Reconsidering the Ordinary: On Andrew Simon’s “Media of the Masses”
By Marc MastersApril 3, 2023
Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt by Andrew Simon
And if you wanted to get music heard, you no longer needed to pay for studio time, sign to a label, enlist professional duplication, or work your way into distribution chains. You could do it all yourself, dubbing tapes on your own, sending them out through the mail, and making more whenever someone wanted one. “Whether a blank tape or a professional production, every cassette was capable of becoming something else,” writes Andrew Simon in his fascinating book, Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt (2022). “With the push of a button, users recorded, rerecorded, and distributed what they desired with minimal effort.”
In Western countries, this all caused huge musical waves. The cassette tape helped birth genres such as hip-hop, go-go, and indie rock, via ground-level communities who made and traded music on tape. But in other regions, where there was more state control of creative communication and dissemination, it didn’t just affect sonic aesthetics. It freed music that had been previously shunned by official channels, circulating hidden sounds among people who would otherwise never find out. It broke down class walls and preserved folk forms that would today be at best a fleeting memory were it not for the cassette tape.
Nowhere was this truer than in Egypt, a country where homegrown art was often considered unworthy of exposure, or even detrimental to traditional social order. Simon’s travels and research there reveal a sea change, leading him to an even bigger thesis than simply that the cassette changed culture: his overarching point is that there’s more to human history than just what we see. Recalling demonstrations he witnessed in Cairo, he describes the sounds of protestors, helicopters, and children chanting slogans, concluding that these sonic events “opened [his] ears to the significance of sound and the senses in understanding the present as well as the past.”
To bolster his idea that sounds can shape history, Simon explores a wide swath of the cassette’s infiltration into Egyptian culture. He starts with a simple photo he found on social media in 2017, showing three Egyptian men posing with a cassette player. Tracing the lineage of this and other photos that included tapes, Simon shows how prevalent the technology became in this country during the decades after its introduction. At one point, it was so ubiquitous that even Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt in the 1970s, can be seen in a photograph relaxing as a tape player rolls next to him. Simon then expands into other issues involving cassettes, particularly theft and smuggling. Most problematic was the way official releases on major record labels—both in Egypt and from outside the country—could be quickly copied and sold in unofficial bootleg versions made to look and sound like the real thing. This was a thorny problem in every country, but especially in regions where the law had to catch up to a tidal wave of material created by these quick and easy new audio-copying tools.
The immediate, material concerns are sharply rendered by Simon, as he shrewdly relates the cassette to “the creation of a wider culture of consumption.” But Media of the Masses really takes off when it flips over (the book is, appropriately, split into two sides). His third chapter, “CENSURING: Tapes, Taste, and the Creation of Egyptian Culture,” details the battle between artists and the state—not just over copyright and ownership, but over which music should and shouldn’t be heard at all.
As Simon recounts, in the 1970s and ’80s, tapes of local and regional music—particularly a working-class style called “shaʿbi,” meaning “of the people”—proliferated via street vendors and other unsanctioned sellers. The state reacted immediately, spreading propaganda against cassette releases, and the press followed along, calling musicians “art imposter clowns” and the music “incompatible with public taste.” One writer even claimed that these forbidden sonic styles were more dangerous than cocaine. In the views of those used to controlling music, cassettes were spreading vulgar sounds by vulgar artists through vulgar channels run by vulgar money-grubbers. The idea that anyone could now be a musician, a label owner, a distributor—anything but a mere consumer—was dangerous. Tapes were framed as a force for, as Simon puts it, “lowered artistic standards and tarnished public taste.”
These efforts to demonize tapes didn’t work. The sound of cassettes filled the streets of Cairo, and scores of music-business novices—carpenters, electricians, cab drivers—started labels and churned out tapes. “Everyone who enjoys his voice sings, and issues a collection of new songs every two months,” an Arab singer told the weekly magazine Ruz Al-Yūsuf. One of the earliest “vulgar” musicians, Ahmad ʿAdawiya, found success so quickly that his first tape, 1973’s “al-Sah al-Dah Ambu,” sold a million copies.
