In the 3 months since this song was released, it has taken the world by storm. I don’t use the term ‘world’ hyperbolically. An indie Pakistani song was a viral chart hit globally. How did this happen? And what can we understand from it?
The short, very simplified story is that this song is perfect to be used as a soundtrack on short-form video (the likes of TikTok, Instagram Reels & YouTube). The song’s chorus presents a few seconds of verse that can be adapted to fit to people’s lives, and people accepted this invitation liberally. This ability to sample a feeling or quip from one context and repurpose it in another, is basically the process by which memes are made. What TikTok has mainstreamed is the ability to meme a sound,1 adding it as a background to a new video where the user of the sound recontextualizes it by using it as a soundtrack to whatever they are showing. So when Aleem sings “mujhay nahi pata hai, mujh se mat poocho na” – it opens the door to every kind of situation in South Asia where we are left wanting for answers. As South Asians know, these situations appear abundantly.
The second element here is that this song found a huge audience in India. You can see that the top 5 cities in which Aleem is streamed on Spotify are all Indian.2 The size of this market opens up the door to global relevance, and Pakistani hip hop has a presence with Indian audiences.
Of course a meme and a gateway can only do so much. The discovery is only the first element of the game. In modern media, success happens on two levels. The first is bringing eyeballs to your content – discovery. The second is keeping them there – stickiness. You see this pattern often. A viral video brings you the eyeballs, the subscribe or follow button keeps them there. On a micro scale, while the usage in TikTok brings people to the song, the song itself must have some depth or merit to keep people around.
To those that grew up in Pakistan, and I would venture a guess that this holds true for India and much of South Asia, the person described in this song will appear familiar. A person with conviction and drive but who is ultimately lonely and disconnected from expected social bonds. A person lost, and perhaps depressed. Feeling like they are deserving of big dreams but seemingly unable to take action to get them there. The description here is of the effects of harsh living conditions and the isolation of modern society. Perhaps this song should remind us of the creeping presence of mental illness, exacerbated by social media, the internet and tough economies. Perhaps also there is solace in the fact that talking about these dark realities provides the very remedy that seems hardest to achieve: bringing us together.
Special thanks for this formulation to wife of the show Natasha Noorani, who understands this phenomenon with great clarity, and from whom I have shamelessly stolen this idea.
As of writing this, the top 5 cities where Aleem was listened to on Spotify are: Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad.