February 22, 2014

The exotic Near East in music videos

Once again Katy Perry is letting her inner transvestite get her flame on in the video for "Dark Horse," a song whose drowsiness hardly brings Ancient Egyptian grandeur to mind.

She's trying to hit two retro themes at the same time: the Mid-century (Cleopatra 1963), and the '90s (mostly Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" video, but also Stargate and maybe Aladdin). The result is an even mix of the two -- mid-century bombast and Nineties wacky zaniness.

It can be hard to remember how widespread the fascination used to be with the pastoralist belt stretching from Northern Africa through South Asia. The Exorcist opens in Iraq, the desert landscapes in Star Wars were shot in Tunisia, and of course all of the images of Egypt (whether shot there or nearby) -- Death on the Nile, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Jewel of the Nile, and so on. The second Indiana Jones movie was shot in Sri Lanka (meant to be India), and so were the videos for "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Save a Prayer" by Duran Duran.

Back in the '70s and '80s, they just let the place be what it is -- tempting and thrilling, but also disorienting and dangerous. They didn't paint it only one way or the other -- either a placid vacation spot, or else a catastrophe waiting to happen. They conveyed the dual nature of the place, somehow realistic and fantastic at the same time.

Music videos didn't have big budgets like feature films did, but there were still a handful that were shot on location in the Near East. Below: "Living on the Ceiling" by Blancmange in Cairo, Egypt; and "Dominion" by Sisters of Mercy in Petra, Jordan (where the third Indiana Jones movie would be filmed).

More low-budget, though in the same spirit, is "Arabian Knights" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. In the video for "Night Boat to Cairo" by Madness, the music makes up for the low-budget visuals in setting up a Near Eastern theme. And it's too bad "Rock the Casbah" wasn't shot on location. (Film boards didn't want them to degenerate the faithful.)

Notice that it wasn't the Top 40 pop stars who wanted to evoke exotic places. It was the groups somewhat outside the mainstream who were keen on style. Now it's the mainstream that boasts a bombastic style, while the groups outside have cultivated an anti-style. Having style used to be cool.

By the mid-'90s, the Middle East only showed up in music videos as an exotic spa getaway kind of place. The harem secluded from all men, save the eunuchs -- that's become women's ideal in a cocooning age. See "My Love Is for Real" by Paula Abdul and "The Woman in Me" by Shania Twain. And then it was gone altogether, until "Dark Horse."

What's going on with the timing of greater or lesser interest in the Near East as an exotic, stylish place?

Egyptian Revival, as a stylistic phenomenon, only crops up during the later part of a rising-crime period (the early 1800s, the 1920s, and the 1980s). It's part of a broader interest in the exotic and Sublime. I'm not sure whether it's the rising crime rate itself or people's more extraverted mindset that makes them crave the excitement of strange new peoples, places, and things.

Falling-crime / cocooning periods, when they do show an interest in The Other, tend to take a distant, clinical, or ethnographic approach, and present it in a one-way-or-the-other fashion, rather than showing its dual nature. Cocooners don't mind a nice peaceful vacation, after all. But if there's the slightest threat of violence, it's overblown to the point of convincing them that they'd better stay home instead. Do not approach unless 100% harmless.


  1. I've been reading this blog for a few months now, and I always wish I had more to contribute in the comments. I think you deserve more comments in general.

    My favorite 80's French song has a great middle-eastern themed video I'm sure you'll find interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obBC7MnKydY

    You could translate the lyrics I guess, it's basically about a French guy in love with a girl from North Africa and how he doesn't care if people look down on them.

    Probably less interesting to you, but there are a few rappers who have been interested in the Middle East, probably as a part of their Nation of Islam stuff or whatever. Nas put him face on the King Tut mask thing, and Rakim, who's meant to be a great lyricist sang:

    Some of the things I know, will be in your next Bible
    When I die go bury me and my notebook in Cairo
    With the great God from Egypt manifest was write
    Rhymes align with the stars, I come back to bless the mic

    Here he is in a 80's style (I thought, at least) video in the mid 2000's: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXcRMGk7v5A

  2. When I look at Ancient Egyptian paintings I see the blacks I grew up with. Amenhotep looks like that black guy I worked with, of whom the other black guys said- "Can't you SEE he smokes crack?" The female Pharaoh looks like that tough black mama who's always cussing loud and proud at Kroger's. The hunting scene of the nice guy and his wife throwing nets while their kid sits on an implausibly thin papyrus stalk looks like the black kid from high school who was taking Calculus while I took Trig. US blacks are West Africans who are 1/5 white, and have been fed better than kwashiokor for a couple hundred years. They look at the paintings too- it's not just rappers and cod-Muslim gangsters.

  3. The reduced interest in the Middle East in pop culture is influenced by 9/11. Who wants to go to a place where one can be taken hostage, murdered, and/or raped (perhaps in that order)? The Middle East is dominated by Islam, which hasn't contributed anything positive to the human race in over 800 years. Violence and destruction are the cornerstones of their culture.

  4. Some more European ones.

    "Body Talk" by Imagination, another example of black Africans projecting themselves up into Ancient Egypt. Note again the focus on women serving men, rather than women being isolated from men (other than eunuchs).


    "Dschinghis Khan" by the German disco group of the same name. Central Asian / Mongol rather than Near Eastern, but close enough.


  5. "The reduced interest in the Middle East in pop culture is influenced by 9/11."

