At this point it’s good to remember that pop culture likes to play this trick on us, that anything really bad can also be really good. “This series/movie/song/trend/item of clothing is so bad it’s good” — is a popular clickbait-y headline we’ve all succumbed to at one point. You know the kind I’m talking about.
In the same vein comes viral sensation and cringe-pop artiste Dhinchak Pooja of ‘Swag wali topi’ and ‘Daaru Daaru Daaru’ videos fame. Her latest, ‘Selfie maine leli aaj’, is no different with 7,976,503 views. Essentially, the video is a compilation of her singing about her selfie-taking expedition around Delhi, featuring four awkward boys as backup dancers. In the video, Pooja goes around Delhi in a car; occasionally she stops near India Gate and the Lotus Temple — to take a selfie, no surprises there. The desi internet has wildly exploded over this video and her earlier ones.
Instead the responses are, to mildly put it, crazy — there are memes that say ‘Tag a Pooja in your friends’ list’, reaction videos, roasts that call her a “cringeworthy symbol of India” — all of which ride on the original video’s success. And ‘selfie maine…’ has given rise to two camps. Those who love it because it’s cringe-inducing-but-still-guilty-pleasure (so bad it’s good), and those who love it because it gives them an excuse to feel aesthetically superior to Dhinchak Pooja and her ilk (hint, class problems). The second camp enjoys Pooja’s videos while being full of scorn for Pooja herself.
Still, what gives Pooja’s videos a viral quality? For one, there’s nothing novel about Pooja’s songs. Taher Shah attempted the same, almost four years back with his ‘Eye to Eye’ video (“Eye to eye, eye to eye/Simple, charming eyes/My eyes and your eyes/Dreaming fairies eyes our eyes/Stylish, excellent, human eyes/Eye to eye, eye to eye”). Honey Singh routinely produces mind-numbing videos. Dhanush famously gave us a viral one with ‘Why this Kolaveri Di?’ (“White/Skin-u Girl-u Girl-u/Girl-u Heart-u Black-u/Eyes-u Eyes-u Meet-u Meet-u/My Future-u Dark-u”), which was basically him just mouthing about love failure in a deadpan voice, only he had friend and music composer Anirudh to auto tune his voice, elevating the song to an anthem among ‘soup boys’.
All the aforementioned songs aren’t serious or deep; neither do they have hidden underlying messages in them. What stands out is the catchy repetitive tune and simple (almost always nonsensical) lyrics, just like every other pop song. And that’s exactly what works for Pooja’s songs — the lyrics are memorable enough that even after one listen, they become a earworm, which is just a fancy internet way of saying the lyrics cause a ‘cognitive itch’; the brain has this irresistible urge (like how you cannot stop just after eating one chip) to fill in the gaps in the song’s rhythm. So your brain keeps going even after the song has ended, say researchers from Dartmouth University. Another theory, courtesy University of Cincinnati, is that simpler songs appeal more to your brain — ever watched cartoons and realised that a certain song was stuck with you as opposed to Bach’s Sonata in G Major? Pooja’s songs roughly follow the same theory — they’re unexpectedly bad (unlike major pop songs, Pooja’s don’t have that burst of accompanying music; it’s just one note played over and over again), they have a repetitive quality and they’re deceptively simple.
They also follow a straightforward checklist: meaningless lyrics that are repeated set to simple background music at fuss-free locations where she sings about mundane activities — here, taking selfies. Yet, English media (mainstream and obscure) informs us that her song will make our “ears bleed” so we have to listen to it “at our own risk”. Or that the correct term for it is “cringe-pop” which has “scarred us for life”, so much that it’ll make us “hate selfies”. Regional media too is critical of her, but seemingly less harsh.
This addictiveness in part comes from the fact that these artists (Shah, Singh, Dhanush and Pooja) definitely don’t sing — they “rap” or rather repeat the phrases with a change in tone and pitch, but while Shah is routinely referred to as “cult”, Singh is the preferred choice for party songs, and Dhanush’s ‘Kolaveri Di’ was picked by CNN as the top song for 2011, why is Pooja left at the far end of the hate spectrum? Why the depth of contempt?
Welcome to the red hot chutney of sex and class. The hatred of women and selfies comes from, as Paromita Vohra writes, judging them when they “use the selfie to bring themselves admiration, social media followings and ‘likes’, a sense of social importance and power”. Why can’t they exploit their own sexuality if they want to, Vohra asks, and that “the discomfort with sexual expression, but especially women’s sexual self-expression, runs deep among all people.”. When Tamil actor Vijay did it with an equally ‘cringe-worthy’ song, ‘Selfie pulla’, the internet got hooked on to it.
It’s what we heard around three years back when the term gained popularity — was it a feminist act aimed at self-expression or was it “a cry for help”? Nian Hu makes a similar argument for the Harvard Crimson blog, “Society condemns women for taking selfies because the act of taking a selfie is deeply unsettling, even subversive. What’s frightening about selfie culture is that it shows that women do not need men to validate their beauty. It reinforces the radical concept that women’s beauty does not, in fact, belong to men…”
Perhaps, this is what has gotten everyone’s knickers into a twist. That Pooja gets to have her cake and eat it too — she gets to take selfies and sing about it too.
This is nothing but a hatred of anything that’s mass, regular and accessible. Pooja is not in a speedboat, airplane or wearing a kala chashma in the midst of Karan Johar-level wedding opulence. She is just another Pooja, who definitely didn’t wake up this way with three generations of Bollywood behind her. How then does she dare to make a music video that remind in the bad continuum of pop culture, giving us mindless entertainment — something all of us are looking for online.
Co-published with Firstpost