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  • August L. Liljenberg

Western pop culture versus cultural self-determination, which comes first?

Living in the West, it’s easy to forget pop culture’s naturally expansive and colonising force abroad. The origins of many western social changes can be found within the arts and pop culture – but is its exportation overseas as effective a force at inducing genuine social and political change?

This question is nowhere more prescient than in the Middle East. In recent months, some overly hopeful progressives have pointed to events such as the 1975s lead singer Matt Healy kissing a male fan in the audience during a Dubai concert in August as indications that the liberal values of Western pop can have a positive effect in otherwise conservative regions of the world. Such thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Symbolic of Western universalism, it furthers the notion that these socially conservative regions can only be emancipated through foreign intervention and Western, liberal ideals.

Firstly, Dubai is in no way representative of the average Middle Eastern country. With barely over three million inhabitants, heavily integrated with the global capitalist system, and a comparably high percentage of Western expatriates, its relationship to the West is the exception, not the rule, in Middle Eastern culture. One can only guess how many of the concert’s attendees were students of the city’s several large international schools, hardly the crowd to convince of socially progressive values.

This is not to dismiss art’s role in cultural realignment but rather highlight the underpinning Western superiority that regurgitates the false idea of “backwardness” in the Middle East. The social revolutions of the 20th Century is proof that countries do not need external intervention to achieve social and political change through cultural shifts – so why believe that the Middle East is any different? The 1975 has political immunity abroad; emancipation comes through internal struggle and can’t just be achieved through market liberalisation and an adoption of Western pop culture.

A quick Google search will show that there are dozens of artists from Syria to Iran actively risking persecution due to promoting progressive values; it must be they who are to be at the forefront of any future cultural changes in the region. Why do we rarely hear about these artists? Upon further research, one notices that the difference between local Middle Eastern artists and Western pop culture icons is that the former incorporates their own culture, history, and personal experiences into the music. These artists aren’t producing to generate sales like the Western culture industry does, but rather are doing it due to genuine struggle at home.

These ideas stretch further than progressivism, however. The concept of cultural self-determination free from corrosive outside forces can be furthered to all regions of the world. Much to the dismay of global capital and the Geneva Convention, civilizations other than the modern West have different anthropologies and political attitudes; other truths that define them. For all its belief in the strength of diversity, Western liberalism continuously seeks to strip the rest of the world of its peculiarities and differences and instead replaces them with a new consumer market, devoid of tradition or history.

This article is not to discredit the idea of a Middle East with more progressive social views – quite the contrary. American Pop bands should and will not be at the forefront of social change abroad, but will instead develop from within the region itself, from people that know their homes best. Middle Eastern social views are rooted in religion, history, and culture – to change those views without using their very roots would be disastrous. The fact that people not only think progressive Western Pop should be used to induce this change, but that said Pop comes from a genuine concern for progressive values at home, highlights the delusion of the modern Western consumer.

Image - Pexels (Mark Angelo)

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