It's been 11 years since Farhan Akhtar made his Bollywood acting debut as grunge-rocker Aditya Shroff in the 2008 musical drama Rock On!!, a film that was not only critically acclaimed, but has also been credited with bringing rock music into the Bollywood mainstream. The movie and the role was a defining moment for Akhtar, so it's no surprise that he keeps going back to it, not just reprising his role in the sequel Rock On!! 2, but also performing the music with his band Farhan Live, which toured the college festival circuit and even played at the NH7 Weekender festival in 2016. Now Akhtar is looking to cement his transition from reel rock star to real rock star, with his debut album Echoes, released early this month. Recorded in Milan, produced by Grammy winner Tommaso Colliva, and accompanied by the sort of buzz that only the Bollywood PR machine can generate, Echoes is the sort of career launch pad that most Indian independent musicians can only dream of. There's just one problem.
The music isn't very good. Despite Colliva's best efforts, the 11 songs on Echoes are uninspired, middling pop-rock, too indebted to Akhtar's classic rock influences to stand on their own. The self-indulgent lyrics read like they're taken from a high schooler's poetry notebook, with clunkers like "don't want to be like old wine in a new bottle, still just old wine." It doesn't help that Akhtar is a less than competent singer, with limited range and a flat, reed-thin voice that has all the emotional heft of a Hallmark greeting card. The pristine production and well-crafted instrumental arrangements only serve to highlight the torpid, by-the-numbers nature of Akhtar's songwriting. Far from being a serious showcase of artistic talent, Echoes comes across as an exercise in vanity.
'Vanity pop', as I like to call it, isn't exactly a new phenomenon. The stranglehold that Bollywood has had on Indian mainstream music, and the incredible power that comes with being a bankable film star, means that any actor with a smidgen of musical talent and the desire to fulfil their fantasies can get themselves a verse on a soundtrack cut. Everyone from Abhishek Bachchan to the three Khans and even Alia Bhatt have one or more playback singing credits to their name. In 2010, Saif Ali Khan even did a couple of concerts in Delhi with Parikrama, shredding to his heart's content and rocking out in a red bandana. But these were occasional flirtations with music, stars having a little fun – and perhaps giving a boost to the marketing efforts for their latest film – before they got back to the serious business of acting.
In recent years though, 'vanity pop' has gone from being a novelty to a legitimate phenomenon, with Bollywood stars making serious inroads into the pop music space. The most obvious example was Priyanka Chopra, who was signed up by Universal Music Group in 2011 with the hope that her celebrity status and existing fandom could make her India's first international pop star.
In recent years though, 'vanity pop' has gone from being a novelty to a legitimate phenomenon, with Bollywood stars making serious inroads into the pop music space. The most obvious example was Priyanka Chopra, who was signed up by Universal Music Group in 2011 with the hope that her celebrity status and existing fandom could make her India's first international pop star. It didn't work out exactly as planned. Despite Universal's significant backing, and Chopra's attempts at playing to the American gallery with singles like 'Exotic', featuring the cringey lyrics "cool me down, I'm feeling so exotic/ Ya right now, I'm hotter than the tropics", Chopra's career as a pop star never really took off. Autotune and guest appearances from will.i.am and Pitbull can only take you so far, after all. But Chopra's stalled music career hasn't stopped others from trying to expand into the independent (ie non-film) music space.
Having had a taste of rap stardom with Gully Boy, Ranveer Singh has launched his own rap record label IncInk, with a cameo in the music video for its first release, Kaam Bhaari's "Zeher". Madhuri Dixit Nene has just announced that she's working on a pop album, as has Aditya Roy Kapur. From outside of Bollywood, there's also Ananya Birla, the daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, whose resources have enabled her to bring in world class producers and video directors to help jump-start her pop career. Birla survived the embarrassment of being caught lip-syncing at her debut live performance to be hailed by the Indian media as a legit pop star. It seems that in the Indian music industry, much like in Bollywood, who you are matters a lot more than what you can do.
The obvious response to this is, of course, so what? If they've got the money and they want to spend it, why not? It might be a slap in the face to the thousands of independent musicians across the country who have spent decades building a music scene with minimal resources and support only to see the industry red carpet rolled out for well connected amateurs, but tough titties, life isn't fair.
To see all that energy and momentum slowly being diverted towards the likes of Akhtar and Birla is concerning to anyone invested in creating an alternative music industry, where creative expression is not tied to the needs and demands of a Bollywood production house. We all remember what happened to Indipop, don't we?
But there is a more sinister byproduct of this trend, where money and privilege allows mediocre musicians a free ride to the top. After struggling on the fringes for decades, we're finally at a point where Indian independent music isn't just approaching financial viability as an industry, but is also getting attention on a massive scale. The rise of Indian hip-hop has seen musicians with no Bollywood affiliations build fandoms that can now rival those of Bollywood's second or third tier starlets. It is, in my opinion, the first time since Indipop where film music's vice-like grip on Indian popular music is being challenged. To see all that energy and momentum slowly being diverted towards the likes of Akhtar and Birla is concerning to anyone invested in creating an alternative music industry, where creative expression is not tied to the needs and demands of a Bollywood production house. We all remember what happened to Indipop, don't we?
We've already seen this in the live music space, where indie music festival headline slots and college gigs – earlier the preserve of independent acts – have now been taken over by Bollywood composers, depriving independent musicians of a much needed revenue stream. As the live events industry in India continues to grow, finally becoming a serious source of revenue, we will see more and more of this Bollywood invasion into the pop and indie space. After all, how can an indie rock band – no matter how good or how popular – compete with the footfall that a Farhan Akhtar can guarantee? And why would a label invest in building a promising artist into a star, when they can sign actors who don't just come with a massive fanbase, but are also able and willing to bankroll their own careers?
Thankfully, this dystopian future may never come to pass. Money and connections can get your foot in the door, but – as Abhishek Bachchan found out – the audience is smart enough to eventually see through the lack of talent, no matter how big the marketing budgets. And thanks to the internet, backlash can be instant and overwhelming. But I think it's important to remind those invested in the music industry that the hard and difficult work of building Indian independent music shouldn't be undone by the temptation of leveraging film stardom for instant but short-term hits. And it's incumbent that those in the press – both music journalists and entertainment writers – don't simply roll over and give stars attention and praise that is undeserved.
The rise of stars like Divine and Naezy shows that the Indian music fans are ready and looking for music that is authentic, different and comes from the heart. It's time we respect that, and call out the mediocrity and cynicism of manufactured 'vanity pop' for what it is, rather than pandering to star power. Otherwise we risk being seen as nothing but subservient subjects, unwilling to speak the truth about the emperor's new clothes.