The Mall as a Reflection of Contemporary Culture in the Work of Mahmoud Al-Wardani and Vaporwave Music

The Mall as a Reflection of Contemporary Culture in the Work of Mahmoud Al-Wardani and Vaporwave Music

Simon Hendrickx

Simon Hendrickx

Masters student of Arabic and Islamic studies at KU Leuven

 

In this article I will present certain common elements between the novel Mūsīqā l-mūl of Mahmoud al-Wardani and a musical style called Vaporwave, which both share an interesting critique of contemporary culture.

Mahmoud al-Wardani is one of the many prolific writers of contemporary Egypt. He has published several novels and short stories and works as editor in the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. Only one of his works, Heads Ripe for Plucking, has been translated into English. His work is characterized by a strong commitment to uncovering injustice in society. This ranges from his harsh depictions of life under despotism to his rather dystopian representations of everyday life in our capitalist society.

In his recent novel Mūsīqā l-mūl, published in 2005, al-Wardani sketches how he interprets the inner social workings and implications of the contemporary shopping mall. The plot begins with the introduction of our unnamed protagonist who also functions as the narrator of the story. He has just been transferred to a new city for his job as a civil servant after the death of his daughter and divorce from his wife. It is in this rather bleak context he encounters a shopping mall for the first time in his life and decides to enter it to satisfy his curiosity. Soon enough this rather innocuous decision will take a turn for the worse as the mall will reveal itself to be an inescapable maze of delusion as if the protagonist was experiencing a feverish dream. 

A central theme in al-Wardani’s novel is the image of the shopping mall as a modern temple for consumerism which is omnipresent in our society. He interprets the mall as an “artificial universe” where duplicity, imitation, and deception are ubiquitous. In contrast to the false promises that are offered to the consumer, the shopping mall is in reality a place of alienation, desolation, and loneliness. 

The only way our protagonist manages to deal with this labyrinth is to escape in a world of dreams. For this, al-Wardani will make use of intertextuality and will transpose the space of the shopping center to that of the classic bazaar of Alf Layla wa Layla. This play of opposition between authenticity and counterfeiting can also be found in fragments where the shopping center is described. 

’’في البداية لم أصدق على الرغم من أنني لا يمكن أن أخطئ هذه الرائحة. إنها رائحة فول لا يمكن الشك في هذا وها هي على مدخل القاعة عربة فول صغيرة حقيقية.’’

“In the beginning I couldn’t believe it although I couldn’t be mistaken about that smell. It was the smell of Foul, there was no doubt about it, and there it was, a small Foul cart at the entrance hall of the building.”

The surprise of our protagonist to find a foul cart is highlighted here. Foul is a traditional Egyptian dish and its availability in a state-of-the-art shopping center seems somewhat forced and unnatural. As he spends more time in the mall, it becomes clear to him that there are more things that are wrong with the picture. For example, at a certain moments he attends a cabaret show of “traditional” raqs sharqi or oriental dancing. Our protagonist is the only one in the audience to notice the dancers are not of Egyptian origin. In addition to this he contemplates about how this new dance group from Russia poses a threat to the more traditional forms of oriental dancers. 

Now we have a clear picture of the general themes and atmosphere of the book, I would like to point the striking resemblance with a recent musical genre called Vaporwave. The fragment I have chosen is an entire album that is very similar in atmosphere, theme, setting and symbolism with Mūsīqā l-mūl. It is the album “Palm Mall” from the artist “猫 シ Corp.” (pronounced Mall Corp.) This album was released in 2014 and is an influential release in the above-mentioned music genre called Vaporwave.

Since this is still al relatively obscure phenomenon, it is necessary to provide some further context. What exactly is Vaporwave ? As a child of her age, Vaporwave has received the dubious fame to be the first musical genre which is to be viewed as “internet music”. It originated in the beginning of this decade and is completely an online phenomenon. What is most characterizing is a certain aesthetic artists try to evoke rather than a specific style of music. A typical element is the recycling of elevator music and hit songs from the eighties where these are reworked together with a specific visual style into a remarkably self-aware and satirical new product. The ubiquitous satirical representation of symbols of our capitalist society such as skyscrapers and shopping malls shows a certain societal commentary. Vaporwave plays with the artificiality and consumerism of our era and delivers a critical note by zooming in on these issues. The escapism of our consumption behavior is infinitely magnified and thus elevated to a new artificial universe in which we flee from the disappointments and harsh reality of the concrete world.