    The peak of Middle Eastern exoticism during the '80s and early '90s came in the wake of Sirhan Sirhan assassinating RFK, the OPEC oil embargo, the invention of airline hijacking -- and the Lockerbie bombing, the Iranian Revolution -- and taking of American hostages, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Civil War -- and the Beirut marines barracks suicide bombing, etc etc etc.

    Americans / Westerners have been aware of the violent and anti-Western sentiment (and action) for a long time. And the declining interest in the exotic Middle East was apparent already by the mid-'90s, long before 9/11.

    "The Middle East is dominated by Islam, which hasn't contributed anything positive to the human race in over 800 years."

    So why not exotify the pre-Islamic Middle East, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Exorcist, Aladdin, the Sisters of Mercy video (showing The Treasury at Petra, built in the 1st century AD), and so on?

    People whose interest in the exotic is falling need some kind of rationalization for why they can't be bothered with the Near / Middle East anymore. I know -- the only thing that's ever taken place there has been pointless political violence by Muslims. No thanks, then, I'll just tune it out.

  6. 9/11 increased interest in the Mideast. I was a college freshman the year after it happened, and remembered taking a bunch of Mideast courses the college offered, because of all the news I had read after 9/11.

  7. Google ngrams on the North African camel jockey pastoral belt countries

    No real signal of any uptick in the 1900s-1920s, writers then didn't seem to care about any of these countries, but the falling crime '60s-early '90s boom is apparent.

    Turkey fits the pattern well - http://tinyurl.com/q5wmd73

    Data stop at 2000, so we can't tell from this if any post-2000 9/11 interest surged up.

    So from the written data there's some lack of support for any kind of general violent times interest, but something about the 60s-early 90s period had interest.

    Although, I had to remove Morocco from the plot, as it was enormously more written about that any of the others combined, mainly through the 19th century.

    The cites on Egypt or anything similar are small compared with Morocco in the mid-19th century, for some reason.


    India, naturally, fits the zenith of British colonial interest, and not really any other pattern. Of course, India's not really part of that Muslim-Pastoral belt at all, much more a civilization of family oriented, low violence farmers (like China). Classifying India as part of a pastoral belt is only marginally less ridiculous than drawing the pastoral belt through Central Asia and thusly claiming China as part of it.


    A very slight boom in the 1960s, which fits with all that hippy stuff, etc. but by 1970 we're down to lower than 1950 levels of interest.

    In connection with previous discussions, interest in Nordic countries seems to boom at the same time as Med countries (Yurop!). The Nords are at lower levels in all time periods, but proporitonately stay about the same compared to Meds. By ngram there is more interest in things Nordic and Mediterranean both in the 1980s and 1960s than the 1970s.


  8. Ngrams won't tell you anything about the visual culture, and won't tell you about the qualitative aspects of the written / conceptual culture. That's what the discussion has been about -- even when the Middle East is presented, is it thrilling yet dangerous, or is it an innocuous spa retreat, or where terrorism and death are guaranteed? Is there anything cool and stylish about it?

    I won't write up a separate post on the early 20th C crime wave, but it's hard to think of a time that was more fascinated by the Near East. Perhaps more so than in the '80s. Orientalism pervaded Art Nouveau. Murad cigarette ads. The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks. Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. Intolerance. Cleopatra 1934.

    Art Deco incorporating Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles. Picture palaces done in an Egyptian, Aztec, or Mayan theme. Egyptian revival in general was an architectural trend, not just in Art Deco.

    Plus the buzz in the air following the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922.

  9. Then look at those same areas of popular culture for the same time period, and notice the minimal / non-existent fascination with Scandinavia.

    There are a handful of silent films in the German epic tradition (hot-blooded Nords, not streamline / minimalist Scandinavians), but the explosion begins more during the Mid-century when the Nazis finally found an enthusiastic audience. Bombastic Wagnerian music is also from this period, e.g. Carmina Burana by Orff.

    Wagner himself was composing during a long period of falling homicide rates, the Victorian era. Homicide rates went up across Europe from circa 1780 to 1830, then fell all the way until the Fin de siecle.

  10. even when the Middle East is presented, is it thrilling yet dangerous, or is it an innocuous spa retreat, or where terrorism and death are guaranteed? Is there anything cool and stylish about it?

    Yeah, sure, people in falling crime periods generally don't seem stylish (or stylish in a different, more strait laced way) or thrillseeking (connected to why they seem to get into less trouble and commit fewer crimes I guess).

    Just interesting to me that this phenomena isn't really present in the written record in terms of straight up mentions of the countries, in the 1920s. I've no real clue what was the case in terms of visual culture, and qualitative respects in the Mid Century period or late Victorian Age by comparison. Like there seems like a real boom of romantic Baghdad films in the 1940s - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Films_set_in_Baghdad, lots of Sinbads in the 1930s - 1950s etc., but they're not very iconic to the period by comparison to those Twenties ones. Adventure in the sun never seems to lose its popularity. You either think you have a feel for it or you don't I guess.

    but the explosion begins more during the Mid-century when the Nazis finally found an enthusiastic audience

    The Italian fascists who glorified the ancient Roman tradition did alright too, just not among Germanic folks.

  11. Wait, which names were you searching for before the Mid-century? Most of today's names were not in wide use back then, especially during and just after the Ottoman Empire.

    You'd want to know what the common ethnonyms or region names were. "Persia" rather than "Iran," for instance. They also used to use religious names like "Musulman," "Mohammedan," etc. Seems like there'd be a lot to sift through and combine into an overall index, but it could be done.

    Oh, "Orient" and "Oriental" -- those would've been the main generic terms. (Before "Oriental" came to mean the Far East.)

    And try adjectives in addition to nouns.


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