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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Ancient Mediterranean Influences in Pop Music

Updated: Nov 26, 2022


Figure 1: Picture of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily (Edited in Photoshop by me)


Note: The music and videos referred to in this article may contain explicit content. Be advised if you feel uncomfortable about this subject.


Introduction


The Mediterranean sea, a junction of three continents, is calm as sunlight showers over its great ruins. Its tide, a constant rhyme, washes on the coast that houses ancient art and cultures. As they silently wait to be discovered, pop music does not wait. Constant in our modern existence, it plays in our headphones, on the radio, and in public spaces. The differences between them are as vast as the time that separates them, or so it seems. This article is initiated by my observation of the increasing number of intersections between popular music and the Ancient Mediterranean. To the producers of these mainstream songs, the stories and aesthetics of Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (not that they were the only cultures in that region during this period) created a coherent product. But how do these artistic choices correlate with the contents of these songs? This is the inquiry that I will investigate through three selected examples.


"Have Mercy"

Chlöe Bailey (Chloe Bailey)


A contemporary representation of Greek mythology, “Have Mercy” depicts a sorority-house narrative prompted by the disappearance of a twenty-one-year-old man (Chlöe, 00:00:13). One might recall the reoccurring line, “Lord, Have Mercy,” as a reference to God and Christianity (confirmed by her live performances, where she began with a religious chorus). However, examining the music video will suggest that Bailey compares herself to the mythological Medusa in seductive charm and dominance.


Figure 2: Ending scene of "Chlöe – Have Mercy (Official Video)" (Chlöe, 00:03:13)


Medusa, the most infamous of the Gorgons, was a beautiful maiden transformed into her petrifying form by Athena as punishment for having sex with Poseidon in the former’s temple. Her ability to turn anyone to stone upon her gaze and her mortality (other Gorgons were immortal) made her the most feared yet wanted spoil in mythological times (figure 3).


Figure 3: Medusa, 1597, Michelangelo Caravaggio


The blonde wavy dreads that Bailey wears in this video, especially when wrapped around a statue in an almost alive manner (figure 2), alludes to the snakes that are Medusa’s hair. Camera shots flickering between Roman sculptures and college boys in the same pose suggest that the latter are her victims (figure 4), like the petrified bounty hunters in the original myth. Coupled with the mysterious disappearance of a young man at the beginning of the video, Bailey frames her sorority house as Medusa’s lair. The theme of lurking monsters is furthered with the maze motif (figure 4), which can be interpreted as the fabled labyrinth (figure 5). Originally an engineering marvel used to house the Minotaur, the labyrinth’s function can be reinterpreted under the context of this video to be a seductress’s trap.


Figure 4: Shots of Roman sculpture (left) and college student (right) in the same pose (Chlöe, 00:02:53)


The Medusa and the Minotaur drew countless heroes to conquer them despite death being the consequence of failure. By referencing these myths, “Have Mercy” draws a parallel between the glory that slaying mythological monsters brought and the exhilaration of falling under seductive charm as they both invite desire despite of danger.


Figure 5: Theseus Mosaic on the floor of a Roman villa near Salzburg, Austria, 4th century C.E., Unknown Artist


"Rumors"

Lizzo (Melissa Jefferson) feat Cardi B (Belcalis Almánzar)


Greek art is distinctively the theme of the “Rumors” music video. This boldly imaginative performance, set in the mountainous landscape of Greece, features wall mosaics, classical sculptures, terracotta vases, and ionic columns, among other details.


Figure 6: Hallway scene from "Rumors feat. Cardi B [Official Video]" (Lizzo Music, 00:00:31)


“Rumors” is a personal statement where Jefferson admits to various rumors about herself to show her disregard for those against her. Large body size is the most common criticism about her, and through imagery, Jefferson asserts that fat is not a quality to demerit respect. Instead of their usual slender and sometimes elongated figures, the Three Graces (right background of figure 6) are sculpted as chubby and gilded with rose gold. To depict the Graces, who represented classical womanhood, as such is to celebrate fat as an ideal.


Figure 7: Marble Statue Group of the Three Graces, 2nd century CE, Unknown Artist


“Rumors” continue to challenge beauty standards with Greek pottery (figure 9). Instead of the traditional illustrations of mythological tales, the architecturally-scaled vases are painted with the rumors surrounding Jefferson. In the ending scene, Jefferson and Almánzar pose as goddesses dressed in elegant drapery (figure 8) resembling the chiton. Fat or pregnant women may not first come to mind when thinking about ideal beauty, but this powerful and sublime representation changes that notion.


Figure 8: Ending scene of "Rumors feat. Cardi B [Official Video]" (Lizzo Music, 00:02:57)


The Greeks believed in Kalos kagathos – that physical beauty was directly correlated with inner wisdom and sophistication. This idea may seem absurd today, but to judge a person by their image is still an instinct that society cannot entirely eradicate. By applying the Greek style, which is symbolic of ultimate perfection, to body types that are not conventionally attractive, “Rumors” advocates for diversity in beauty and encourages the audience to be open-minded to its various forms.


Figure 9: Terracotta amphora, 530 CE, Andokides (Similar to the vase shape featured in the ending scene of "Rumors")


"Pompeii"

Dan Smith (Daniel Smith)


Unlike the first two examples, Smith’s “Pompeii” is more of a lyrical reference than a visual one. In part due to the number of documentaries and film adaptations, the once prosperous Roman city of Pompeii is famously known today for being destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. (figure 11). Smith builds on the events that took place in both a descriptive and symbolic way, connecting with the modern world.


