Ke$ha, naked ladies in France and the 1893 World’s Fair

Matt recently told me about Ke$ha’s new video, “Take It Off,” with the caveat that it is, if possible, worse than “TiK ToK.”  At first I wasn’t going to watch it, but it exerted a pull upon me not unlike that of a horrible accident on the side of the highway.  And then I was glad I had, because it’s intellectually interesting, if aurally assaulting:

If you have spent any time in an American elementary school, you will immediately recognize the tune: it’s “The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid,” aka the “Hootchy Cootchy Song,” aka “There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance/There’s a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all…”

But rather than naked ladies in France, there is apparently a place downtown where the freaks all come around–it’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free-for-all where the preferred accessory is a water bottle full of whiskey in one’s purse.  There is also glitter on the floor.

Wikipedia has a pretty good rundown of the history of the melody: originally written for, or at least best known for its early appearance at, the 1893 World’s Fair (which took place just a few blocks from me!), it served as the music for two belly dancers (I don’t love this term, but I don’t know a better one) who appeared at said fair.  An alternate theory about the origins of the tune posits that it is related to one of several Algerian melodies that perhaps migrated to France in the context of the colonial encounter in Maghrebi Africa.

The ethnographic excursions at this fair were bound up in all the colonialist/Orientalist nonsense that was in full swing at the time, and long story short, this tune has since been frequently used to depict salacious “exotic”/Arab/North African female behavior of the kind that frequently shows up in Orientalist film, music, opera, literature, visual art, and so forth.  Think “Sheherazade,” harems, a dirtier version of Disney’s Aladdin, etc.  You’ve probably heard it in any form of media that wants to quickly depict deserts, sexy dancing girls, “the Orient,” snake charmers, and all the usual stereotypes.

Interestingly, Ke-dollar sign-ha positions herself in a highly sexualized, somewhat “exotic” role in this video (and in her public self-representations more generally).  She “goes hardcore,” wears clothes that fall on the unconventional end of the normal spectrum, frequently acts like a wild animal (that hair!  crawling around on the desert floor!  ripped clothes! that eye makeup!  think of the children!) and portrays herself as an out-of-control, trashy-as-all-get-out partier (this is now her second song where she’s referenced doing things with whiskey–using it as toothpaste and carrying bottles around in her purse–that fall firmly in the realm of “alcoholism”).

I also find her evocation (intentional or not) of the Hindu holiday of Holi really fascinating (and problematic), especially in the context of the “Hootchy Cootchy Song.”  One of the primary customs observed for Holi is the throwing of colored powders and water, just as Ke$ha, et al do in this video.  Somewhat like Purim and Carnival, Holi is festive and the world is a bit topsy-turvy for a set period of time as the forces of good/order and evil/chaos battle it out (good and order, of course, eventually win out).  This is, of course, a massive oversimplification, and you should go read about it if you’re interested, but it gets the job done for the point I’m making.

So, what are the implications of linking this exoticizing, Orientalist, sort of salacious song with Hindu religious customs and bratty female-rock-star behavior that tries to be convention-defying but (at least to my mind) ends up being trashy and boring?  I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think I’m down with it.

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