Thursday, July 19, 2007

the cola wars come to pan-arabia

while this post is meant to be enjoyable and fun, it is nonetheless important not to forget that the fight for control of the middle east is not only about oil. the primary american export is "culture". by this we usually mean american film and american music, etc., but the flow of american products into the middle east also includes coke and pepsi.

in an earlier post i have already pointed out (see "nancy ajram: life in the circus") the large stake that coca-cola has placed in nancy ajram trying to help the sales of coke in market that is dominated by pepsi. coke has been a large sponsor of her videos and spun the videos directly into commericials. here we see another example. notice the more traditional nancy ajram storyline-style video has been replaced by a sea of red and her name in large letters using the coca-cola font (and indeed in the commericial version it says 'coke' not 'nancy'). the song is no less enjoyable for its use as a marketing tool. sit back and enjoy "oul tany keda" and its accompanying commerical.

Nancy Ajram, "Oul Tani Keda" ["Tell Me That Again"] (2005)

Nancy Ajram, "Oul Tani Keda -- Commercial" (2005)

on the other side, nancy's main competition for queen of arabian pop, elissa (see "elissa: queen of pop"), is the vehicle of choice for pepsi in the middle east. in this well conceived commercial, elissa sings part of a song that had not yet been released at the time the commercial went to air. this both promoted the pepsi product and served as hype for the forthcoming album. this is "arrably", shot as a commericial... enjoy.

Elissa, "Arrably--Commercial" (2004)

pepsi is very aware that part of what they are selling is a piece of american culture, and that part of the appeal to the buyer is this ability to buy a bit of america. in recent commercials elissa has been paired with christina augilera. here the fusion of arabian and american cultural images is a central theme. augilera, while singing in english, belly-dances, while on the other hand a very international and cosmopolitan appearing elissa sings her arabic hit "bastannak". the arabian elissa ultimately ends up with the can of pepsi.

Christina Augilera and Elissa, "Pepsi Commercial" (2006)

this final pepsi commercial is in fact a full blown music video, and its content is probably deserving of a full blog of its own (unfortunately you will have to settle for coming and hearing the conference paper on it instead). the video features american pop stars brittany spears, pink and beyonce, and the undisputed king of arabian pop, amr diab, and is performed entirely in english. despite this though, pepsi is not offering a vision of happy fusion. while in the previous video (filmed much more recently) augilera and elissa were portrayed as on the path toward some manner of cultural convergence, in this video the message seems to be one in which arabia is able to master the pop-culture of americanism and ultimately conquer it. amr diab rules as the caesar, the americans are enslaved and there for his entertainment. the apparent disruption of his power by americanism is really nothing more than an appearance, a momentary abberation. ultimately amr diab reasserts his authority and reveals the situation was within his control all along.

but here one has the capitalist myth that consumption is mastery. and it is no surprise, then, that in order to tell such a myth the setting is not arabian at all but roman. to go down the consumerist path already places one within the myth-history of what we have been here calling americanism (which is only accurate insofar as the united states has dominated capitalism since ww2): one is overtaken by the very roots of western culture; one has already surrendered to the invading power before the war begins. so a commercial that at first glance appears to promote easy mastery of americanism by consuming it, in truth envisions the consummation of the exporting of americanism by subsuming arabia with its mythic field. one can already see this playing out in the ajram video insofar as it completely elides any distinctions between performance, rehearsal and spontaneous moments from "real life". no part of reality falls outside the capitalist reduction. capitalism is not primarily about the occupation of land, but about the occupation of minds and society. prepare to be rocked!

Amr Diab, Brittany Spears, Beyonce and Pink, "We Will Rock You -- Commerical" (2004)



Seeker said...

