‘Degenerate’ Pop:

Threat to Arab Music Renaissance or Mere Sign of the Times?

By Nancy Linthicum
Photos: from left to right, Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram

Pop music in the Arab world is an expanding industry, creating both a strong fan base among the youth and several outspoken voices of criticism. Here, the term “pop music” refers not to popular music, which includes a breadth of Arab musical traditions dating back to the early 20th century, but rather to a relatively new genre of music characterized by its quick tempo, repetitive lyrics and healthy dose of technology used in producing its unique sound. In the Arab world, there are two names for this type of music: the first, shababi, means “young” or “youthful,” an appropriate name as it is the youth that make this genre of music so popular; and the second, habita, is a derogatory name commonly used by its critics implying “low” or “low brow.”

Ali Nassar and Al-Musiqa Al-Habita

One of the most prominent and articulate critics of Arab pop music is the young Lebanese author and musician Ali Nassar. He and others, including most recently the famous Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, denounce this new style of music and the accompanying music videos (referred to as “video clips” in the Arab world), calling them decadent and tasteless. They prefer the sounds of classical singers to what they consider the cheap, commercialized, unsavory sounds of modern-day Arab pop music.

Nassar candidly broaches this subject in an article that appeared in July 2003 in the Beirut-based newspaper As Safir. In this article, he discusses not only the lack of quality found in music produced today, but also the lack of serious music criticism. One of the critics who refers to pop or “hit” songs of the day as habita, Nassar explains his choice of wording by taking his discussion one step further and confronting the discourse surrounding today’s music.

In the past, popular music (not to be confused with pop music) has struggled to carve a place for itself on “the map of elitist (nakhbawiyya) songs.” It has often succeeded, Nassar writes, since popular songs are abundant in the Arab and international music industry, and many have become timeless traditions. But, he continues, things have changed, and today classical songs, which have an aesthetic purpose, “struggle to preserve their place in a market” that readily attaches the term “popular” to any song that appeals to the masses, regardless of musical worth. According to Nassar, modern media is responsible for removing choice from the masses, offering only overplayed, overrated pop music.

Ignorance of world music and music criticism, Nassar implies, creates confusion in the Arab world over what constitutes a “good” pop song. Instead of providing definitive opinions, people offer merely conciliatory statements, saying that a pop song “represents the generation” and is “consistent with the spirit of the time.” They continue with this reasoning, he writes, believing that the rest of the world is engaged in creating similar products for similar audiences.

However, Nassar counters this reasoning, stating, “Yes, you find [this type of song] in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world, now and before…but what remains important is their diversity; though they are commercial, they are still forced to come up with [something original] to be competitive.” Nassar continues, arguing that while these commercial songs might be inferior to those produced in the Arab world, other factors are important to consider: “What is the breadth of their presence? Have they reached a level of absolute dominance and become a monopoly? Were they able to abolish serious art in their countries?”

Equally troubling for Nassar is that this lack of music criticism leads to faulty comparisons between today’s pop music and the stars that perform it, and successful songs and their singers that have withstood the test of time. For Nassar, the popular, or classical/elitist song, and the taqtuka (literally, “short song”) differ considerably from the new commercial or pop song. The popular or classical song “is born out of people’s feelings, hearts and minds,” he writes. It is as if these old songs “fell from heaven,” transcending generations. As the years pass, people may forget the authors but not the songs themselves.

As for taqtuka, Nassar cites an impressive list of composers and songs that he considers part of this genre of music. His list includes Zakaria Ahmad, Sayed Darwish, the Rahbanni Brothers, Azar Habeeb, Ziad Rahbanni, and Ahmad Kaabour, among others. Thus, Nassar asserts, this type of song should not be confused with the commercial or pop song, which is a product of the demands of the market, singer and producer rather than a reflection of beauty and emotion like the taqtuka and the popular or classical song.

To illustrate the process of producing songs in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, Nassar provides us with an all-too-common scenario. He writes of a singer or star who appears on a magazine cover before singing a single song. He or she comes prepared to record with overused, clichéd lyrics hardly distinguishable from those of the pop songs currently playing on the radio. These lyrics are purchased from a “composer” who superimposes them over the familiar rhythm of an already famous pop song. Then, Nassar continues, a distributor makes sure that this “new” song uses the same tempo, instruments and, of course, zakfa, a rhythmic clapping sequence, of other pop songs,  to ensure profitable sales. Disgusted by this commercialized version of music, Nassar says that this new process of producing songs sacrifices the “natural speed” of the song and the emotions of the singer.

Nassar also notes the irony inherent in the production of pop music, as stars and songwriters often complain about their own genre of music. Rather than take responsibility for their music by creating something new, they passively rationalize, “the audience wants this.” However, he emphasizes, no one tries to determine why the audience might want this particular product.

