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Beyoncé, Coldplay, and why we can’t let exotica become banal

Growing up in America in the 1980s through the noughties made most of my generation pretty hard to offend. Not because America itself is offensive, though some might argue that point. Nor because America is so idealistic about free expression that you respect individuality too much to be offended. It’s because we grew up watching so many sitcoms that piss all over family values and reality TV shows where mothers pimp out their daughters that we’ve become totally impervious to pop culture’s shock and awe. Like how doctors become desensitized to blood.

I didn’t get offended when Kurt Cobain announced that Courtney Love was “the best fuck in the world” — I envied her.  When Lady Gaga wore a dress made entirely of raw beef, I simply got up to get more beer. I didn’t get offended when Miley Cyrus emerged from preadolescence to start dry humping the floor of every stage, or when two years ago at Cairo’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, Yasmine Hamdan undulated sexually on stage to hundreds of horny young men. I undulated right back at her.

The point is, pop music could never offend me because I’m an MTV child. At least, that’s what I thought until last week, when I saw the briefly ubiquitous Beyonce-featuring music video British band Coldplay released, Hymn for the Weekend, as part of their new flop of an album, A Head Full of Dreams.

You may well have read about this video or seen it for yourself by now. Hindu priests walk through ruins, levitate in midair and skim past a neon-blue child Shiva sitting on a stoop to set the scene for a long shot of US superstar Beyoncé walking up a mountain with hennaed hands singing, “Drink from me, drink from me/Then we’ll shoot across the sky.” Hindu practices become a single hodgepodge of decoration to embellish Chris Martin’s sad, tired pop-rock. For Beyoncé, it’s a misstep. It’s a cringe-worthy collaboration (and this isn’t Coldplay’s first offensively exotic video — in 2011, the group collaborated with Barbadian popstar Rihanna for Princess of China. Coldplay had a decent debut, Parachutes (2000), but the rest of their oeuvre has been a continual grasping for straws. Their last straw, it seems, is bedazzled Beyoncé).

Poor nameless Indian kids run through the famous annual Hindu Holi festival, adding its color to Martin’s pale skin and intellect. While Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor plays a fleeting cameo, Beyoncé plays a Hindu “angel.” She looks more like a Victoria’s Secret angel though, making clichéd attempts at mudras (symbolic hand gestures, often used in classical Indian dance) while singing three lyrics that drip repeatedly down her plunging neckline.

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Beyonce

If any underlying theme can be taken from the song, it’s something about achieving ascension and transcendence through intoxicants drunk from Beyoncé’s boobs. The glaring disparity between rich white rocker gazing at Beyoncé’s bobbling breasts and poor kids running through the streets barefoot is celebrated. It really can’t get more Orientalist and exoticized than this, with Bey pliantly assuming the role of the object of the white man’s gaze.  

Exoticism is a slippery slope, and anyone who knows anything about music, representation, and washed-out popstars knows that most of the latter are capable of nearly anything, especially exploiting the aesthetics of a persecuted race, a formerly colonized nation or a serious cause in order to sell records.

One of my favorite explanations of exoticism comes from Seismographic Sounds (2016), when the book’s chief editor, Thomas Burkhalter, interviews Martin Stokes, who has been researching Middle Eastern music for over 30 years. When defining the differences between “exoticism, othering, primitivism, ethnocentrism, Orientalism and colonialism,” Stokes says:

They overlap and shade into one another, obviously. All human beings are “other.” They find ways of categorizing themselves on the basis of some property of “sameness” from which outsiders are excluded, and seen as strange and mysterious (“exotic”). “Ethnicity” was once used to define outsiders. “They” have it, “we” don’t. Only in the 19th century did it become a positive quality, associated with the new nation states, who sought to construct ethnic identities for themselves where the great empires denied them.

Colonialism produced the modern lines across the map separating “us” from “them.” These lines are still with us in one shape or another. Orientalism was the intellectual movement, seeking in “the Orient” the origins of things, and in Islam the cause of their stagnation: colonialism’s task was one of protecting “the Orient” from itself, in music as in all other things. Primitivism looks the other way, to an Edenic vision of uncorrupted social and artistic life amongst those free of burden civilizations: Africans, Polynesians, Celts. These various terms are the keywords in the metropolitan fantasies that have shaped so much 20th-century musical life in the West, from Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók to David Byrne and Brian Eno.

The deliberate use of exotic images that have nothing to do with the sonic textures of a song or the people singing it perpetuates this notion of otherness. In the Coldplay video, the priests, gods and Indian kids covered in paint are presented as purely mysterious or otherworldly, and thus separate from Coldplay and its audience. Exoticism here is just a commodifiable quality used to sell music.

There are also many cases of self-exoticism, Omar Souleyman being at the top of the list. His video Warni Warni demonstrates how he force-feeds us his “Bedouin on the dance floor” routine until it becomes impossible for us, them, to take him seriously. It’s a shame because his music isn’t so bad and it would have been interesting to see him develop, but I doubt he’ll escape the pigeonhole he has dug for himself.

Promoting the “us” versus “them” mentality helps enable wars, death and destruction. Videos like Hymn insist that othering is so much part of all of our lives and language that it’s not worth talking about — it’s a given. This clearly makes it more difficult to challenge racism, prejudice, sexism and all other dangerous binaries. In Beyoncé’s case, this also dilutes the power of her political statement against racism in her subsequent release, Formation, and her Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance. If she can thoughtlessly dress up as Chris Martin’s Orientalist pin-up one minute, why should I believe her the next?

I was going to let this all slide until I got invited to a Facebook group campaigning to bring Coldplay and their Head Full of Dreams tour to Egypt. But now I worry they will come dressed as Pharaohs and play paintball on the Sphinx while tailed by homeless street children. Or shoot a music video on the Great Pyramid with a GoPro like the German teenager whose blog post has gone viral for doing what every privileged Egyptian has done in their youth.

In many ways, Beyoncé and Coldplay did me a good service in reminding me to again challenge the idea of “the other,” and that exoticism cannot be reduced to ubiquity and banality, because it’s a real and dangerous reality that is intertwined with all things exclusive. So thank you Coldplay and Beyoncé, for I, the proud MTV child, am finally offended.

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Maha ElNabawi