It was the Nineties, the heyday of cable television. Music channels were still a novelty. A young singer called Baba Sehgal introduced his audience to rap, accompanied by some foot-tapping music. They swooned when he sang Thanda thanda paani and Dil dhadke. Two decades later, he is wooing them again. This time, it’s with songs like O Ellen! Share with me some watermelon and Despacito. What has changed in 20 years is the medium on which the songs are played and, of course, the very meaning of entertainment. Social media is the platform and ‘cringe pop’ is what’s being served now. “You may call it unconventional, but it isn’t abusive. It’s harmless fun,” says Sehgal, a rapper-turned-entertainer. “I am proud of the fact that I am still able to connect with 16- to 25-year-olds just like two decades back,” says the 51-year-old singer. Sehgal has a mass following on Twitter and YouTube. His fans eagerly await his songs, which are often similes or rhyming lyrics with a celebrity in focus. For instance, O Ellen! is dedicated to American TV host Ellen DeGeneres. His comeback song in the category of ‘absurd pop’ was a year back when he penned Rihanna O Rihanna, police station is a thaana and his fans couldn’t stop sharing the video on several platforms. “People are entertained by new genres and quick and easy-to-digest content. We have to acknowledge that there is space for every form of entertainment,” says Keya Madhvani, head of music and lifestyle partnerships, Twitter India.
New genres are evolving and so are a new breed of Internet stars. The latest toast of town is Dhinchak Pooja. The girl, who croaked Selfie maine le li aaj, became a household name in less than a fortnight of her posting the video on YouTube in May this year. Taher Shah, the tiara-wearing Pakistani Internet sensation in purple robes and flowing tresses, shot to fame with his Angel song last year. Then there is Jacintha Morris, a 53-year-old grandmother from Kerala, who shot a rather acerbic video last year in which she sang Is Suzainne a sinner? The list is long, fame is instant, but the content, cringe-worthy.
Breaking the Internet
A look at Dhinchak Pooja’s social media stats will turn any wannabe celeb green. She is that Internet star who can put the phrase, “It’s so bad that it’s good”, in good perspective. “I have watched Dhinchak Pooja’s (video) five times, but could never watch it completely,” says Akif Ahmad, chief acceleration officer, Interest Aid, a New Delhi-based organisation working on innovation and entrepreneurship. “I watched it to appreciate the courage of the artiste. I can’t remember my reaction, but she tried to offer something fresh. Whether she succeeded in that or not is another debate,” he says.
In less than three months of its launch in May, her YouTube channel has around 2.25 lakh subscribers and she has close to 14,000 followers on Twitter. Her song Selfie got more than 23 million views in two months—ironically, late Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi’s rendition of Suprabhatam, which was uploaded by a channel on YouTube recently, has received a little less than one million views in the same period. Dhinchak Pooja’s second song, Baapu de de thoda cash, which released in July, has generated over two million hits in less than a month. It’s being speculated that the 23-year-old will be part of the reality TV show, Bigg Boss 11, to be aired later this year. “There are cult films that are horrible. People get together to watch such films and then talk about them. It’s the same thing happening with Dhinchak Pooja,” explains social commentator Santosh Desai about her popularity. “All of us watch it because we want to talk about it later and laugh,” he says.
Hyderabad-based Vennu Mallesh’s song It’s my life whatever I wanna do has had more than 10 million YouTube views. His video, released five years back, went viral within a few months and his second song, too, became a rage. He has more than 46,000 followers on his Facebook page, which is filled with comments from people from across the world. Ask Mallesh what he thinks of his success and he calls it “the love of my well wishers”. The singer is currently writing some film scripts and hopes to make it big in the southern film industry. “My song became viral because it’s catchy. I share my honest opinion with my fans and they love me,” he says. Purists will say we are moving in the direction of blatantly ridiculous things that are categorised as ‘entertainment’. “From movies and TV shows to real-life politics, all of it seems to thrive on the notion that whatever is senseless will sell,” says Diana Monteiro, counselling psychologist and director, The Hyderabad Academy of Psychology. India, it seems, has taken a leaf out of the West’s book. In 2011, when teenager Rebecca Black posted a video about a day in her life with her song Friday, critics were quick to categorise it as cringe pop. But the then 13-year-old attained instant stardom with the negative coverage, which further garnered interest in her video. Today, her YouTube channel has 13 lakh subscribers and she uploads videos on everything ranging from everyday make-up to fashion tips. The way things are consumed today, it’s easy to classify it as ‘shock and awe’. “Look at US President Donald Trump as an example,” says Monteiro. “Shock and awe sells well. The thrill of being shocked hooks people on to an event from the start. Then they have the curiosity to know what will happen next and once they see something shocking, they want to automatically see how it ends,” she says.
