Nerding out over Taher Shah

For this issue we are joined by very special guest Ahmer Naqvi, eminent cultural critic, a good friend, and someone who’s been a real mentor for me and my writing. I asked Ahmer if he’d be open to doing a back and forth with me on Taher Shah, prompted by the recent release of his new single. Those that are familiar with Ahmer or my writing, will not be surprised that this conversation meanders beyond Taher Shah. I hope you like this format, and please reach out with comments and feedback. In fact, I wanted to offer my deepest thanks to all that have written back so far, with comments, and reflections on songs, and on life. And I wanted to point you towards this heartwarming thread of people sharing their favorite Nazia Hassan songs, after reading the last issue.

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Zeerak: So I wanted to start by just trying to figure out how one should think about this Taher Shah song in particular, and how to engage with Taher Shah as a whole. 

For those that are unfamiliar with Taher Shah, well I don't know what to tell you. I'll just narrate the facts: Taher Shah has released four music videos, each of which has amassed an incredible following on the internet. And at first glance this following is more to marvel at the videos than to enjoy the music, though increasingly it is becoming harder for me to tell. The songs are quite simple, and once could argue not particularly musically virtuous. But they are a bit catchy. The combination of the songs with this incredible set of visuals that appear too grand too fit the musical ambitions creates an amazing spectacle that then in the age of the internet can blow out of proportion.

For a while one could reason that these songs were enthralling the same way Sharknado 2 was enthralling. In that it was ridiculous enough to be a spectacle. For a while the term 'badmazing' achieved some prominence because it described our affinity to this sort of spectacle. Over time 'badmazing' itself become more than a descriptive term, almost a genre unto itself. As culture itself began to change to fit this new description of something we liked but didn't even know about. But now I think we've reached the tail end of the term's explanatory value, and that it may just be a crutch for our spitefulness and snark.

Ahmer: I wanted to pick up from the last point you noted. With Taher Shah but also with badmazing content at large, we fall prey sometimes to trying to rationalise it too much, and the best we come up with is that it's emerging out of snark or irony, which is true, but also incomplete. Particularly for Taher Shah, because he has the rare accomplishment of *not* being a one-hit wonder, there is something about him that has endured beyond the initial reaction. 

Firstly, I think there is a sincerity perhaps that people connect to, even as they can laugh at the preposterousness of it all. Particularly after his Aamir Liaquat appearance, but also generally how he's been an internet star who has retained mystery, who hasn't come across as an influencer type. At some level I think that resonates with people.

Another thing I thought of is that in a sense he is also an outsider gate-crashing the worlds of celebrity and music, and there is an underdog element to it. Like it is clear that he wasn't produced by the media-industrial complex - the sheer bizarreness of his choices confirms his originality, as well as the lack of any agency or channel involvement. There is a certain joy perhaps in finding a collection of artistic references and aesthetic that you don't see outside of very low-brow culture. 

Without making this too long and boring, the final thing I thought of was this idea of regression into nostalgia or simplicity for the audience. Like there is a naivety, a bholapun to his work that for generations that have grown up with the change of several lifetimes taking place in their youth alone, is very comforting perhaps. I am reaching here, but I bring this up because I see this desire for return to childhood in his work, particularly the latest video. He keeps talking about the innocence of childhood and the purity of it, which being expressed by an adult definitely seems to be about wanting to run away from or avoid something in their older years. Khair this is now like eleven hamnawas long so I'll stop. 

Zeerak: I have been accused of overthinking this early in the conversation! The accusation of course holds true all the time if you know me at all, it's just the speed of the accusation that is worthy of remark. And with regards to length, I have not been known for my brevity in the past. So I think we can make a few transgressions.

With respect to your actual commentary on Taher Shah and not me, I agree with you. Particularly this idea of a sincerity that seems to come through his work and through every interaction he has about it. On TV shows where he is eminently likable, and even on Facebook posts he made explaining his poetry. The explanations were just as clear to me as the lyrics themselves, but what I got from reading them was that these songs were reaching for some sort of emotion that perhaps we were failing to communicate amongst ourselves. I hesitate to call it an inability to use language to describe the specific emotion, but it is somewhere between that and the ambiguity of metaphor which allows audiences to find their own meanings in things. Again, maybe I'm overthinking it.

