(Un)Dressed for Success

Until only a month ago, the organizers of the Lebanon summer music festivals - the cedar state's main cultural summer attraction - feared they would have to take a vacation themselves. But then the initiative of an energetic head of state, Syrian intervention and French influence dissolved the country's political crisis. And so, last week, the traditional Baalbeck International Festival kicked off, which will continue through August 23.

As usual, the most recent political breakthrough inspired a new song, produced by Nancy Ajram, the princess of Lebanese pop. In "Message to the World," she calls for an end to wars and the return to a peaceful life. An uncharacteristically modest video clip of Ajram singing the song was released on May 25, the day Michel Suleiman was appointed president.

Ajram, 25, is a rare phenomenon in the contemporary Arab music scene. She is a pop singer with no allegiance to traditional Arab song, with its ornate poetry, long notes and contents that can send the listener into ecstasy. Ajram is more of a performer than a singer, her compositions and lyrics are catchy and quick, her voice neutral at best.

Her tremendous talent - she has already sold some 40 million CDs in the Middle East - actually lies elsewhere. Her breakthrough, characteristic of the new brand of music she represents, came some 10 years ago - thanks to the TV audience, not the listeners. Ajram's video innovation was titled "I Will Taunt You." In it, she appears as a scantily clad waitress, flirting and dancing as she sashays among the clientele in a 1930s-style cafe.

The religious establishment and the traditional public were outraged by the "nude singer" and the "nude culture" she was promoting, but the remainder of the public was instantly captivated by the video clip. In a region where two thirds of the population is younger than 30, and where Arabic music is a major entertainment item, clips of the type introduced by Ajram, a Christian from Beirut's Ashrafiyeh quarter, sprouted from fertile ground.

'Nude culture'

The race for content for young viewers started in the 1990s, as Arabic satellite TV stations began broadcasting somewhat more than just readings of Koran chapters and boring newscasts. Today, as the region boasts some 50 music stations, the race is on to find new stars. Some of these, like Ruby, 27, from Egypt, or Tunisian singer Latifa, see Ajram as a role model, especially after she was chosen three years ago as Coca-Cola's "ambassador" to the Middle East. Ruby, for example, studied law at Egypt's Bani Suwayf University, until she was discovered by chance by Polish singer Marcel Romanoff, who saw her outside the American University in Cairo. Ruby put aside her law books in favor of poetry, a personal agent replaced her professor, and she gained Ajram-style acclaim through a provocative video of a street performance filmed in Prague.

Even more veteran and no less successful singers like Haifa Wehbe, who featured in People Magazine's "50 most beautiful women in the world" list in 2006, began imitating Ajram's performance style. Although Wehbe was never the most modest singer, since Ajram appeared on the scene, her shows have become much more daring, and now she is considered part of the "nude culture."

"Those singers use nude video clips to build their popularity," comments well-known Syrian singer Nora Rahal. "They are not marketing any culture, their work is in no way ideologically or morally balanced. In fact, they have no culture worth spreading." Rahal, incidentally, refuses to appear in provocative attire. But she maintains that if she were asked to wear a bathing suit in a film, she would be prepared to do so - "for the sake of art."

Ajram has blazed a trail to her fans, who have downloaded her songs as ringtones. This pioneering effort has been adopted by giant production firms like Rotana, owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. But Ajram has also caused a cultural rift among different groups of Arabs.

Samar Marzuki, director of an Arabic MTV station that was launched late last year, defines this separation. "Our network is looking for average Arabs, not the scholarly types who graduated from private schools. They account for less than 10 percent of the general population, and we are trying to attract the masses."

A perusal of the list of about 35 Lebanese singers illuminates this rift. Ajram, Wehbe and Nicole Saba are at one end of the spectrum - aimed at Marzuki's "masses": They represent the era in which the performance, the dancing, the dress and the swaying hips are more important than music and lyrics. At the other end is the immortal, classic Fairouz, with her glamorous outfits and minimal movements. What about the rest of the singers? Most of them are the pride of national Lebanese festivals such as Baalbeck or Beiteddine.

Among them is Majda Erroumi, 52, of Sidon, who is not only considered a wonderful singer with an exceptional voice, but who also expresses her social and political views in her songs and speeches. Thus, for example, she fired up her audience when she spoke on the second anniversary of the assassination of journalist Jubran Twaini, editor of the Lebanese daily An-Nahar. This year Erroumi, who was appointed a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations, will be appearing at the Beiteddine festival. But when Erroumi checks her sales figures, she will see that Ajram, who is not invited to either of these festivals, could teach her a thing or two.

Najwa Karam, 42, suffers from artistic identity problems. Karam, who belongs to the intermediate generation of Lebanese singers, combines traditional instruments and motifs from classical Arab song - such as the oud and the kanun - with modern rhythms.

Her lyrics always have an underlying social or political message, like her video clip "Why are you Living Abroad?", in which she criticizes the Lebanese government for not turning the country into a place in which its citizens can live, rather than seeking their fortunes elsewhere.

Karam donated her earnings from her performances at the Berlin Festival to pediatric cancer patients; during the Second Lebanon War she donated equipment for three ambulances.

The political and social involvement of intermediate-generation singers may be the most remarkable aspect of their art, but it remains within Lebanon, as do their songs.

On the other hand, it is hard to see Karam and even more so Erroumi donning a leopard-look gown or hot pants, or for that matter producing a music video with a snake or riding a horse. To the detriment of their bank accounts, they have apparently been respectfully branded as classic singers, cut off from the ringtone crowd.

It will be interesting to see whether Ajram and Wehbe will be invited to these festivals in another decade, or whether they will no longer need such forums.