Cringe & binge
The list of ‘cringe stars’ on the Internet is endless. The content that conforms to the principle of ‘senseless-stuff-that-you-can’t-ignore’ is often well thought out. Sehgal says he puts the same effort in his current music videos as he did in the past. “My fans keep asking me to post a video everyday. I have to tell them that this takes effort,” he says. His popularity, unlike others, is more due to the peppy music that accompanies the lyrics. His Twitter bio reads, “Life jiyo moment ke liye, kaam karo payment ke liye, pyaar karo sentiment ke liye” and he has close to 95,000 followers. One of his tweets read “trend wohi karta hai, joh mostly offend karta hai”, putting in perspective the kind of entertainment that sells currently. Most often these Internet sensations become stars, as they are easy subjects for mockery. Over 30,000 tweets were posted in the week that Shah’s song Angel released last year. A number of memes mocking him made it to the headlines. So when the world is laughing at what they consider lowbrow content, what is it that keeps these artistes going? “I don’t know what people like. I never think about others’ opinions. It doesn’t matter to me, as I follow my heart,” says 31-year-old Mallesh. That such content has a mass following even among celebrities is evident from the fact that popular singer Sonu Nigam did a spoof on Dhinchak Pooja in July. He recorded his own rendition of one of her singles, Dilon ka shooter, and sang it in Kumar Sanu’s style. The video went viral in less than a day. But why do people watch crass content, some may ask. Though they would agree that the content is really bad, they enjoy it and derive great pleasure from this form of entertainment. Watching trashy content allows us a position of superiority, experts say. It reaffirms our own self-perception of being cultured. “It establishes your superiority in a perverse way. It’s comforting to know that there are people who live a life that can be laughed at,” says Desai.
A point reiterated by others. “People watch it because they love mocking others. It’s their idea of fun in an otherwise mundane life,” says New Delhi-based psychologist Harsheen Arora. “For people like Dhinchak Pooja or Taher Shah, any kind of publicity is good. They are confident people who believe in their body of work and are proud of it,” says Arora. As far as a video going viral is concerned, there are no definite tips. “There’s no scientific formula as to what will go viral. Any content that illicits a reaction gets traction. If you are honest and your content is short and snappy, it will get a response,” says Madhvani of Twitter India. Not all content that is audacious will find an audience though. “Not everything that is bad can gain currency. So these people are either unaware that they are terrible or are extremely confident about selling something which is terrible. Either way, it’s a win-win situation for them,” says Desai. But there’s a flip side to being popular as well: the trolls that follow. Morris had to take off her YouTube video after her family got upset with online trolling. Her song about the three stages in Suzainne’s life—her innocent childhood, studious teenage years and the daring old age when she flirts openly—led to her being called names online. Tasteless entertainment, however, isn’t just restricted to social media. Television, too, has tasted success, selling regressive shows, voyeurism in the name of reality shows, and crassness in the name of comedy.
A case in point is MTV’s Roadies, which started as an adventure show for youngsters in 2003, but over the years has turned into a show in which contestants regularly indulge in name-calling, swearing and back-biting. One of the most popular shows on television today, The Kapil Sharma Show, which has top stars lined up every week, thrives on the host’s ability to insult audience members through inane one-liners. “People love to see others getting insulted. It gives them a sense of satisfaction, as it increases their own self-worth by seeing other people being demeaned,” says Arora. The concept of ‘bad’ television originates from the premise that it sells in a stressed-out world. Experts say the majority doesn’t want to watch anything intellectual on TV. “(Bad TV) doesn’t require us to apply brains. After all, who wants to watch History Channel after a stressful day at work? There, we will have to apply our brain. So one would rather watch a banal comedy show,” says Arora.
The other side
Not everything that goes viral on social media is trashy though. Social media platforms know the worth of good content creators and are coming up with ways to promote them further. Earlier this month, Twitter held the second edition of the world’s first creator-based video relay, #EveryCharacterMatters, which featured more than 24 hours of continuous content from nearly 40 creators across 10 countries. A creator-centered campaign, #EveryCharacterMatters debuted in India last year to celebrate local creators and users. So for every Dhinchak Pooja, there’s a Shirley Setia as well. One of the content creators of #EveryCharacterMatters, 24-year-old Setia composed a new song live on Twitter as part of the video relay, using lyrics sent by fans. “Being honest is what connects with people online. I shot my first song, a 90s Bollywood one, sitting in my bedroom, wearing pyjamas and it went viral. My song was picked up by T-Series and now I am working with several music collaborators in Mumbai,” says Setia. Analysts tracking online entertainment mediums maintain that the reasons for any video to go viral depend to a large extent on the psychological response it generates among viewers.
One doesn’t have to be ‘in your face’ to grab attention. “If you consider YouTube’s current second-most-viewed video, See you again by Wiz Khalifa, the whole viewership rests on the emotional trigger viewers experience following the untimely death of actor Paul Walker,” says Subrat Kar, co-founder and CEO, Vidooly, an online media tracking agency, which analyses the viewing habits of viewers across multiple platforms. The monetisation on YouTube works on the format of views generated, as well as the ad programme, Google AdSense. “YouTubers are paid through a revenue share basis. So 55% of the earning goes to content creators and 45% is charged by YouTube. YouTube earnings totally depend on CPM (cost per thousand impressions) rates and how frequently advertisers are targeting those videos,” says Kar. So if a video goes viral, it gets its creator not just fame, but some moolah as well. “In India, if you are getting 1,000 views on your YouTube video, your earnings can be $1-$4… sometimes, it goes upto $6 for premium content. That’s totally dependent on what content you are creating and what type of audience you are targeting,” he says. So if a video is viewed by users from countries like the US, UK, Canada or Spain, where the CPM rates are high, the creator earns more money than from an India-centric audience. The monetisation at Facebook, too, works in a similar manner. “For 19 million YouTube views, Dhinchak Pooja may have earned at least Rs 45,000,” says Kar. We may ridicule them as much as we like, but the fact of the matter is that the makers of puerile content know the economics too well. And at the end, they are the ones laughing all the way to the bank.