The term ‘cringe-pop’ has come to describe music so terrible that it’s addictive. But is the nomenclature fair? Or does it reflect an audience’s tendency to put an artiste up on a pedestal just to bring them down?
A few of us on the Indian sub-continent might never be able to take a selfie without a certain Pooja’s words ringing in our ears. A baser instinct of human psychology is to laugh at others, especially those below our self-perceived level of sophistication — those who pronounce foreign words incorrectly, dress in non-categorised and labelled looks, or place articles before proper nouns.
It’s not unlike children making fun of a fellow student who’s wet himself in class. Deriving humour together from our derision often comes naturally to us. “This behaviour is deeply rooted in class snobbery,” says Anuya Jakatdar, former Creator Community Manager at YouTube and now a YouTube creator herself with the channel Books on Toast. “It’s like we get collective permission to laugh at somebody else. We all like to watch a train wreck in slow motion. But self-aware class snobbery is still class snobbery.”
The emergence of ‘cringe-pop’ borrows heavily from this base instinct — a performer is seen as a spectacle and is sniggered at in social media circles. As if (s)he’s piss drunk on cheap booze at a champagne brunch.
Dhinchak Pooja is the latest specimen of this genre. She’s reportedly a Delhiite whose musical roots clearly lie in the region’s rap and hip-hop culture. At the time of this report going to print, Selfie maine leli aaj had crossed 13.9 million views since it was uploaded in mid May.
Mirth to money
But there’s more to the genre than just a point-and-laugh appeal. As the alternative film-maker, who goes by the moniker Q, says, “We have Dhinchak Pooja and Taher Shah (of Eye to Eye fame) on one hand, and Wilbur Sargunaraj on the other.”
Q was involved in making a video in 2013 with Sargunaraj, whom a leading national daily has described as ‘India’s first YouTube star’, but who’s also a cringe-pop artiste with a definite agenda.
One of his first hits in 2010 had Sargunaraj, a Madurai local in his early thirties then, exhorting his parents to let him have a love marriage instead of an arranged one. With gyrating aunties backing his plea in the video, Sargunaraj employed a basic techno beat and capitalised on a clichéd South Indian accent to make a powerful statement. It cost him next to nothing to produce, but a message caught on.
“Wilbur definitely knows what he’s doing,” says Q, adding, “he’s found his voice, and now there is a lot of thought going into it.” But is that making business? It seemingly is. When DNA tried reaching out to Sargunaraj over email, Sam from Wilbur World Wide Inc replied firmly, but politely, that ‘the deadline is not realistic’. Sam added, “Wilbur is very busy at the moment with producing his new EP and filming music videos. He is also stepping out of the country for a week.”
As things stand, online market forces have less scope for social reformation or activism than for pure click-bait consumerism, which is essentially what keeps the hits ticking for a Dhinchak Pooja. Ad guru Prahlad Kakkar says, “They (the likes of Dinchak Pooja and Taher Shah) are brilliant because of their positioning. They realise that they have no talent. But they have found a shock factor to find their place under the sun… whether you laugh at them or not, you still watch them. So they are laughing away to the bank.” Jakatdar points out that performance artiste Rakhi Sawant also captilises on the same sentiment.
As the population looks to the internet for extertainment, the name of the game is content. So says Baba Sehgal, an Indi-pop pioneer from the early ’90s whose online avatar redefines the cringe-pop spectrum, demonstrating that the genre isn’t defined by lack of talent, but also by how quirky — absurdist even — you are.
“I am a complete internet guy now,” writes Sehgal in an email. “I believed then and believe now that content is the king. Viewership does not depend on the production value of a music video. If the song has something to excite the listeners then even if you spend few hundreds, the video will become popular.”
Who’s laughing last?
The cream of the cringe crop become cultural juggernauts. They go viral, enter common parlance, are spoofed (AIB took at dig at Selfie within days of it being launched; a hoax was circulated about a live concert in non-aspirational Kalyan), and are dissected by media students. Slowly, fervent defenders crop up — a 2016 piece called Taher Shah a ‘welcome refreshment, a break from the zeitgeist of cynicism, which we all need’. Another piece in the same online publication, said Jacintha Morris (who released Is Suzann A Sinner? in 2016) ‘has come to represent a brave Malayali woman taking on a sexist Kerala society and the internet is a wicked place with insensitive trolls’.
Meanwhile, the artistes themselves, are troll-deaf. Well, most of them. Morris, unable to stand the trolling, took down her video, which was a home production.
Others are made of sterner stuff. The prolific Baba Sehgal releases a song almost every week. Taher Shah remained devoted to his ‘ideology’ of spreading love, and dressing like a gender-neutral angel, but was forced to leave his native Karachi in January 2017 after receiving death threats. Dhinchak Pooja has a firm and canny grip on her image — the comment section on her video is closed and her only interview is on her own channel.
We may point and laugh, but they can’t hear you.
Welcome to the carnival
Dhinchak Pooja’s modus operandi is simple and cheap. She sets straightforward rap lyrics to a minimal beat and goes around the streets of urban North India in fancy cars and cut-price entourage. “Her videos can’t cost more than Rs 10,000 in total,” says Neil Chowdhury, who owns a production house. Despite crores of hits, Dhinchak Pooja’s apparent lack of talent is all too obvious. “But if she’s doing it deliberately, it’s performance art,” says Q, a National Award-winning film-maker.
A veteran musician in the ’90s, Baba Sehgal reinvented himself in the digital age. “I am a complete Internet guy now,” he says. Sehgal picks up a topic, sets near-nonsensical rap lyrics to it, and unleashes the content online. “I was mighty thrilled when the crowd was singing along as if they knew each and every word of all my new songs, be it Chicken fried rice, Going to the gym, Rihanna o Rihanna or Y am I so sexy,” Sehgal says of his performance at the popular NH7 Weekender music festival in 2016.
Wilbur Sargunaraj’s cringe-pop career, which began nearly nine years ago, is driven by definite intent. Sargunaraj travels around the world, picking issues such as sanitation and misogyny, and addresses them in quirky videos tinged with humour. His lack of self-consciousness is an asset, but his attempt at activism sets him apart from the rest. With campaigns like Simple Superstar, Sargunaraj tries to bring out the ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’. Tellingly, he is nowhere close to the likes of Pooja and Shah in terms of hits.
Taher Shah broke the internet in 2013 with Eye to Eye. In an interview with a Pakistani TV channel the year after, he was asked whether he realised that people ridicule him. Shah answered in Urdu, “It’s only one’s perception that defines something as positive or negative.” This overriding belief in his abilities lends a surreal quality to his music. It also paved the way for the success of Angel, his next video in 2016, in which Shah dressed like an ice cream flavour you don’t want to order, but garnered over 60 lakh hits on his YouTube channel.