In Hollywood, there is a language problem. Specifically, the target audience is known to speak one language and be offended at the insinuation that they learn others. But at the same time, it turns out that there are quite a lot of languages in the world, possibly more than four! One favored solution in Hollywood is to deny that the rest of the world exists populated by human beings (also known as “US foreign policy”), either by never leaving the only country that matters (not to be confused with the only band that matters, which is presently Dir en Grey), or by going mostly to countries which speak American (albeit with funny non-American accents). Non-Anglo countries can be dealt with by having the natives speak English (even when they take place before there was an English language), or in the case of non-white countries, populating them predominantly with animals (the Lion King, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol).
On some rare occasions the natives may be insolent enough to open their mouths and let their own heathen tongues be heard by genteel white Anglo ears. To maintain realism (and because the target audience abhors reading), this is generally not subtitled, except when it advances the plot for our white heroes, because, as is known, white people magically become fluent in any foreign language if what it is being said is REALLY important to following the plot.
But there’s another way the oriental natives communicate with the white man. Through song. But not just any song: Oriental song.
It’s important to distinguish oriental song from western song. For you see, western song has many genres developed in modernity which are used to signify the era and attitude of the white men in question. Orientals lack modernity or indeed eras at all. Time never passes in the orient, existing as it does outside of history. There is no modernity in the orient, and while each decade in the west is completely distinct with a different soundtrack to match, in the orient music from hundreds of years ago is what is presumably still listened to today by the mysterious natives.
One may argue that such music is used to strike a mood. I would not contest this claim, the issue is that this mood is “foreign.” Whatever is happening to the natives is irrelevant, they can always be announced by their foreign nature. One cannot universally announce an American milieu with bluegrass, one needs to consider the period, class and outlook of the Americans in question. But there is no issue in announcing the arrival in China with Chinese orchestral music.
One may also argue that humans naturally associate their own music with their own culture and want markedly foreign music for foreign cultures, but there is no good reason why contemporary music from each country cannot be used. One would be hard pressed to deny the obviously Japanese origins of this Japanese pop song:
Or the clearly Arab nature of this Syrian song for drinking `araq and cutting your wrists to:
The reason why contemporary music is preferred for the US in cinema is because the target audience wants to be able to relate to a contemporary narrative and place a historical narrative appropriately. The reason why “timeless” music is preferred for foreign settings is because the target audience does not want to place foreigners as being part of the contemporary world, nor as part of discrete periods in history. Foreigners do not advance in the absence of the white man, and therefore they must be thematically placed in a way that denies the industrialization and modernization of their societies, at least on an “essential” cultural level. The Arab is essentially defined by his Islam (and in cinema all Arabs are Muslims), and so the adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) is the inevitable choice of sonic introduction for Arab countries (not that any distinction is made between Arab states and other majority-Muslim societies), while India is announced with the North Indian art music popularized by Ravi Shankar back when white Anglos were pretending to admire (selected elements of) Indian culture, rather than resenting them for running all the 7-11s and call centers.
Matters are arguably made worse when the white man is denied contemporary sonic accompaniment. In such cases, such as the awful film Babel, post-modern electronic ambient music is used for our white heroes, placing them as almost post-human, futuristic beings, while the oriental remains “grounded” in his culture by the same “timeless” oriental music (in fact Babel was a tiered case, with Arabs having only pre-modern music, the Japanese having their pop music, and the white man is an Übermensch inhabiting a world of post-modern ambient noise to help him think about his big white guy problems more efficiently).
I predict that some reading this will counter that they like the “timeless” oriental music to which I refer, and that it deserves to be heard by the McDonald’s-eating heathens at the cinema. But the issue was never about quality. I happen to find properly performed bluegrass extremely beautiful, as well as jazz and the blues and other “dated” American musics. I happen to like the folk music of the British isles. But the English characters in “Snatch” are not announced by beautiful English folk ballads, while the Uzbekistani Russian is announced by menacing balalaika (although the late Soviet era ballads of Vladimir Vysotsky would have gone very well with the character) and the (quite modern-looking) American Jewish gangsters are announced by klezmer.
Indeed, on this issue one may even feel justified in invoking the traditional racist English expression “the wogs begin at Calais.” The idea being that a non-white “other” begins in France, or in other words, anywhere which is not Anglo, no matter how close this other is culturally in all other respects. This is why the genre used to announce the Muslim world is “chanting” (or some other form of religious music, such as in the terrible film Argo, where the lone scene in 1980 Turkey is a meeting, inexplicably in the church/mosque/museum Hagia Sophia, accompanied by the ney associated in Turkey with “Tasavvuf müziği” or “Sufi music,” while every scene in the US is accompanied by rock and roll), the genre used to announce (non-Muslim parts of) South Asia is “sitar” (this is even employed to announce South Asians in Western contexts in Anglo cinema), the genre used to announce Paris is “musette accordion” (again, also used to announce a French character in any setting), and the genre used to announce both London AND New York is…
Of course there is no genre. Because these cities “belong” in the popular consciousness (even outside of “the West”) to white Anglos (even though in fact whites are no longer the majority in New York, won’t be the majority in London for much longer, and both cities are in fact quite multilingual). Being culturally associated with white Anglo power affords these cities the privilege of being depicted (as the US and UK at large are depicted, and as individual white Anglos are depicted) as complex and evolving. Non-whites and non-Anglos, by contrast, are homogenous as whole populations in the popular imagination created and reified by such media representations, even across class and generation. The individual and the collective for these “others” are collapsed just as are the past and the present, where fine gradations of individuality and historical progress are constantly obsessed over in depictions of white Anglos. The soundtrack to films serves to reinforce this by providing quick aural queues to remind us of the representative of an unchanging “mass” that “others” and their “exotic” locales represent, while “our” (that is, white Anglo) places and (particularly male) persons are given the spotlight, the lead role, fleshed-out character development, and the bulk of the soundtrack in all its nuance and diversity to match.