Ananya Birla and the Music of Mediocrity

Pop Culture

Ananya Birla and the Music of Mediocrity

Illustration: Akshita Monga

 

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n his book The Song Machine, author John Seabrook, a staff writer at The New Yorker, asks the following question about modern pop singers: “What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition seem to extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth.” He goes on to wryly note that that pop songs nowadays are perhaps, more accurately, products that work as a “three-minute advertisement for how powerful or sexual or beautiful or awesome the artist is”.

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This is as true for Rihanna as it is for Demi Lovato. Closer home, at this point in time, it is true for one Ananya Birla, a 22-year-old girl with big dreams and a famous last name, who shared the dais with Coldplay in Mumbai yesterday. The daughter of billionaire industrialist Kumar Mangalam and philanthropist Neerja Birla who made her singing debut at a local concert last week, went up on the same stage as Chris Martin, zooming past thousands and thousands of legitimate incredibly talented independent musicians in this country who save up for years to be able to afford good equipment, a decent mix, a basic video, and wouldn’t dare dream of buying a ticket to the overpriced Coldplay concert.  

But that aside. This story could have gone either way. It could easily have been a story of a music protégé going up on stage and surprising the hell out of haters, but the 22-year-old chose to take her one shot at superstardom and walked out of her father’s moneyed shadow, by lip-syncing instead. And doing it badly at that. The girl has essentially gone and proved right every accusation of privilege that was aimed at her in the last month. 

Let’s look at Ananya Birla. By all standards she is an overachiever. At 17, she started a microfinance company called Svatantra Microfin. Two months ago, she launched the luxury e-commerce platform Curocarte, which sells premium, handcrafted goods from around the world (a carved floret box is listed at ₹39,500, in case you were wondering exactly how premium). 

It isn’t hard to fathom why someone like her would perhaps want a “three-minute advertisement”, so, last Sunday, that’s exactly what happened. Birla’s latest avatar, as a pop star, was unveiled during a fancy brunch at a suburban Mumbai five-star hotel. Her single, “Livin’ The Life” — written by American producer Jim Beanz (who apprenticed under Timbaland and has worked with Nelly Furtado, Whitney Houston, and Chris Cornell) and mixed by Dutch EDM sensation Afrojack — was released the same day. Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan was one of the celebrities who attended the launch and exhorted her to “change d world” with her voice.

For something trying so hard to appeal to millennials and the YOLO culture, it is astonishing how well “Livin’ The Life” works as a parody of itself.

Three days since the single’s music video came up on YouTube, it has gathered over three million views. Which is surprising as hell because as videos go, “Livin’ The Life” does not even attempt to break new ground. Directed by Rock Jacobs (who has worked with artistes like Skrillex, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and The Game) and shot on California’s Santa Catalina Island is a vapid, carefully-colour-corrected assembly of raging hormones, back-up dancers, and depressingly family-friendly beach activities. 

The song itself, whose defiant pre-choral declaration goes, “I don’t want the, I don’t want the pain… pain/I don’t want the, I don’t want the pain… pain/I don’t want the, I don’t want the p-p-p-pain/I just want to be painless”, is a bland, four-chord progression with a whiny hook that is, thankfully, instantly forgettable. (It doesn’t help that, as some people on social media have pointed out, the refrain, tellingly, sounds like “Livin’ a lie, livin’ a lie”.) As for the quality of Birla’s vocals, well, it’s hard to tell, buried as it is under layers of synths and processing, but I’ll wager good money that an auto-tuning software that goes by the name of Melodyne may have had a part to play. For something trying so hard to appeal to millennials and the YOLO culture, it is astonishing how well “Livin’ The Life” works as a parody of itself. 

The three-million-and-counting views seem very suspicious; just browse through the (overwhelmingly negative) comments on YouTube, where people have asked questions like “Why is this trending in Indonesia?” (Why indeed?) Did someone say, “click farm”?  Also, the amount of press this song has received is unprecedented, given that it’s a single by a rank newcomer: It has received coverage in Business Standard, Hindustan Times Economic Times, India Today and Femina, to name a few. Turns out money can buy you love.

The narrative, then, is really easy: Birla is nothing but just another purveyor of “brat pop”, attempting to gain legitimacy using the resources at her disposal. It’s the principle Bollywood has worked with for decades, wherein star kids are launched in big banner films and continue to have careers even after audiences reject them. It was the same thing that had happened five years ago when Carnatic violin maestro L Subramaniam and Kavita Krishnamurthi’s daughter Bindu similarly attempted a pop debut with this cringe-worthy song (and video).

But, to me, Birla isn’t an oppressor but a victim. In times where one’s Instagram follower count is an acceptable measure of celebrityhood, packaging is all that counts; the contents rarely change. “Livin’ The Life” is just “In My City” (remember that one?) four years later, its shelf life instantly visible, its intentions merely to serve its purpose (promote a personality) and disappear into the ether like Snapchat photos and videos. 

The flipside, however, is that the internet can and likely will be harsh and unforgiving. A music video floating around doesn’t raise too many hackles, but a high-profile debut gig does. The Coldplay fans who spent the average annual income of a daily wage labourer on this concert have also come back home with memories of a lip-synched version of “Livin’ The Life” being shoved down their throats.

None of this is conclusive evidence of Birla’s lack of talent, of course. For all we know, there’s a legitimate musician within her, one who actually believes in connecting with listeners, not consumers. But even in a country that silently tolerates obscene privilege in most facets of life, there are lines that should not be crossed. And this one certainly crossed them. 

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