Recently I've come across a few conversations where musicians have been inspired by more innocent-sounding, simpler songs. Ali Noor recently complained to Faisal Kapadia of Strings that Duur and Dhaani were too mature, and he missed their earlier music. Ali Hamza talked about how Rangon Mein Khoya, from Junoon's first album really inspired a lot of Noori songs. And this was the exact opposite of what I seem to want in looking at artists. I love stories of musicians that keep pushing forward, tearing up their old image and doing something new, pushing the boundary. But perhaps that is my own naivety, and maybe what we want to be able to do with art like this is to feel something simpler. 

Ahmer: Allah Zeerak I wasn't saying you were overthinking hahaah - firstly because i get accused of that a lot so I won't attack another with it, and secondly i meant the larger conversation about badmazing content, not what you had to say. Basically there have now been a few threads and thinkpieces on "why do people like taher shah" and the general conversation remains more intellectual than visceral. That's what I meant.

I am very intrigued by the contradiction you point out. As people who are entering the conversation on music via critique rather than as musicians, perhaps we always wish for there being more things to easily talk about. The simpler the song gets, the harder it gets to be specific and meaningful as a critic. Expanding that further, perhaps Taher Shah's connection is exciting to an audience because it is directly visceral, and is too bizarre and mishmashed for the intellectual part to contend with. The simplicity that you described is perhaps the core of it, because he is doing away with the artifice we have come to expect from contemporary musicians, and instead choosing a language, a melody and an aesthetic that feels too unbelievably simple in this era. 

With regards to the latter convo on simpler music, there is also this expectation that your sound should evolve or progress with every album. Both Strings and Junoon made songs in their earlier days that people who heard their famous stuff would never associate with them. Utho Beta aankhein kholo don't feel like Strings lyrics ever. But as you get bigger and more successful in music you are meant to get more mature. Which is what makes the ossification of bands in pakistan so much worse, because after a certain while any changes you make to your sound are marginal, and while there is still value to that, its also a sign that time for newer names and acts to come forward. But in Pakistan we are stuck with the same old bands making similar sounding tracks ad nauseam while younger musicians rot away in obscurity. And perhaps that's another reason Taher Shah was exciting - he was the first new, unheard of act to capture the imagination in a decade or so. The song was one thing, but it was its reaction that had a life of its own which I think is a huge factor as well. 

Zeerak: I didn't take offence at all! And sorry for being facetiously hyperbolic. Unfortunately these emotions are lost in writing at times.

For a while I would get angry in response to being told I was overthinking things. Because how could you possible overthink things? You could either think them through or not think them through. To a younger me the concept that you could take a thinking process into an extreme one could call egregious was just a way to defend lazy thinking. But overtime I've come around to the idea that there is a point at which thinking does become unnecessary and unhelpful, and for me it is when you keep refitting the same evidence to find new explanations when in fact the data you have no longer has any more explanatory power. At that point you are indulging yourself and your anxiety and perhaps nothing more.

And I say this all because maybe the whole story with Taher Shah should be that it's very simple music, the meaning of it isn't particularly clear, and for perhaps these exact reasons and many others people like it. And to just leave it at that. In a sense I find that simplicity wonderful, that there are ways as humans that we can find peace in different things. And if for someone that is this song, it's great. 

Despite saying that I will now ignore my own advice and continue indulging this conversation. Because just as people can find peace in simplicity, I find there are few things as delightful as being a nerd.

The argument you make regarding the 'ossification' of old artists in Pakistan certainly has weight. And it is not a particularly Pakistani phenomenon, of course it happens everywhere. But the market dynamics of Pakistani music make it particularly hard for new artists to be heard just because their music isn't pushed through common channels: TV, radio, sponsored campaigns and so forth. For me, as a listener, the disconnection is much more personal. The artists I look up to most to help me make sense of my life and to give me energy everyday to show up, and to dare to take risks and to do new things are artists that have done that themselves. That refuse to rest in the comfort of where they are, perhaps recognizing that that is a trap, and instead try something so crazy and different that it appears suicidal, until it works. And perhaps in the life I have chosen for myself, finding places where you can make a life by being a nerd, the idea of simple hits runs counterintuitive to the stereotype of how my own frame of life is constructed. And the only thing that shakes one out of this frame of reference is something that takes the world by storm, this sort of larger-than-life reaction. I love that you pointed this out, that part of Taher Shah's folklore now is not just the song but how much it caught our imaginations and there is something amazing about that.

