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Other Futures: Promises of the Alternative in Lebanese Popular Music

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This dissertation examines constructions of the “alternative” in popular music in Lebanon. In order to understand the stakes of the “alternative” in the practices that accrue this designation, this study examines what musicians’ sound, performances, and discourses are conceived as alternative to. More than a generic designation, I argue, the “alternative” constitutes a site of social coherence in which sound articulates situated experiences of the present in order to construct, disrupt, and animate modalities of representing and imagining futures for Lebanon and its people. Critically, in this dissertation, I ask how sound might participate in a process of worlding, how it mediates and articulates fears and hopes about the future, and how it can be mobilized as a speculative tool.

The first part of this dissertation explores local articulations of the “alternative” in music. Chapter one traces its histories through the stories told by key figures during interviews. Focusing on four moments of possibility in which alternative music’s soundworlds took life, the chapter argues that these soundworlds developed around shared aspirations for the future after the end of the civil wars in 1990. The second chapter examines the role of established alternative musical institutions like Red Bull and Tunefork Studios in bringing about and standardizing a new aesthetics and rhetoric of alternative music. The chapter shows how musical and ideological orientations mediate access to resources such as funding or recording, and affect artists’ mobility and their music’s circulation. The second part of this dissertation builds on the first by looking at how these local iterations of the alternative create material and ideological spaces of optimistic futurity. Chapter three investigates the ways in which musicians engage and index Lebanese and Arabic musical pasts. It argues that by reinscribing themselves into previously exclusionary narratives, musicians challenge dominant chronopolitics, and situate themselves within genealogies of music from which they have been excluded. The final chapter considers the ways that alternative music was and remains integral to larger futures projects for Lebanon. The chapter focuses on two speculative musical projects that were inspired by the architecture and history Beirut. It considers how sound has become a mechanism for recuperating the lived past of the civil wars and a speculative tool for imagining the possibilities for a present in which post-wars reconstruction prioritized social reconciliation over financial gain.

Each of the dissertation’s chapters identify and explore different ways in which alternative music participates in larger projects of imagining and working to realize futures that are not defined by ongoing violence or precarity. By coming to an understanding of a musical genre in radically local terms rather than simply in relation to globally circulating iterations, I argue that it becomes possible to think about the social and political work that sound does past resistance or escapism. Each chapter explores how this future-work is framed by a shared disposition that I call belligerent optimism, an irreverent but hopeful musical and ideological orientation. I argue that this orientation is crucial to re-framing the scope of inquiry on music in Lebanon, making space to ask questions about hope and possibility without romanticizing or dwelling on past and future suffering. Rather than acts of resilience, a framework of belligerent optimism understands the practices of daily life in Lebanon as stubborn attempts at building a life in spite of seemingly impossible political and economic conditions, and casts musicians and their audiences as agents rather than victims.

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This item is under embargo until September 27, 2024.