[SOUND TRACK FROM ARAB VIDEO PLAYS] [MUSIC AND SOUND OF YOUNG WOMAN LAUGHING] [MUSIC CONTINUES UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When trying to tack a society in flux, we generally look to the arts -- what the novelists are writing, what painters are depicting, and what styles they use to express what they feel. But Charles Paul Freund, senior editor of Reason magazine, suggests that pop culture is a better yardstick for measuring change. His case in point, the rise of Arab music videos. Take the one featuring dancer Haifa Wehbe. [HAIFA WEHBE SINGING] Wearing a rain-soaked ensemble, she stares into the camera with a sultry expression. Here, it's cheesecake of the Victoria's Secret variety, but there it's revolutionary! Charles Paul Freund is here to deconstruct the videos. Welcome to the show!
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: Thanks so much. Glad to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So describe in general what you've seen happening in Arab music videos. What's new?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: There's a lot of extraordinarily interesting erotic work that's going on there. There's a lot of very interesting identity-change work that's going on. There's a lot of interesting excess that some people might not expect to find. I mean don't forget that these things are shown to more than just a, a self-selected audience. For example, the 6 o'clock news may conclude at 6:42, so you've got 18 minutes to kill, and part of the way you fill the time is buy running these videos! So that you can make the assumption that almost everybody has seen at least some of these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think has been the most influential video of this genre so far?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: Well, probably Alissa's [sp?] have set what appears to be a new extreme for what's permissible. [CLIP ALISSA SINGING PLAYS & THEN FADES UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Alissa is performing a song called [Ai SHY lahk] [sp?] which means I Live for You. Could you describe basically what's going on and, and what you think the significance is?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: The lyrics that you heard are pretty straightforward courtship song; it's about a woman enthralled with a man. But the visuals present a narrative about a woman who is having a liaison with a man in a Paris hotel room, and in the course of the video, most of the visuals are devoted to her own perceptions, soaked in eroticism, both of the relationship and of herself so that you see her in various states of undress as she imagines herself possibly, and you see her with the man who is both there and not there in various shots. And you are invited to play the part of Alissa's lover as she stares into the camera, in our eyes, with a great deal of erotic intensity. And the song itself, as you hear, is actually very catchy -- a part of the disco throwback that's actually quite popular now in the Middle East. [SONG UP AGAIN]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now would people here say oh, well, she's being objectified, or is she defining her own sexuality?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND:I would argue that if you look at all of these videos, the various women singers are all using their sexuality to establish the limits of how far they can be pushed by the increasingly puritanical forces of Islamism which are at play in the region. If this were not a period of rising Islamism, one could make an argument that this is just more coquettishness that sells.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now Alissa is Christian. Many of the women in these videos are Christian. You do mention one Muslim singer -- Samr -- who is dressed modestly throughout her video and yet conveys a powerful sexual message.
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: That's actually a wonderful video. Although she is in fact modestly dressed and she moves with decorum, the way in which she presents a song about her anticipation of her marriage and her wedding night and what she does with her body movement and what she does with her, her face -- she's essentially inviting the audience to share her anticipated pleasure. That's actually a particularly pleasing video and a - and in many ways an astonishing one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now you note in your story which is called Look Who's Rockin' the Kasbah [sp?], [LAUGHS] you say that sex may be the most immediately striking aspect of these productions, but it is the least important aspect of their revolutionary potential. Will you explain why?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: Yes. If they have a revolutionary potential, and I believe that they do, it actually lies in imagining yourself on your own terms as opposed to accepting an identity that you were born into.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Yes, you talk about men in these videos shown as Arab cowboys and Easy Riders and truck drivers and Medieval countesses and castles and science fiction Arabs battling aliens --and a whole host of other images that they probably have never applied to themselves before!
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: That's right. These videos are actually presenting a huge range of new ways of being, and especially new ways of being an Arab. Now some of these are, are perfectly plausible roles, and some of these are complete fantasy roles, but the point is that these are narratives that offer tools for imagining yourself on your own terms, and I argue in the piece that that's actually an extremely basic aspect of what we consider modernity in the West. By which I don't mean to say that contemporary Islamic culture lacks modernity, but this is one particular element that continues to be a powerful source of tension in much of the Arab world, and these kinds of disposable cultural artifacts are extremely useful to audiences in trying to deal with that tension about making themselves into whoever it is they want to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You also observe in your story that what may yet work in the region is what has worked elsewhere for centuries -- commercialism that does not transmit a regime's utopian dreams but addresses the personal dreams of the audience. This is getting people where they live, you think?
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: Yes, it is. The Middle East has had a long series of "isms" that have been tried -- Arab Marxism, Pan-Arabism; Islamism is, is in the air now and in other forms has been in the past. None of these things have worked, and some of them have failed really quite disastrously. The reason that something like this has worked is that this "ism" -- commercialism in this case -- consumerism -- people are, are using things - artifacts - in this case it's, it's videos -- based on the meaning that they find in them. They're not a force presented by the state or by a political party or by some philosophical or religious movement. And the meaning that these things have for individuals changes from individual to individual. That's really where the power of these things has been in the past, and that's their latent power as they play out in the Middle East as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much!
CHARLES PAUL FREUND: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charles Paul Freund is senior editor of Reason magazine. [MUSIC PREVIOUSLY HEARD FROM ARAB VIDEO UP & UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan and Tony Field; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Rob Christiansen and George Edwards, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Blake Carlton. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [REPRISE OF DESI & LUCY SIGNOFF]