Pop Like an Egyptian

Cairo's youth find meaning and identity in a genre that can't get any respect.

Daniel J. Gilman’s Cairo Pop is the first scholarly treatment of Egyptian popular music – surprising, that, since Egypt has a thriving pop music industry, centered in Cairo, that reaches not only a domestic audience but a multinational one in the Arabic-speaking world. But according to Gilman, an anthropologist who teaches at DePauw University, hardly anyone regards Cairo pop as worthy of serious study, even though millions of Egyptians and other Arabs listen to it. While he was conducting his research, Cairenes frequently told him, with a mixture of incomprehension and contempt, that he was wasting his time.

Gilman clung to his conviction that Cairo’s pop music was significant and worthy of serious study, and particularly its links to politics. He set out to explore those links, mainly by concentrating on musiqa al-shababiyya, the genre that young Egyptians prefer to all others.

Given the political turmoil that roiled Egypt during the years he lived in the nation’s capital (2006–2011), and that continues under the nation’s current military dictatorship, Gilman acknowledges that it may seem irrelevant to discuss pop music consumption. But in Egypt, the connections between pop music and politics are “both long-standing and deep.”

Having lived in Cairo during the last years of the Mubarak regime and immediately afterwards, a “time of unprecedented change in Egypt”, Gilman observes that some of his analysis may now be out of date. Cairo Pop is a snapshot of a particular place at a particular and highly momentous time.

Gilman discusses three genres of Egyptian pop and their associations with political, social and cultural moments in modern Egyptian history: musiqa al-tarab (“music of enchantment”), performed by “iconic”, mid-20th century singers like Umm Kulthum, Abd al-Halim Hafiz and Layla Murad; sha’bi (based in folk music, it has a proletarian appeal similar to that of American country music) and musiqa al-shababiyya (“youth music”). Shababiyya songs are short, unlike the lengthy, improvisatory workouts typical of tarab. It is simpler than the older style, and although it draws on native traditions, it is “highly influenced by Western pop music.” The lyrics of shababiyya songs, mainly about love and romance, are more simplistic, and less poetic, than in tarab. And although shababiyya is Egyptian, not all its performers are; in fact, some of its biggest stars are Lebanese.

The author takes pains to explain he is not writing from a fan’s viewpoint. “The great mass of contemporary Egyptian pop music is intensely formulaic, superficial and uncomplicated”, he declares. “Much of this music is terrible.” This, of course, is true about much pop, regardless of its provenance. What Gilman says about the industry that produces this music also sounds quite familiar: Egyptian producers distribute their products through “multinational companies who [sic] compete fiercely to wring profits from a saturated market whose profitability perennially hangs in doubt.”

He writes, “The conditions of the Arabic-language culture industry’s multinational capitalist structure… remind[s] me of nothing so much as the intensely corporate country music industry in the United States that operates out of Nashville.” How is that any different from the multinational (but Western-dominated) recording industry in general? Worldwide, huge capitalist corporations control the production and distribution of pop music.

Gilman is more interesting when describing how his interviewees – Cairenes ranging from 18- to 30-years-old, Muslim, Christian and secular – consume shababiyya, what it means to them in their daily lives and how it expresses their identities – as young people (half of Egypt’s population is under 25), as Egyptians and as Arabs. Gilman interviewed a few performers, but he mostly focuses on the audience.

Cairo Pop‘s key analytic categories are gender, race, national identity and age. The author acknowledges class, but gives it short shrift, arguing against analysis that maps Western class structures onto Egyptian society. That indeed would be an inapt approach. But scholars, Egyptian and otherwise, have produced and continue to produce Marxist studies of Egypt. It’s unfortunate that Gilman doesn’t engage at all with this research corpus. For him, age is much more critical than class; musical preferences tend to skew along generational lines, with young people, regardless of their class standing, preferring shababiyya; their parents, tarab. For the author, class comes into play mostly “in the listening preferences of young Cairenes from the poorer segment of society”, which mainly means that the poor favor sh’abi.

Gilman’s analysis is strongest in the chapter titled “Oh, My Brown-Skinned Darling”: Sex, Music, and Egyptianness”. Concepts of Egyptian national identity are, he observes, “shot through with intertwined notions of sex and race”, with the latter being the most difficult topic for Egyptians to discuss forthrightly. Gilman found them reluctant to “recognize the racializations at work in their own thinking”. Cairenes, he writes, have an “anxiety about blackness”. Because of “its traditional associations with evil and negativity”, blackness “features in many idiomatic expressions in Arabic, and thus it is easily turned into a term of vituperation”.

