Please, can our singers stop waving their arms about?
Like any art form that is nourished by its surroundings, the Arabic song has evolved. Although, of course, we rarely have "songs" now; video clips are the order of the day. Arabic TV, certainly in the Gulf, has also become more audacious, addressing difficult social issues head on. Examples include the break-up of the nuclear family, disoriented youth, and drug abuse. But there are still changes in the performing arts that one hopes to see - the most important of which would be a growing belief in the region's own culture instead of copying the lead of others elsewhere.
Music videos deserve special mention. Because they are both aural and visual, an artist can make a hit video even if the lyrics are at best ordinary. There is in fact software that measures psychological reaction to music, and recording companies use it to adjust melodies to maximise the desired emotional response in the listener. A touch of visual titillation (which is what the sparsely clad dancers are for) guarantees high viewership.
The plots in these videos are, to say the least, predictable. Women performers get to sample haut couture wardrobes, moving from palaces to Hollywood dream locations. Men are almost always victims of betrayal, rejection, and involved in complicated love triangles. Then there are the painful (certainly to view) flashbacks, sometimes to the accompaniment of hints of American jazz, or a twist of classical Spanish music. The words, still in Arabic, will quickly bring you back to the reality of an Arab singer. The most ludicrous adaptations I have seen include: the quite gratuitous use of children, presumably to make the artist seem more lovable; and one less-than-dashing performer surrounded by a number of stunning models all vying for his attention.
If you consider the essentials of a song, you can break it down into the following: music, aspiration, and entertainment. Music can be soothing, exciting, melancholy, etc… Like all cultures, we Arabs can and do compose excellent music encompassing a full breadth of emotions and styles. We have no need to copy others. That is not to say that artists should never improve or adapt other styles of music with ideas of their own. But rap is not exactly the way to improve Arabic music.
Songs will also have to identify with people's expectations. Therefore, a video's success also lies in the way it addresses aspirations. Love, success and beauty are universal needs and themes. Fantastic locations are to be expected, but the whole production should at least be believable. What do mobsters - posing on the Prohibition-era streets of Chicago - have to do with an Arabic love song? Music is about creativity and new boundaries, or no boundaries, so why limit oneself to a known and tested format? Why do so many Arabic videos use sparsely-clad dancers as a means of adding, presumably, excitement and glamour? Surely there has to be more in a work of "art" than blatant sexual overtones. If I need to look at pretty faces, I can check out websites, magazines and the like. Although now, thanks to these videos, I could also just turn down the music and ogle.
The Gulf song has thankfully limited its use of this approach, although it has other elements that could do with correction. Please, could Gulf artists stop flailing their arms around, it's getting very irritating. And isn't that device of overlaying a monotonous drumbeat against a dramatic violin background rather overdone now?. I also feel that a Gulf singer and his song would feel more authentic if he were to dress in a kandourah rather than the often-showy suits. It's a little ironic that when other Arab singers sought an entry point into the Gulf music scene in the 1970s, they dressed-up in Gulf Thoubs and tossed their hair. They still imitate the dialect to capture the region's youth. Meanwhile, our own singers try on Western outfits, presumably not to appear from the region.
The operative word in performing arts is "art". There are prerequisites, however, for a body of work to qualify as art. To start with, it has to be unique and original. Then it has to capture our hearts. I can think of one example from the Gulf that matched and surpassed all tests, with flying colours: the adaptation of Sesame Street for the Arabic child, produced in the early 1980s.
Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman