see: Adele). There are so many more genres of music in the United States, but this is what one usually hears on the radio and certainly on TV. In the Arab world, however, all musical tastes are admired in popular music.
Arabic music can first be divided into two main styles: traditional and modern. Traditional has all of the ethnic flavor you might expect to hear on a Putumayo CD; the songs use the same words, lyrical style and instrumental style as ones of the generations before them. I witnessed this type of music in action several times when I went to sit under the big circus-style tent at one of the military clubs here in Egypt; the singer was a older man who stood on stage accompanied by several men playing instruments, and he sung a very traditional-sounding music.
Modern music can be divided into two groups: that which is more ‘Arabic’ flavored and that which is more Western. The ‘Arabic’ flavored songs are a mixture of old and new, perhaps pairing ballad-style singing with a more pop-ish instrumental or vice versa. The Western-style Arabic music is very poppy, with techno or trance undertones. Indeed, there are many trance/techno DJ’s that are cropping up in the Middle East. Rap and r&b-style music is mostly non-existant, save in countries like Morocco and Tunisia where artists combine Arabic lyrics with French lyrics to form what is dubbed “rai ‘n b” (a style I adore), although there are some underground rap preformers in Egypt. Rock is admittedly harder to come by, although if the Iranian film No one Knows about Persian Cats is any indication, rock music does exist, it is just underground.
As I do not understand Arabic, I cannot give a critique on the lyrics in Arabic songs, and therefore my critique shall be on the style of Arabic music videos. The music video is an interesting medium of art because it manages to mix music with visuals in a unique interpretation. Music videos in the United States are often extremely fast-paced, exhilarating rides in which we are barraged with a thousand and one mini-clips and still shots, usually of very attractive people. Whereas Michael Jackson, the high auteur of music videos, got purposefully “ugly” in Thriller, the music video of today usually centers on very, very attractive people, usually dancing the night away in a club. The more enterprenuring ones feature some high-stakes car chase a la Hollywood films, or mini-dramas enacted, but one thing is clear: there always has to be plenty of close-ups of young, flawless people, their perfect bodies, bare skin, and sexual tension, if not outright sex.
There are two main differences between American music videos and Arabic music videos. The first is that the overall editing pace of the videos in Arabic is slower: the storyline is much more important in Arabic music videos, and as a result we don’t have as many mini-clips and shots. The second difference is that there is no kissing or sex in Arabic music videos: whereas American music videos are rife with sex, the most anyone will do in an Arabic music video is give a hug, or touch each other’s face.
That is not to say that Arabic music videos are devoid of sexual tension or all of the “flawless, pretty” people that fill American music videos. Au contraire, in Arabic music videos it is perhaps even worse. The women—whether they are the artist or simply models in the video—are constantly seen primping, preening, and basically luxuriating in their general loveliness. The amount of loveliness in this videos is almost disgusting to watch; after watching an hour of Arabic music videos, I feel like ugliness would be more than welcome. Everyone is perfect looking, male and female; everything is perfect-looking. Arabic music videos are like fairy tales in which everything appears to be wonderful, and even if the heroine sheds a tear, the ending is always happy.
Coming next: Part II: Unrealistic Representation in Arabic Music Videos