“Vaporwave is music that showcases inauthenticity. Vaporwave is an ersatz musical genre that satirizes those empty promises. It is an anti-product, the inverse of pop, and its flaws are calculated to emphasize the utter failures of Utopian consumerism to truly satisfy the human soul. That is how vaporwave works. That is what it does. 

We hear the secret message buried underneath a sensual membrane of effluvia: paradise for sale. Vaporwave is the subconscious reverie of a shopping mall unmoored from its bricks, carpeting, and plumbing. Sometimes it sounds ominous, like a warning.”

Since this all might sound quite abstract, I will provide a concrete example. 猫 シ Corp. – Palm Mall could have been the perfect soundtrack to Mūsīqā l-mūl. It is a theme album that reflects the soullessness of the modern shopping center. The consciously repetitive and superficial music symbolizes the artificiality of this space. The tone of the music is dreamy, you can mentally get lost in it and be transported to an imaginary labyrinth, which is also a central idea in the novel.

كنت قد انتهيت إلى ما يشبه البهو الفسيح البهر الضوء, ثم آرش يفضي إلى الداخل,  وبعض المضيفين الممشوقي القوام والمرتدين بدلهم الداكنة بربطات عنق فاتحة متناثرين يرسمون على وجوههم ابتسامات واسعة تكشف عن اسنانهم. كانت قاعة استفبال مترامية الرجال والنساء ينتظمون في تجمعات ومنخرطين في الكلام والتلويح بأيديهم. كانت المقاعد والفوتيهات والأرائك تملأ الأركان لكن أغلب الناس كانوا يتبادلون النقاش واقفين.

“I have arrived in a spacious lobby, filled as a sea of light. Then there was a pathway leading to the inside. There were some muscular hosts wearing dark suits with light neckties and wide smiles on their faces revealing their teeth. The reception hall was filled with men and women congregating in groups who were all engaged in talking and hand gestures. Sofa’s, seats and futons filled the corners of the building but most people were standing and exchanging in discussion.”

This description of the entrance hall reflects the same atmosphere as the album cover of Palm Mall. In both pieces we get the image of a huge entrance hall filled with bright and artificial light. Finally, it is worthwhile to refer to a few song titles from the album. Songtitles such as “I consume, therefore I am” or “Veni, Vidi, Emi” (I came, I saw, I bought) leave little to the imagination.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kovd7OzcU9s&t=972s

Tracklist : 

1 – Palm Mall

2 – Endless 通路

3 – Special Discount

4 – First Floor 

5 – Congratulatory Message

6 – Second Floor 

7 -I consume, therefore I am

8 – Employees Only

9 – Veni, Vidi, Emi 

Both pieces reflect a certain uneasiness with modern life. Both al-Wardani and Palm Mall reflect on the relation between the real and the fake. They seem to suggest that modern people seem to have the drive to value authenticity in a culture which is becoming increasingly artificial and where everything is to be bought and sold. Yet at the same time this highly prized value of authenticity is becoming commodified in itself, as yet another product that can be manufactured and infinitely reproduced to satisfy the whims of the consumer. 

A short look at the work of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard can help us to shed light on this contradictory aspect of our contemporary culture. One of his main interests was exactly this relation between the real and the fake, between the original and the counterfeit. He developed a concept called Simulacra to identify how our culture has lost touch with reality.  A simulacrum is exactly that situation whereby a copy or a representation of something seems to be more real than the original. Therefore we arrive at a condition called Hyperreality, where the lines between real and fiction are blurred and one is unable to make the distinction between reality and simulation. 

In conclusion, I propose that both al-Wardani and Vaporwave music are reflecting on the same aspects of our contemporary culture. In addition to this, the works Baudrillard provide for an interesting theoretical or philosophical underpinning to the more artistic approaches of Mūsīqā l-mūl and Palm Mall. 

Sources : 

محمود الورداني, موسيقى المول, القاهرة, دار ميريت للنشر,2005

Beauchamp, Scott “Vaporwave and Simone Weil’s Void”, Church Life Journal, http://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/08/30/vaporwave-and-simone-weils-void/ , accessed 2/12/2018.

Heshmat, Dina. “Representing contemporary urban space: Cairo malls in two Egyptian novels,” Arabica 58 (2011): 545 – 560.