Societal reflections

18 Nov 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT’S interesting, the odd corners the world holds. There are, obviously, universes within universes that a person can explore endlessly, learning something here, something there — at the very least picking up appreciation for various professions and people’s talent/ proclivities along the way.

Yet, a person cannot cover a universe, or, perhaps, even an ounce of what lies within it. A lifetime is not long enough (though one can try, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the privilege of knowing some exceptionally well-informed people in their own fields); still, exploration, discovery, is a wonderful thing.

In that spirit, as I write, I keep hearkening back to a conversation with a friend recently. This lady is a very learned person, and for quite some time, friendship has deepened over a shared love for music, literature, and poetry. She is, of course, better schooled than I — or one could say she has worked harder. In any case, one has learned a lot.

However, the recent conversation revealed something that oneself, as an anthropologist, found fairly difficult to wrap one’s mind around — a lack of understanding of pop culture, the importance of it thereof, and why it has for decades been of such iconic value in cultures (I can realistically speak of only the English-, Urdu-, and Punjabi-speaking spheres, but others can of course be extrapolated) around the world.

The point is that pop culture cannot be dismissed.

What I was surprised by was that this is a person who knows her pop culture well, the music and the legends, the tragedies and the trajectories, of (fairly) contemporary pop culture from ‘American Pie’ to Andy Warhol, and the glory that goes between these goal points. Even so, though, the iconic status of this field of endeavour was lost on her, or at least not appreciated enough.

Through the ages, pop culture — or whichever nomenclature has been applied to it over centuries — has been a pulse point for the age and culture to which it has referred. This holds true for music, literature, poetry, etc. Charles Dickens was an author of his times, as was Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, or T.S. Eliot. From the travails of chimney sweeps to drawing room romances, to the challenges of the aging process, all refer to a tiny portion of a galaxy. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, as the title of the book goes — a glorious title, by the way, in one’s humble opinion.

One must not allow oneself to digress, though. Exercising one’s mind as these lines are being written is the subject of music. Well then, for one thing, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for literature, a decision that, at the time, was widely criticised, but after the event recognised that lyric writing is indeed a form of poetry, therefore literature. He was referred to famously in one of the songs of Joan Baez, as the “great unwashed phenomenon”, she being the person who introduced him to the world in the first place, having already achieved fame herself back in the 1960s.

That being as it may, perhaps a consideration was that his song-writing is deeply political — just as Joan Baez’s own work; she wrote and spoke out strongly about the pressing issues of the times, including the Vietnam War and Nelson Mandela, amongst a host of other topics. Anti-war, human rights, dignity of man, she has covered a fair bit.

From there, talking about the relevance of pop culture, one can refer to the imitable Madonna, who has through her illustrious career been a path-breaker in so many ways, including the song ‘Papa don’t Preach’ in the 1980s, which talked about the choice about unintended pregnancies at a time when it was still a taboo subject entirely. At a university library in London, one came across an MA thesis on her work, dissecting it from an anthropological point of view to match it up to real-world events.

From there we can go to Michael Jackson, who sang about race relations, or Leonard Cohen, who wrote and sang about the challenges of the soul — a beautiful lyricist and poet if there ever was one, may his soul rest in peace. One needs also — perhaps only — to go to Pink Floyd to understand how closely pop culture is linked to the real world.

Closer to home, there is the lovely song by Shehzad Roy, Laga Reh, which refers obliquely to the Raymond Davis affair and Guantanamo Bay. Then there’s Bijli Ji, a long-standing trope about our perennial electricity problems, an issue that was picturised in song initially by Bushra Ansari.

The examples can go on and on. The point is that pop culture cannot be dismissed. In so many ways, it represents the times in which it is produced, a mirror to society and often an alternative viewpoint, a system of dissent. Perhaps that is why it has over generations found such traction.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2019