Ahmer: I love what you wrote about being offended when accused of overthinking, but eventually realising that it also fuels anxiety when left unchecked. Indeed, the ability to "overthink" culture is often a delightful escape from overthinking your own issues, and thus it feels more personally violating when someone accuses you of it. 

I found something very interesting in what you said about risk taking as the opposite of simple music. I think that while I agree with this in terms of how I view music, I also find myself thinking about South Asian music's heritage. While risk-taking is not a desirable trait, complexity at an almost unfathomable level is. The idea of every raag having its own time and season, or of finding the divine through music, or the infinite nuances between notes are all such compelling ideas. I should add quickly that I am completely jaahil about South Asian music as a discipline, but anyone can see that it is an artform that demands so much absorption and rewards multiple levels of engagement. 

Now I have no formal connections or knowledge of South Asian music but I do think that we have inherited some of those expectations of high culture, or culture as complex, as critics. And perhaps also why we can be enthralled when someone seems to oppose every rule to it not by design but by pure self-expression, i.e. Taher Shah. 

Zeerak: I'd like to believe that, that even when listening to pop our heritage predisposes us to prefer complexity as is reflected in South Asian classical. A friend wrote back on an earlier post about Nusrat, and commented on the need to "reinvestigate this dynamic" of Pakistani artists only being taken seriously after they collaborate with Western counterparts. And your suggestion here seems to be a counterpoint to the idea that we may have inculcated a post-colonial sense of primitivity about our own practices. Many pop artists of our generation – Junoon, Strings, Noori come to mind instantly and of course the whole idea of Coke Studio – have been lauded when they took on elements of local music to add to their Western style. 

And I agree also that a predisposition to appreciate this sort of complexity also leaves us open to being captivated by anything that flagrantly breaks the rules. For the longest time my Twitter bio was 'Afridi fan'. Shahid Afridi always made me smile primarily because his entire approach was seemingly to do everything wrong. And maybe I just wish I had that level of self-confidence. 

We can continue this indulgence for ages, I really enjoy talking to you. But for the sake of showing some empathy with our readers, I think you should take the last word on this entire discussion. And I hope you'll consider doing this again.

Ahmer: During my thesis for my master's I came across the idea of intertextuality in the context of cultural exchange. The basic theory was that elites in the peripheral regions are the first to adopt the latest trends from the core metropolis. Over time, this adoption becomes more influenced and affected by local ideas, until it reaches the point that it becomes a new form with enough cultural cachet that the peripheries now project it to the core, which begins to accept it. A great example of course is Nusrat himself, who grew up in a time when films and commercial music in South Asia had taken a lot from western music. But when Nusrat began taking that fusion even further in his collaborations with Michael Brooks and Eddie Vedder (which you wrote so well on) it was the moment where South Asian culture was now introducing this new form of music on mainstream western culture. 

I tend to view Pakistani pop in the same way. What began as straight up western pop with Urdu lyrics soon saw more use of eastern instruments - particularly Junoon using tablas and doing the jugalbandi - which was then taken to another level by Mekaal Hasan and that era. And then Coke Studio continued that under Rohail Hyatt and by the time you reached Season 6, the Pakistani sound they had created was big enough to start incorporating music from other cultures and create something that was impacting the global mainstream. It remains the huge What If of Pakistani music - what if Rohail had continued after Season 6 in the direction he was going in? Where would be now? 

This was a huge pleasure for me. Hope people reading it enjoy it too - am more than happy to do this again. 

Editor’s Note: I’m linking below not to Taher Shah’s latest single, but to his first: Eye to Eye. Which is unquestionably my favorite.