The other night, my roommates and I stumbled upon a nightclub in the Greater Kailash N-Block Market, and decided to go in for a drink. It was actually quite nice — the atmosphere was great, the crowd was a mix of young well-to-do Indians and foreigners, and the music was a blend of Hindi and English songs.
About an hour in, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew many more of the Hindi songs than the English ones. It’s strange, right? I’ve grown up entirely in America. Up until a few years ago I knew zero Hindi songs and spoke zero words of Hindi. How is it possible that I couldn’t name more than three of the english songs that were playing, and yet I knew the words to many songs in a language I’m still learning to speak?
While this time in India has brought up the standard fare of Indian/American identity questioning, this is also the first time I have spent such an extended time living and interacting with Americans who are not also classical musicians. As I live here, and see how a parallel version of my life could have gone as a girl growing up in India, I have also been learning about what my life might have been like if I had attended a regular college and been surrounded by people with a variety of interests.
There is something uniting about pop culture that I somehow bypassed in my American life. Almost anyone within my age group will remember when a particular singer was popular, or when a particular song came out, even ten, fifteen years ago. I certainly remember my life musically, but it wasn’t something I shared with others: I lived in my own musical vacuum.
There were weeks when I listened only to Busoni’s Carmen Fantasy, or a single Naxos CD of Idil Biret playing Chopin, or Reiner’s recording of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, or a tape(!) of Radu Lupu’s recording of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which is still the slowest and most beautiful one I’ve ever heard. I spent the summer of 2001 copying out the score to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, note for note, while listening to Dawn Upshaw’s brilliant recording. And then there was the summer of 2004, when I was fixated on the Italian pop singer Milva, to the point where I had her CD “I Grandi Successi” in a boombox in my hallway and would press play even before putting my bag down.
This time in my life is different, though. My ears are open to the everything around me. I remember a few months ago, when the Kolaveri Di craze swept through India – of course it was all over facebook and it had millions of hits on youtube. But I would also hear it in restaurants, in rickshaws, at parties, or even through my bedroom window in the afternoons, as people in the neighborhood blasted it from their balconies: Why this kolaveri, kolaveri, kolaveri di….. Musically, it’s a song like any other song, but it was also an experience I was sharing with everyone around me — my American roommates, my new Indian friends, people at parties that I had never met before and might never meet again. We all experienced Kolaveri Di together, and that made it magical for me in a very different way.
Maybe it’s just that I’m less of a purist than I used to be, or maybe my tastes have broadened. But I also think it’s something about Indian popular music itself.
Over the last few years, I’ve done multiple arrangements for Yale’s Hindi a cappella group Sur et Veritaal. One evening last summer, my assistant conductor, Shivani, and I spent no less than five hours trying to find an American pop song that I could mash up with the Bollywood classics Ghanana Ghanana and Chaiyya Chaiyya. Even if the tempos and keys were compatible, the moods were completely incongruous.
While Indian pop music is certainly dramatic and romantic, I find that it’s hardly ever angsty to the same degree as American pop music is. The emotions, just like the vowels in Hindi, are purer and more open. A love lost in Indian music is perhaps wistful or heart-wrenching. But in America, there is often also a tangled web of resentment, angst, and a desire for retribution on top of that initial feeling.
In the end, we went with Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which is technically more Latin than standard pop. The feel was as close as we could get. (It seemed like a shot in the dark at the time, but I later realized how much Indians enjoy this song — the first week I was in Delhi, there was a televised Sing-Off in a big mall in Saket, and the chosen song was Hips Don’t Lie.)
In recent years, I’ve definitely heard my share of American popular music. I worked on an iPhone karaoke app for awhile, where my job was to create midi versions of popular melodies that could then be matched up with a tuning algorithm. I spent hours on youtube, watching and listening closely to the likes of Beyonce’s Halo, Kanye’s Stronger, and every major Lady Gaga hit. These are wonderful songs, and the production quality is incredible. In the Halo video, the visual elements of overexposure and backlighting are supported musically with these high-partial, slowly changing chord progressions that drown the experience in a sense of other-worldliness and suspension in time. But watching over and over it left me drained and a little depressed.
Perhaps it was just the nature of the work, but I think the music itself was also a large contributor — there is a layer of subtlety and covert implication in American pop culture – even in Lady Gaga, who most people would hardly describe as subtle (and whose music I quite enjoy) – that just doesn’t exist in its Indian counterpart.
I love the unabashed emotion in bollywood music: the dancing on top of moving trains, the running through fields of flowers with dupattas trailing in the wind, the gazing longingly across colorful expanses, the carefully choreographed dance numbers with hundreds of women wearing matching chanya cholis… to the american sensibility these things might seem almost garish at times, but to me, it feels exhilirating. I can watch these videos and listen to these songs again and again, and never tire of them. Even the most recent bollywood item songs, which are closer to American pop music in many ways, still have a great positive energy that I miss in the west.
There are definitely American pop songs that I love listening to over and over again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as wild about a new American pop song as I still feel about this one:
I can’t explain it — it’s not the exploding fireballs on the downbeats, it’s not the stunning beauty of Katrina Kaif, it’s not the combination of Hindi and English lyrics that leave awkward phrases like, “I’m too sexy for you” and “Silly, silly, silly, silly boys” uncomfortably exposed in the texture… I don’t know. I just love it.