Figure 10: Opening Scene of "Bastille – Pompeii (Official Video)" (BASTILLEvideos, 00:00:26)


Figure 11: Inside the Antiquarium of Pompeii, Photo credited to Simon Burchell


In the literal sense, the song describes the fall of Pompeii, specifically the moments before the ultimate destruction that froze its inhabitants in a mold of volcanic ash (figure 12, line 14). This is most vividly described in lines 3-6 (figure 12), where Smith creates an almost apocalyptic scene of a crumbling city. As Smith comically explained, “Pompeii is actually an imagined conversation between two charred corpses reflecting on the city.” This interpretation shows that Bastille took inspiration from history and reanimated it to contemporary audiences by adding human emotions of hopelessness and desperation.


I was left to my own devices (1) Many days fell away with nothing to show (2) And the walls kept tumbling down (3) In the city that we love (4) Grey clouds roll over the hills (5) Bringing darkness from above (6) But if you close your eyes (7) Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all? (8) And if you close your eyes (9) Does it almost feel like you've been here before? (10) How am I gonna be an optimist about this? (11) How am I gonna be an optimist about this? (12) We were caught up and lost in all of our vices (13) In your pose as the dust settled around us (14) And the walls kept tumbling down (15) In the city that we love (16) Grey clouds roll over the hills (17) Bringing darkness from above (18) But if you close your eyes (19) Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all? (20) And if you close your eyes (21) Does it almost feel like you've been here before? (22) ... Oh, where do we begin? (23) The rubble or our sins? (24) Oh, oh, where do we begin? (25) The rubble or our sins? (26)

Figure 12: Selected lyrics from "Pompeii"


However, “Pompeii” is not simply retelling a story. On the metaphorical level, the song is a piece of insightful commentary on human existence. Smith describes how a routine and monotonous life wears down one’s dreams and optimism, ultimately causing their life to fall apart (represented by black sclera eyes in figure 13). He compares this to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on how everything can suddenly come undone. However, though Pompeii seems to be a tragedy of nature, it could have been prevented if its residents had taken the earthquake of 62 C.E. as a warning and moved away instead of rebuilding upon the ruins. Smith wordplays “vices” with “rubbles” (figure 12, line 24) to draw a parallel between human behavior and history on the idea that we cause our own downfall.


Figure 13: Shopkeeper with black sclera eyes (BASTILLEvideos, 00:00:26)


Other Examples


Figure 14: (Left to Right, Top to Bottom) "Dark Horse" – Katy Perry, "Centuries" – Fall Out Boy, "You Right" – Doja Cat feat The Weeknd, "Call Me By Your Name" – Lil Nas X


"Dark Horse" – Katy Perry (Katheryn Hudson) feat. Juicy J (Jordan Houston III)


“Dark Horse,” perhaps the most widely known among these examples, is similar to Bailey’s “Have Mercy” in that Perry emphasizes her femininity and dominance by comparing herself to the infamous queen Cleopatra. From exile to emerging as the sole ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra could undoubtedly be described as a “dark horse”, a mysterious competitor who emerges victorious.


Centuries – Fall Out Boy (Multiple Artists)


A proclamation of the band’s goal to become the best in their field, the “Centuries” music video is a straightforward reference to gladiators, popularized by movies like “Gladiator” (2000). Although considered slaves in Roman society, gladiators often received glory and admiration, at times from the Emperor.


"Call Me By Your Name" – Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill)


Inspired by the film under the same name and Hill’s love life, the music video of “Call Me By Your Name” quotes Plato’s Symposium on man’s division into two parts to suggest an inseparable love and evokes Ganymede with an angelic figure to represent Hill’s homosexuality.


You Right – Doja Cat (Amala Dlamini) feat The Weeknd (Abel Tasfaye)


Set amongst a Greek cityscape, Dlamini (with her hair in the shape of an ankh, the hieroglyph for eternal life) portrays one’s inner dilemma in response to infidelity by weighing a heart against golden weights, which respectively symbolizes loyalty and desire. This recalls the imagery from the Last Judgement of Hunefer, a papyrus scroll from the Egyptian Book of the Dead where a heart is weighed against a feather to determine if the deceased is deserving of the afterlife.


Conclusion


The stories and art of the Ancient Mediterranean have influenced the lyrics and aesthetics of popular music in many unexpected ways. Considering the number of examples, these connections are not made in an individual instance but have rather made their way into contemporary culture. Although each song has its own distinct meanings, there are two overall purposes for applying an Ancient Mediterranean reference: to draw a parallel in human behavior and to use juxtaposition to contend a message. One of the reasons why Ancient mythology and art continue to captivate us today is their timelessness and their ability to capture human nature in all its variations. They have been repeatedly studied for millenniums and continue to have a presence and a subconscious connotation. For instance, ancient architecture, to this day, represents authority and legitimacy. We simply need to turn our gaze to the U.S. Capitol to look for examples. The Washington Monument is an obelisk, an Egyptian reverential structure, and the U.S. Capitol Building, Supreme Court Building, and the White House are all built in the Neoclassical style. By using this generally respected style of art to depict ideas that are not conventionally accepted, contemporary artists advocate for change and, in a sense, give classical art a new facet. The era of Egyptian kingdoms, Greek city-states, and the Roman Empire may be long past, but their iconography and culture persist and remain influential today.


Works Cited

General

"Why You Need to Visit Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples." Insight Vacations, 6 Dec. 2017, www.insightvacations.com/blog/need-visit-agrigentos-valley-temples/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2022.

"Have Mercy"

"Rumors"

"Pompeii"

Other Examples


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