When Netta Barzilai’s song “Toy” was released, the impression was that it’s not exactly a song, it’s a musical parody emerging from a particle accelerator. Now, with Netta’s new song out, we discover how mistaken that impression was – or the degree to which speed and intensity in pop are relative. The real particle accelerator is “Bassa Sababa.” Compared to it, “Toy” sounds like something creeping along on a factory assembly line.
Bionic, pixilated pop, pop on steroids – that’s what the new song sounds like. Not only in musical terms, but in terms of the world portrayed in the song.
“Toy,” with all its campy-hyped dimension, was a hymn of empowerment with roots in the real #MeToo atmosphere of 2018. “Bassa Sababa,” on the other hand, has abandoned the realistic assembly line and exists within a digital, imaginary-futuristic world, a kind of computer game of an all-out war, or an endless party, or both.
It has, as in the musical atmosphere of the particle accelerator, a kind of fast excitement, which is probably fated to be consumed within a short time. But short and effective excitement is all Netta needs for “Bassa Sababa” to become an international hit.
The most interesting thing about “Bassa Sababa” is the unusual identity that emerges from it. When Israeli musicians try to break into the international market, they have two main strategies: either to stress the Israeli/Mediterranean dimension, or to get rid of the local dimension and be totally international – in other words, American.
Netta and her producers have ignored both of the traditional alternatives. There are probably some Hebrew words in “Bassa Sababa,” or, to be more precise, in Hebraicized Arabic, but it contains no clearly Israeli characteristics. On the other hand, Netta doesn’t sound like an American singer or like someone who wants to be American.
The text of the song is a mixture of languages, accents and melodies, from various and sundry continents: the Near East, the Far East, Africa. The English of the song is not that of New York or L.A., but broken, choppy, distorted English, the English of the axis between Cape Town, Seoul and Sao Paulo. In that sense Netta and her partners seem to have adapted themselves to what has been happening recently in international pop.
Pop is no longer an American entity. It contains an increasing presence of voices from other places: Latin, African, Asian. Eight of the 10 most popular artists on YouTube in 2018 were non-American singers. In 2017 there were six non-American singers in the top 10, in 2016 – only one. In 2015 – zero. This is a swift and unequivocal process. If Netta sees the present and future of pop in the global mix of voices, which is clearly not American, there’s a good reason, and the impression is that she wants to jump on this racing bandwagon, and even to represent it.
Puerto Rico, India, Brazil, South Africa – the countries that have become very strong exporters of pop in recent years are in part countries that suffer from violence, racism and corruption, and in many cases this reality permeates the songs that emerge from them. There are artists for whom the way to express the chaos is to turn it into an extreme carnival of horrors, to celebrate it with a knife between their teeth. Die Antwoord, the South African hip-hop duo, is the outstanding example.
Perhaps it’s also possible to find something of this impulse in “Bassa Sababa,” with all its joy in chewing and trampling. There is no shortage of corruption, racism and violence in the land of the pink rhinoceros, and Netta herself has been accused, as we recall, of dancing on the blood, when she celebrated her victory in the Eurovision Song Contest on the day when dozens of Palestinian demonstrators were killed at the Gaza Strip fence.
If Netta really does want to belong to the rising wave of non-American global pop, does she bring with her some kind of clearly Israeli dowry, aside from the few words in Hebrew and in Hebraicized Arabic? Barely. If you make a little effort, you can still identify at the end of the song a hint of a clear local component: trance music. It happens on a very small scale, in the increasing repetition of the song about half a minute before it ends, which is a kind of miniature “uplift” (the gradual intensification of the trance-music passage, whose role is to intensify the euphoric release that follows it).
Trance has not really found a home in Israel, but it is apparently the most significant Israeli contribution to world music. Perhaps Netta and her producer Stav Beger, who were young children when the Israeli pioneers of trance made their mark on the world scene, are offering a very small tribute to them in “Bassa Sababa.”
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