If popstars were… Lebanese

Lebanon! Ancient seat of the proud Phoenicians! Rich cultural melting pot of the modern world! The Switzerland of the East! With Lady Gaga’s unexpected shout-out to the Lebanese people in Born This Way recently, it’s time to take a look at this noble country’s treatment at the hands of Western pop through the years. Let’s hope they didn’t all just focus on the war stuff…

The Human League – The Lebanon

How is the proud cultural heritage of Lebanon expressed through the lyrics? It’s not. It’s just about the war stuff. And it’s not terribly probing, either. But nevertheless it’s become a gold standard for ‘political songs about a country we don’t really know much about’. Phil Oakey has sheepishly admitted that he’s proud to have won a ‘Worst Lyrics’ accolade for lines like ‘Where there used to be some shops, Is where the snipers sometimes hide.’ And why not. It’s its well-meaning innocence that makes this a classic.

What does it sound like then? The Human League express their anger at the bleakness of war by breaking their ‘no guitars’ rule and going a bit rock. It was a big deal at the time, honest. And it still sounds great.

Chris de Burgh – Lebanese Nights (featuring Elissa)

How is the proud cultural heritage of Lebanon expressed through the lyrics? It’s not. It’s just about the war stuff. Chris meets a woman who sets his heart a-flutter. But it’s not long before he’s probing into ‘the young girl in her eyes’ in spectacularly patronising fashion. ‘Did you dance in the fields? Did you run for your life? From the HELL THAT RAINED DOWN FROM THE SKY?!’

Still, he gets an award for saying ‘Lebanese’ as many times as possible. ‘It was late in a Lebanese restaurant!’ ‘In the heat of a Lebanese night!’ ‘By the light of a Lebanese dawn!’ And in the closing seconds — if you can make it to the end of this awful song — there’s an unexpected Human League-style flourish as Chris abruptly declares ‘In the Lebanon!’

What does it sound like then? It starts off quite nicely with some authentic-sounding Lebanese percussion and instrumentation. And Lebanese singer Elissa pops up for a pretty interlude. But otherwise, rest assured, the chorus crushes everything into a life-sapping soft-rock Middle England drone.

U2 – Cedars of Lebanon

How is the proud cultural heritage of Lebanon expressed through the lyrics? It’s not. It’s just about the war stuff. ‘I’ve got a head like a lit cigarette, unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret!’ declares Bono at one point, as portentous and meaningless as ever.

No Line On The Horizon, the album this track closes, might be, partially, a sort of concept album about the Middle East. Recording sessions took place in Morocco — where Adam Clayton excitedly says he felt a ‘connection with the Arabic scale’ — and there’s a track on it called Fez – Being Born. Mind you they were going to call that one Tripoli at one point. Not that I’m suggesting that U2 think Middle Eastern locations are interchangeable! Not for a minute! Anyway, the last verse of Cedars of Lebanon is apparently a rant against the Iraq war.

Like Chris de Burgh’s, Bono’s description of Lebanon involves sitting around in a restaurant. Maybe that’s the key to the Western experience of the country: ‘All those wars! Awful! We must help them! Mind you the service is TERRIBLE.’ In the end I’m not convinced U2 have got anything to say about the Cedars of Lebanon other than it’s a nice phrase which they remember from Bible Group.

What does it sound like then? It’s rather nice, I’m sorry to say, understated with an electronic pulse and a weary post-rock feel to it. But I can’t say I hear any of Adam Clayton’s ‘Arabic scale’ coming through.

Gorillaz – White Flag (featuring The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music)

How is the proud cultural heritage of Lebanon expressed through the lyrics? Are you having a laugh? It’s about being shipwrecked on Gorillaz’ fictional no-man’s land/musical utopia Plastic Beach (‘If Heaven had a VIP, this is it‘).

What does it sound like then? Well of all the tracks on the list, this is the one that actually brings in a whole Arabic orchestra. And on the same track as exposure-deserving UK rappers Kano and Bashy as well! I was so excited when I saw the track list. And the opening of the song is a brilliant concoction of Middle Eastern excitement. You wait for the moment when the beat and the raps will come in. SMASH IT ALL TOGETHER DAMON! SMASH IT! But no, instead it segues into a completely different track — quite a nice one, with fruit machine bleeps and so on — while the Oriental orchestra wait patiently to come in again for a coda after the rapping’s over. It’s a decent track, but integrated, it could have been a brilliant one.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way

How is the proud cultural heritage of Lebanon expressed through the lyrics? In passing. This, they say, is a unification anthem for all races and sexualities, a massive cross-media event, a ‘Manifesto from Mother Monster’. And once all the hype has died down, we’re left to enjoy the oddities of the lyrics, which leads me to the reason I started writing this post in the first place.

You can’t fault Gaga for wanting to eliminate all forms of prejudice across the globe. You can, however, have a good laugh at her quick tour of the world’s key ethnicities. “You’re black, white, beige, chola descent! You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient!”

Without even pausing to wonder who’s been left out, it’s odd and amazing to see the people of a single, smallish country lionised like this. (Also amusing that she says Orient rather than Oriental, for the sake of the rhyming scheme.) Is it the Human League’s influence? Is it, as a more sensible commenter than me points out, because she’s best buddies with (Lebanese-born) Mika and it’s a roundabout way of addressing anti-Arab prejudice in the US? Either way, Lebanon is BACK as a pop force. And that’s great.

What does it sound like then? I think by now we’ve pretty well established that it sounds like Madonna’s Express Yourself.

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