I have always thought that the real way Americans were "conquering" the world was through the export of culture. Whether this is good or bad (and I tend to lean toward the latter view), it is a far more effective means of bringing people over to "our side" than bombs and guns. But perhaps given the sharp rise in cancer in Japan or obesity in France as they adopt American eating habits, no less deadly.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

welcome to the desert. thanks for the thoughtful comment.

i think part of what we are seeing here is that america itself is the commodity within a larger system: whether we call late capitalism as i tend to do (following mandel and jameson) or wallerstein's world-economy, etc. especially in the "we will rock you" notice it is the americans who are at the center of the arena as the primary object of consumption.

american hegemony is probably on the decline and pepsi would like to translate that into a belief that the commodity form itself is becoming more innocuous and controllable. instead one has to say that capitalism itself does not seem to be on the decline at all and the commodity maintains the power to integrate the consumer, no matter their nation, into its field.

(basically still trying to think through the content of the material those are thoughts on the fly)

best wishes,

The Arcadian said...

Such shameless corporate whoredom is not suprising in american pop singers, but for arab singers who are meant to be the arab world's chief cultural/musical personages and its pride, to so shamelessly promote american capitalism would at least evoke some kind of outcry, you'd think.
What happened to the nostalgia for the the revolutionary spirit of fairuz and umm kulthum?

The Arcadian said...

But how much is capitalism synonymous with americanism? you seem to make the two interchangable. Is capitalism about cultural/geopolitical domination, or does it transcend all these things?

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i admit that there is some sloppiness in my language, but, i would also like to say that the fault is not all mine.

i think for some time now americans have thought that their interests and the opening of markets to capitalism was one and the same. this was true because of american hegemony. but this is starting to weaken, and i think one of the things one sees in this commercial is that pepsi has at least tried to imagine a possible future in which capitalism embraces the middle east (pepsi profits) without the americans conquering the middle east.

as for the pop stars - elissa, diab, ajram - i think it is hard to be too critical of them since their music is itself already an attempt to negotiate a place for, and the meaning of, capitalist culture in the pan-arabian milieu. and given their popularity, it seems that they are not the only one's asking the question and trying to work out an acceptable solution.

best wishes,

RandallJones said...

Without the oil money, there would not be these types of commercials.

THe United States keeps the Saudi family in power becauses it receives hundreds of billons (maybe trillons) in investment money from Saudi Arabia.

How many people have suffered due to the United States and other Western democracise engaging in regime changes and supporting brutal dictaors and kings that do their bidding. (This has happened in Muslim and non-Muslim countries) HOw many have died through the bombings, the sales of weapons to militants, by the use of depleted uranium, chemical weapons and sanctions? Saddam Hussein was put on trial for his crimes, when will any of his Western collaborators be put on trial for thier crimes?

Lawrence of Arabia said...

well i think it goes without saying that if there were no money in the middle east, pepsi, nor any other corporation, would design a major marketing campaign targeting the region. nor would you have the pop-culture and pop-music that is present there, etc. for the other..."History is red in tooth and claw" is the relevant saying, i believe (or something about the "slaughterbench of History" if you prefer). no one should ever confuse political liberalism with being any more peace-loving and, for that matter, pragmatic, than anyone else.

best wishes,

Umm Samir said...

"shameless corporate whoredom"

expected of American pop singers, but not from Arabs


Whoa ... please - Isn't that a bit arrogant?

These Arabs don't look like they need any help from the so-called wicked west, America, capitalism, etc. They appear to be enjoying themselves and look very comfortable in the videos.

Brittany Spears looks like a troll when compared to pious Nancy in the first video.

Stop blaming ALL the problems of emerging changes of the ME on America and capitalism. There are plenty of other valid things concerning them that can be harped on.

People are responsible for their own choices.

YGQ said...

Hello Mr Lawrence,

Thank you for that very eclectic blog! I must say that I'm impressed by the range of topics you deal with. If you read french, you'll see that I have made a link to your very detailed post about the Cola wars in the Panarabia World! Here is the link for you, and may be some of your readers :
And free publicity (I don't know the guy) : you may be interested by this link to a French blogger dealing with pictures in case you don't know him :

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i am glad you enjoyed the piece. my (reading)french is mediocre at best, but i can read some of what you write on your site. very interesting stuff. i look forward to seeing more of what you do.

best wishes,