Taher Shah and the Rise of Cringe-Pop


Taher Shah and the Rise of Cringe-Pop

Illustration: Namaah/Arré

“How exactly do angels have sex?”

If you didn’t spend at least an hour last weekend pondering this question, it’s a safe bet you haven’t watched the music video for “Angel”, a song by Pakistani businessman-turned-musician-turned-internet-meme Taher Shah. For those of you living under a rock, or using Vodafone 3G, Shah became something of an online sensation in 2013 when he released his debut track “Eye To Eye”. The song was a fantastic specimen of what I call “cringe-pop”; music that goes viral on social media by virtue of being so godawful and inept that people are compelled to share it, if only to ensure that others will share in their misery. Lyrics ranging from confusing (“Make your love with eye to eye”) to creepy (“Your precious eyes belong to me because I love you”) are all sung in badly accented English with the familiar vocal mannerisms of drunk uncles who insist on singing the entire song during family antakshari sessions. Accompanied by a video that was part American Idol, part Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, “Eye To Eye” predictably went viral, spawning thousands of memes and millions of YouTube views.

Released on April 8, “Angel” is Shah’s second song, and is just as viral-friendly as its predecessor. The video opens with droning Swans-lite vocals as Shah strolls through a carefully manicured lawn wearing a tiara, angel wings and a loose purple robe. “I am like an angel,” he sings, as he hams his way through a video populated with fabulous gender-ambiguous clothing, magic wands, a blonde Mrs Angel and a sometimes-blonde-sometimes-not Angel junior (Shah’s son, who is going to need a lot of therapy growing up).

I gave up trying to make sense of the lyrics after the line “The angel’s character speaks like a flower” and I’m not even going to try and interpret the video for you. Watching it did leave me with a number of questions though, including the one I started this column with. I’m not exactly an expert on theological reproduction, but I thought angels couldn’t have sex. All popular literature — by which I mean Terry Pratchett books and Neil Gaiman comics — strongly implies that God gave the poor things the Ken doll treatment. So how exactly did Angel junior come to be? That’s a “birds and bees” conversation I’d love to eavesdrop on.

“Angel” sparked a flurry of reactions, hot takes and think pieces that will be very familiar to observers of the “cringe-pop” phenomenon. The first ripple came from the internet’s merchants of cool, self-styled tastemakers and gatekeepers who are so relentlessly ironic that they’ve pushed their way into post-irony. As soon as the video came out, they were all over Twitter, excitedly pushing this latest “cringe-pop” classic down the throats of their hapless followers. This small ripple was followed by a much bigger wave — the funny guys. Some were trolls, some were aspiring standup comedians and yet others were has-been celebrities, eager for some attention. I’m looking at you, Twinkle Khanna.

Once the video started trending on social media, the journalists jumped in on the action. There were the inevitably unfunny hot takes, the terribly curated tweet lists and then the self-righteous op-eds asking the internet’s snobs to just “leave Taher alone!” Pretty soon now, the news cycle will taper off as the internet’s trend-hunters jump onto the next viral video, and Taher Shah will join Rebecca Black, Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji, and Psy as yet another member of the YouTube hall of fame. Meanwhile, Priyanka Chopra’s pop career is still in the doldrums despite millions of dollars spent in marketing budgets and the combined efforts of Universal Music Group, Pitbull, and white people’s fascination with “exotic” brown bodies. Sometimes life just isn’t fair, right Piggy?

The rise of “cringe-pop” is a culmination of many factors, including the rise of technology that makes music and video production accessible to anyone with a laptop and spare time; the very human traits of meanness and schadenfreude, and an internet-mediated obsession with the surreal and the absurd. It’s a phenomenon that’s part village idiot and part situationist intervention. It perfectly illustrates how the internet can help expose and disrupt the spectacle, only to go on and transform the disruption into a continuation of the spectacle. It is, in short, a phenomenon that is simultaneously hilarious, depressing, and a lifesaver for culture writers trying to make their rent.

I’ll sign off with two suggestions. First, check out this version of “Angel” slowed down 800 percent; it is amazing in all the ways that the original isn’t. Secondly, think about what it means that a song nobody even likes managed to push the Panama papers leak off our newsfeeds, timelines and even our news sites. That we spent more time and effort on poking fun at a middle-aged man’s artistic pretensions than we did on finding out how we’re being shafted by the rich and the powerful. That no matter how much we pretend to care about politics or finance or the state of the world today, all it takes for us to get distracted is somebody to make fun of.