Nassar makes an admirable contribution to the debate on pop music with his discussion of the trend of reproducing traditional, classical Arab songs. He denounces this imitation or reproduction of asala songs (“authentic” songs), a term associated with the classical works of Arab tarab. Generations, Nassar claims, attempt to prove themselves by comparing their achievements to those of their predecessors. In this case, stars and producers who hope to distance themselves from the zakfa songs turn to classical works, adding new rhythms and beats to familiar and revered songs.

But these remade songs, Nassar writes, are no more successful than the zakfa songs; unable to stand on their own as works of art, they are merely cheapened versions of brilliant classical works. Instead of reflecting a rise in musical talent, he continues, these reproductions threaten to bring about the cessation of the already-weakened Arab musical renaissance that began in the early 20th century.

Criticism of Today’s ‘Decadent’ Music

Nassar does not stand alone in his dislike of Arab pop music. According to a report in the London-based Al Quds newspaper (July 23, 2005), Marcel Khalife leveled similar criticism against Arab pop music at a press conference conducted at the International Rabat Festival of Culture and Art. Khalife does not just agree with Nassar that the media has taken diversity away from the field of music, but directly blames Arab satellite television stations for this rise of decadent, immoral music and video clips that do nothing to further society.  These satellites,  Khalife told aljazeera.net in July, are responsible for bringing what he called the “new cultural prostitution” into the Arab home. He also expressed his disapproval of the unjustified portrayals and usages of the human body in video clips.

Like the satellite stations that broadcast it, this popular genre of music and its effects are also dangerous and far-reaching, according to Khalife in Al Quds. He said, “There is an economic force that has its roots in the oil-rich Gulf, funding dangerous satellite television stations, reaching the East, passing by Cairo, all the way to Morocco.” He then called upon the Moroccan and Arab people to demonstrate against the invasion of the television satellites that bring commercial art into their homes.

For Khalife, commercialized songs broadcast by satellite stations have caused schizophrenia in Arab viewers; they watch video clips featuring expensive cars and beautiful women while living in a state of poverty and despair. Despite this decay spreading through society, Khalife is not calling for a ban of these video clips. Instead, he is advocating freedom of choice. Khalife wants to strip satellite television stations of the power to decide what Arab viewers watch. Those who want a cabaret can go to a nightclub, Khalife says. Those who do not want to watch such decadence should not have to suffer endless video clips entering their homes via satellite television, he argues.

Some critics are against the pop and commercial song for different reasons. Consider Ali al-Ahmad’s argument, which focuses on the cultural implications of this trend. Al-Ahmad attributes the change in music in the Arab world to the influence of Western, especially European, pop music. Because Arab music imitates Western music, the Arab identity has become lost amidst the dominant Western one, he claims in the Gulf Al Itihad newspaper (July 16, 1999).  Al-Ahmad finds this influence present in both the means of producing pop music and the instruments used to create it.

Later that same year, Egyptian musician and artist Omar al-Sharee also spoke out about the issue of pop music and its place in society, noting the absence of “emotion” in today’s music. In an interview he said, “Our real tragedy is that the song has transformed itself from an audio anthem into a visual one” (Al Quds, August 23, 1999). For al-Sharee, songs today lack the artistic element necessary to stir our emotions. Before, the singer’s powerful voice evoked happiness, sorrow, anger or passion, but today, producers choose the emotion for the viewer and present it in a video. No longer can we truly appreciate a singer’s voice, as we are lost amid the streaming images that assail us. Instead of speaking to the soul, al-Sharee argues, music has become a tangible product to be experienced by the senses, namely sight.

Fakhri Salih also supports the notion that video clips detract from Arab music. Like al-Sharee, Salih sees the introduction of visual technology to the world of music as an onslaught, leading to the destruction of the sacred quality found in classical music. For Salih, music today focuses on impressing its audience by being visually stimulating, not aurally pleasing, according to an article appearing last year in the U.A.E.-based Al Khaleej newspaper.

Even as far back as 1992, critics spoke out against pop music. Noted late composer Baligh Hamdi openly criticized what he called the shababiyya (youthful) song, saying, “It is possible to explain the popularity of this hawja (thoughtlessness) by the absence of the alternative,” according to an interview in the Beirut and London-based Al Hayat newspaper. Like Nassar, Hamdi says that the absence of true aesthetic music today diminishes our ability to “distinguish between black and white.”

Lebanese composer Elias al-Rahbanni supports Nassar’s and Khalife’s position, blaming the media for the decline of the artistic and creative integrity of the music industry, according to an interview in the London-based Al Majalla magazine. Al-Rahbanni faults producers, who have become key figures in music, saying they are interested in poor quality productions simply because a sizeable market exists. Before, established production companies concerned with creating art were abundant; today however, powerful, capitalist industries with less regard for art have driven their predecessors out. Concerned with creating a broader market and greater profit margins, these new companies, according to al-Rahbanni, discourage talented artists from achieving their dreams by favoring young, good-looking artists who sell their image rather than their musical talent.

