By Saurabh Misal
“‘Twas the year the common man on the street decided that whatever the West was selling sounded good enough to be honored at the altar of the street corner speaker towers”
Ah 2008. I remember it like it was last month: Folks were torn between newfangled touch screen phones and blocky BBM-boasting Blackberries, comic nerds were made cool overnight by our saviors Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger and Bollywood had just discovered the bottomless bag of South Indian films they could remake for big bucks and little effort.
My exact expression in subsequent years each time I hear Bollywood is remaking a Telugu action flick
2008 was also a huge milestone for something that went largely unnoticed, and only ever occurred to me after nearly a decade— it was the year Indians as a people finally caught up to the international music scene, and the common man on the street decided that whatever the west was selling sounded good enough to be honored at the altar of the street corner speaker towers that pop up every time there’s literally any occasion for celebration.
India’s music scene has been largely self sufficient in a way, with the film industry being the end all,be all of mainstream Indian music. Having no qualms about picking up samples, styles, lyrics, even entire songs wholesale from the west like middle aged people at your local Big Bazaar, music directors make them a bit more palatable for Indian tastes and pass them off as their own with zero consequence. While there have been quite a few acts that slipped through unscathed like Boney M, ABBA, Michael Jackson and periodic Spanish hits like the Macarena and Asereje, by and large ‘English music’, as anything that isn’t Indian is called, had always been the domain of the upper class, limited to Parsi collections or to those that had a rare curiosity and enough access to western media.
India had always lagged behind when it came to the global predominant pop music style: rock and roll hit India almost a decade later, the 70’s Disco wave didn’t come to India till the 80’s and 90’s Bollywood has definite hints of the 80’s feel good pop hits instead of the more edgy and peppy turns that captured America’s imagination at the time.
Meanwhile this was what captured India’s imagination in the 90s
While the Indian launch of MTV, Channel V and Star World did bring the west inside our homes just as consumer electronics became less of a luxury, a lot of it was restricted to late night or very small daytime segments which were eclipsed by way more accessible and inescapable film songs. Not to mention most parents thought of these ‘English channels’ as taboo good for nothing distractions where white people engaged in liberal amounts of ‘lip-to-lip’ kissing which was strictly not for the eyes of children, while they themselves sneakily caught up on Baywatch late at night.
The 2000s brought with them the final wave that culminated in making the Indian music industry a true contemporary. There was a significant increase in recording quality and equipment, from the sketchy and low quality cassette-aimed masters of the 90s to studio quality records that let you hear every instrument. VH1, the internet, and cell phone tech that let you store and play your music out loud at a time when ‘English songs’ were still considered a symbol of stature quickly caught the attention of the urban youth. International artists made a beeline for India in their tours, with the likes of Beyonce, 50 Cent and Shakira performing in much hyped and heavily attended events. The lag between when a song became a hit in the west and when people picked it up in India became ever shorter, until in 2008 it faded completely.
2008 was undoubtedly huge for western music, and not just in India. Artists who were entirely unknown became household names overnight: Lil Wayne, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Coldplay’s breakout albums; Timbaland’s plethora of hits and vicarious efforts through Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and a host of others, the nigh omnipotent Akon, and the debut of one Lady Gaga all happened within the span of a year. Akon in particular transcended Indian audiences and had people who struggle with English blasting ‘I Wanna Love You’, ‘Smack That’ and ‘I Wanna Make Up’ to the point of irritation. Akshay Kumar got Snoop Dogg for a track on ‘Singh is Kinng’. Teenage girls of the English medium variety couldn’t get enough of Taylor Swift, and a whole host of western grown Punjabi acts like Hard Kaur, Shamur, Bohemia and Jay Sean found a dedicated following that extended well beyond their traditional northern bastions. Accessibility had improved drastically; the internet, Bluetooth and the advent of USB drives meant music could be traded freely, which also ensured that probably 99% of music circulating in India was and likely is of the pirated kind.
If you’re a 90s girl, don’t even pretend this song didn’t make you want to elope with your imaginary boyfriend
10 years later, India has a behemoth of a music industry that may not measure success in sales, but has made itself indispensable as an advertising tool for its parent, Bollywood. Indian audiences have front row access to all the latest in pop trends, with ‘Shape of You’, ‘Despacito’ and even the likes of ‘Gucci Gang’ becoming obnoxiously popular within a week of release. Artists in India now have a whole host of influences to turn to; not just to Americans but to the rest of the world and more importantly, to the rest of India itself. What’s more, between its ever improving escapist spectacle and the export of Priyanka Chopra, Bollywood has made full blown fans out of international audiences as well, and in no small measure is it because of this underappreciated but essential music industry.