Simon focuses on the tape label Egyptphone, run completely by a single man, Mansur ʿAbd al-ʿAl. While working in the aluminum industry, Mansur visited Saudi Arabia and noticed all the kiosks selling cassettes. He promptly bought 1,000 of them—including bootlegs of Michael Jackson and Abba—and returned to Egypt to start reselling. As he learned more about what types of music people wanted, he expanded into every aspect of production—hiring musicians (mostly inexpensive artists who specialized in wedding music), booking studio time, distributing tapes, and handling all the financial aspects himself. In at least one case, he visited bus stations around Cairo and handed out free copies, in hopes that passengers would take them to different parts of the country.
Simon finds Mansur at his store, which at the time of his recent visit was still going strong, despite it having been decades since the compact disc surpassed the cassette as a way to make and consume music, followed not long after by the success of digital and streaming audio. And just as cassettes persisted in Egypt, so did the state bias against them. Simon’s initial attempts to find Mansur come up against resistance from officials, who implore him to focus on more “prestigious” musical enterprises. One security official even treats Simon like a suspect. “Initially determined to uncover my ‘ulterior motives’ for speaking with Egyptphone’s founder, whose electronics shop was around the corner from a police precinct,” writes Simon, “he eventually suggested that I head to [the huge Egyptian label] Sawt al-Qahira rather than wasting my time on a ‘nobody’ like Mansur.”
In a fitting end to his Mansur chronicles, Simon later tracks down a magazine article from 1988 bemoaning once again the vulgarity of the DIY, noncorporate cassette industry in Egypt. In search of the cassette’s so-called “acoustic toxins,” the writer encounters a number of interesting tape makers—these include “an unskilled laborer who became a cassette singer, a customs employee who became a cassette composer, and various state officials in charge of policing cassette content”—and eventually finds a former “scrap metal” worker now making cassettes: Mansur himself.
When Simon mentions “state officials in charge of policing cassette content,” he’s not being hyperbolic. Egypt actually had a government-funded Office of Art Censorship, where all cassettes had to be submitted for approval, which included checking the written lyrics against the actual recordings. This combined with screening committees on state-owned radio, diligently working to keep “vulgar” music off the air, and “Specialized National Councils” that declared “war on the cassette.” But the cassettes flowing into the streets were so overwhelming that any process to censor or filter them was doomed to fail, and none of this had any chance of stemming the tide of tapes blaring from sidewalks, cars, buses, and shops, playing everything from the smallest regional genres to the biggest mainstream acts.
“By offering any citizen a means to record their voice and to reach a mass audience, cassette technology enabled an unprecedented number of people to create Egyptian culture at a time when public figures strove to dictate the shape it assumed,” writes Simon. “Around the globe, the cassette tape facilitated a new democratization of the music industry, allowing artists of any age, gender, education, or class to bypass corporate channels and state control, reaching the ears of people directly.”
Following Simon’s exhilarating study of “vulgar” cassettes, the rest of Media of the Masses loses some momentum. As is often the way with academic books meant both for readers and researchers, Simon restates his goals and themes frequently, articulating them well but sometimes redundantly. During a chapter devoted to a single event—Richard Nixon’s 1974 visit to Cairo—Simon labors a bit to analyze this occurrence and the reactions through the lens of audio, calling it a “sonorous spectacle” and delving into a song, “Nixon Baba” (“Father Nixon”), that pushed against the state’s official telling of the American president’s trip. It’s a mildly interesting case study, but its relation to the cassette is a bit remote, and devoting an entire chapter to it stretches the book thin.
Yet, Simon’s flow picks back up in his final chapter as he delves into tape as a conduit for saving and archiving the past, talking to scholars and businesspeople about how “acoustic history” is integral to the stories and survival of societies. By the end of Media of the Masses, Andrew Simon has deftly pivoted from the importance of audio to the vitality of all the mundane but essential objects in our environment—the things that are always there, so much so that we don’t often see or hear them anymore. The cassette is, in the end, just one of many functional, once (and future) omnipresent phenomena that shape the way our culture works and grows. “What might other everyday technologies teach us about the history of not only Egypt and the greater Middle East but also any number of places around the world?” he asks. “To reimagine the past, we need only begin by reconsidering the ordinary things that surround us.”
Marc Masters contributes to The Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. His next book, High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape, is out this fall from UNC Press.
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