Is Pop Music Really So Bad?

It would seem that most voices in the Arab world lament the rise of pop music and video clips. Why, then, is Arab pop music so popular? How can a young person so readily identify a pop singer from a particular hairstyle or outfit worn in a video clip? Certain voices in the Arab world are more forgiving of Arab pop music, though their views seem to be outnumbered in the world of music criticism. One voice that admires, if not the product, at least the technology behind the making of the product, is Moataz Abdul Aziz.

In the article “Arabic Music Videos and Its Implication in the Realm of Arab Media,” Abdul Aziz of the American University in Cairo focuses on what he sees as the vital role of the entertainment industry in society. He views these widely criticized video clips as an indication that the Arab world is catching up with the West in its use of technology for entertainment. While not addressing whether or not he believes pop music has detracted from the quality of music produced today in the Arab world, Abdul Aziz does openly admire “the video clip [as] a product of technology and scientific innovation.” Moreover, unlike Salih, Abdul Aziz sees this use of technology as a sign of improvement and progress for the Arab world and not necessarily a sacrifice of Arab culture.

In his article “Look Who’s Rocking the Casbah: The Revolutionary Implications of Arab Music Videos, (“Reason,” June 2003) Charles Paul Freund judges Arab video clips in a more positive light. As opposed to Nassar and his supporters who see no substance whatsoever in these video clips and the pop music featured in them, Freund believes that the “greater value…lies in [the video clips’] power to stretch the boundaries of their viewers’ imagined selves. Certainly one reason to take the videos seriously is the intensity with which their audience has embraced them.” Freund argues that though critics may not like the music or videos themselves, it would be unwise to ignore the pop music industry’s influence on the youth and the potential this industry has to nurture the imagination of its audience and to create change in society.

Freund also points out that there is no better way to reach the youth and inspire new identities and associations than through these mass-produced video clips. He sees the cultural implications that Salih and others mentioned, but instead of bemoaning a loss of Arab culture, Freund sees this cultural borrowing as a sign of creating a new identity, no worse or better than the current one. Freund writes of an array of cultural identities that fuses together on the television screen. Traditional Arab society can be confining, Freund argues, and these video clips can offer an escape from these restraints. He writes, “[T]he foundation of cultural modernity is the freedom to achieve a self-fashioned and fluid identity, the freedom to imagine yourself on your own terms, and the videos offer a route to that process.”

Debate Continues

This debate over Arab pop music came to the forefront at a conference held last year by Al-Majmaa al-Arabi al-Musiki (the Arab Music Convention), an organization that is part of the Arab League. During this conference, participants were divided into two groups to discuss the topic “Arab Music: Entertainment or Culture?” as reported by Abd al-Amir in Al Hayat (September 24, 2004).

The first group consisted mainly of musicians who believed that contemporary Arab pop music is entertainment at its worst, not art, and that this new form of music has negative effects on Arab culture. The second group “consisted mainly of scholars, critics and journalists, [who] carefully examined modern music and recognized some of its positive elements, but not before attacking the ‘gangs’ of music marketing and the ‘mafias’ of music television programs.” The second group blamed these “gangs” for producing a type of music that destroys both taste in music and certain Arab cultural aspects that have greatly influenced important classical musicians of the past.

Al-Amir notes that the discussion reflected a prejudice among the participants, as they blindly considered “old Arab singing as authentic and of high quality.” By generalizing and labeling an entire genre, al-Amir continues, the participants applied the same “absolute judgment” to the classical songs as they apply to the new pop songs, which they consider to be cheap and superficial.

As this debate over the quality of music being produced today versus that of the early to mid-20th century continues, two schools of thought emerge out of the many voices already engrossed in discussion. One is a more elitist school of thought, focusing on the audiences of the different genre of music. Proponents of this school believe that the original, authentic, classical music composed and listened to by the elite is superior to today’s pop music of the masses simply because the aristocracy or elite have long preferred it. Pop music, demanded by today’s broad consumer market, including people from all social classes and especially the youth, is referred to as habita by this school. The second school of thought is more professional in its analysis, using music criticism to judge classical and modern songs based on their own inherent worth, not class distinction.

These are but a few of the many voices currently engaged in the debate over Arab pop music and its role in society. We can expect, perhaps, a more active attempt by prominent and critical composers to appeal to the audience of pop music. It would be more fruitful for critics like Khalife to offer an alternative to this genre rather than lament its existence and influence on Arab culture and today’s youth. As the genre of Arab pop music does not seem to be fading, this debate will continue to grow, fostering new opinions and insights from both critics and enthusiasts.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, nos. 50/51 (Winter/Spring 2005)

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