Race, gender, and to some degree class are entwined in Gilman’s discussion of female and male shababiyya performers. Women must exude sex appeal, with vocal talent an afterthought. (Gilman says that shababiyya, a producer’s genre that doesn’t privilege vocal prowess, is congenial to weak singers, whose performances producers routinely “fix” in the studio.) The most prized female singers are those who embody what Cairenes call the “New Look”, an image associated with Lebanese shababiyya singers: fair skin, slim figure and a face with rounded cheeks, plump lips and small nose. Since most Egyptian women don’t conform to this ideal, female pop singers constitute a significant profit center for plastic surgeons. The “New Look”, Gilman observes, is a major change from older standards of female beauty that favored “voluptuous abundance”.

Gilman cites the popular singer Shirin ‘ab al-Wahab to show how racialized beauty standards and class can intersect. Shirin is dark-skinned and therefore many Cairenes consider her ugly. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood, so “class-based distinctions of cultural capital” are harsher on her than toward the fair-skinned singer Angham, who conforms to the New Look.

Although “there exists an inverse relationship between the beauty of a female singer’s face and body and the quality of her voice”, this relationship doesn’t apply to men. Gilman says that “among the stars of both musiqa al-tarab and shababiyya, some of the best-regarded singers are also the most admired for their looks”.

What qualities do Egyptians prize in a singer, whether male or female? Emotiveness comes first. They have little use for “ironic distance as a lyrical or narrative device”. Gilman was disconcerted to learn that among fans of tarab, “a shocking number of Egyptians seized upon analogies to Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion”, singers who to him “represent many of the worst tendencies of American popular music, churning out emotive, histrionic performances of blandly formulaic and generic lyrical texts”.

Egyptians also value “authenticity of identity”, which they understand in terms of Egyptianness – not only “political subjectivity but also Egyptian identity as cultural, ethnic, and even racial subjectivity”. These standards inform how they behave and understand themselves; “what a putative Egyptian subject can and cannot do with his or her body in various social contexts” comprises a major criterion through which they authenticate themselves. Gender relations today are “subtly linked” to Arab politics. “Erotically-charged” Lebanese singers and Lebanese people themselves “figure into Cairenes’ thinking as a sexual Other, a model of Arab subjectivity that is fundamentally incompatible with Egyptianness”.

Yet, though Cairenes may criticize Lebanese shababiyya singers, “they also yearn – albeit guiltily – for what they perceive as a lack of sexual inhibition” in Beirut, and especially among its singers.

Disappointingly, Gilman doesn’t address Egyptian attitudes and practices regarding homosexuality, yet the Egyptian state, while the author lived in Cairo and even more so recently, behaves as if repressing (and criminalizing) homosexuality is essential to the nation’s moral and political hygiene.

His book’s bigger shortcoming, however, is its failure to explicate the links he posits between music and politics. Gilman acknowledges that he “cannot say precisely how close an analogy one might draw between Cairenes’ political engagements and their consumption of pop music.” The closest he comes is his discussion of “martyr pop”, a “subgenre” of music videos that commemorate Cairenes killed during the protests that drove Mubarak from power. The videos, however, are politically anodyne; they don’t take partisan stands or point fingers at powerful elites in Egypt because the music industry is “risk-averse” and its artists don’t want to alienate any potential audiences. The martyr videos “evoke pity for the dead, rather than sympathy for their cause”.

What is easier to discern, Gilman concludes, is a parallel “between pop music consumption and the engagement with post-colonial modernity at large: in both arenas, the rules of evaluation periodically shift, forcing people to question whether or not the old ways really worked that well, encouraging the young to move away from or against the worldviews of their parents, and requiring that youth find a way of being in the world that allows them to feel true to themselves, without ever feeling truly as confident as their forbears felt toward that world”.

So it is with youth worldwide, particularly, but not only, in societies that have emerged from colonialism, whether in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or the Middle East. If Gilman doesn’t clearly elucidate the connections between pop and politics in contemporary Egypt, he nonetheless provides an erudite examination of the interplay among pop culture, society and national identity, in one of the world’s first nation states and oldest civilizations.

Splash image: Press photo of Angham (photographer unknown)

RATING 7 / 10