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Priyanka Chopra & the exotic products of locally brewed idiocy
BHANUJ KAPPAL  26th Apr 2014

Priyanka Chopra (left) with Pitbull in a still from the Exotic music video

bout halfway through Priyanka Chopra's Euro-trash rework of Bonnie Raitt's 1991 hit I Can't Make You Love Me, I was struck by an epiphany — Priyanka Chopra is India's Devo. The classic Detroit band embodied post-punk's dedication to demystifying popular music. Devo's mission statement was "subvert from within" and they took advantage of their unlikely success to reveal and parody the many artifices and machinations of the corporate rock world. They called themselves a corporation, wore uniforms onstage and started gigs with a Devo Corporate Anthem. They strode the line between masterful critique and cynical celebration of corporatised culture. It is entirely possible to look at Chopra's fledgling music "career" as a similar project — a Situationist critique of the globalised pop factory. Could all the brazenly transparent and unsuccessful efforts to sell herself as the Indian Shakira just be a commentary on our fascination with the American industrial-cultural complex? Could Priyanka Chopra be spending millions of white label executives' money just to mess with us?

Well, probably not. It's much more likely that Chopra saw this as a great opportunity to cash in on her celebrity status (see also: Paris Hilton). Or perhaps she even thinks the auto-tuned abortions she calls songs will actually propel her to the top of the charts. Stranger things have happened. But either way, her music and career are a great case study for how the global pop factory manufactures a star. Perhaps inspired by Arvind Kejriwal's call for transparency, the music industry honchos behind this deal have been uncharacteristically artless, allowing us to see every step of the process as it went down.

First, American label executives look for untapped local markets that are ripe for exploitation discovery­ — in this case India and the Indian-American community. There are a lot of us, we've got money, and we still don't have a bonafide desi pop superstar (M.I.A doesn't count). Perfect.

So the search for a superstar begins. Thanks to auto-tune and the globalisation of celebrity, the labels don't have to deal with the hassle of finding and training a promising youngster. Instead, they zero in on someone who's attractive, already well known to Indians home and abroad, and won't let things like artistic integrity get in the way of making millions of dollars. Add an Americanised accent, a vapid public persona and a Euro-trash club beat and voila! You have Priyanka Chopra, the international pop superstar.

Thanks to auto-tune and the globalisation of celebrity, the labels don’t have to deal with the hassle of finding and training a promising youngster. Instead, they zero in on someone who’s attractive, already well known to Indians home and abroad, and won’t let things like artistic integrity get in the way of making millions of dollars.

Step two is marketing, and this is where the cynicism of the pop factory really comes into play. As soon as she signed her recording deal with Universal Music Group (UMG) and DesiHits!, white industry types start telling us, contrary to all available evidence, that she will "revolutionise" the Indian music industry and "redefine pop music on her own terms." UMG's Rob Wells starts bigging her up in interviews, saying Priyanka Chopra is "Super hot, an amazing talent." Glad you've got your priorities straight, Rob. Troy Parker of Lady Gaga fame signs with her as manager and the marketing blitzkrieg kicks off in India and the US, all before she's even recorded a song.

Not that the music is important, it's just a product for the marketing guys to sell. Her debut single In My City sounds like it's been written by the same guys responsible for Rebecca Black, only s***tier. Even Will.I.Am's guest appearance cannot save the song from its own mediocrity, but no worries. Lack of talent is rarely a hindrance in popular music today, as long as you have the backing of our rich corporate overlords. The track debuts on NFL's highly popular sports show Thursday Night Football, with a shorter version of the song used to open each episode that season.

The second song is even worse, the aptly titled Exotic featuring Pitbull, in which a glammed up Chopra is positioned as an exotic sexual object, with emphasis on the "exotic". There's nothing new about all this of course, the exoticisation of non-white artists is old hat, but what's amazing is the lack of subtlety. As if the title and the video weren't enough, Chopra has to hammer the idea into your head with lines like "I'm feeling so exotic, I'm hotter than the tropics." I'm surprised she didn't mention the Kama Sutra, just to make sure.

Unfortunately for Chopra's corporate backers, things haven't worked out as well as they wanted. It turns out American audiences are smarter than we give them credit for, and even millions of dollars worth of marketing push and cynical deployment of race and sexuality won't get them to like Chopra's tepid, auto-tuned fare. But with all the big music industry money and reputations riding on her career now, she's almost too big to fail. They'll keep tweaking her music and image — perhaps a dash more sexuality, a little more Indian kitsch, a producer who isn't completely incompetent — till their investments and egos are validated. The white American gatekeepers of global pop culture will not be thwarted by the tastes of mere consumers. All we can do is sit back, enjoy the show and pray that piracy really does kill the music industry.

 
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