* * *
She messes up her eyeliner, then her eyelashes, lip-gloss and finally, her brow mascara. Between each misstep her face cartoonishly wobbles with the soundtrack, a melody sung in a high-pitched voice climbing up and down a chromatic scale; as strings and tabla echo the notes, her bewildered face stares into the camera.
Filmed, edited, and uploaded on TikTok by @bellapark1310, this is one of about 3.9 million posts that use the South Asian song. Like many tunes behind trends on TikTok, this clip has a complicated genealogy. A Nepali TikToker, @kalyansunuwar, uploaded the sample last May from a YouTube performance by the popular Pakistani singer Sarwat Gilani, itself a cover of ‘Pankh Hote To Ud Aati Re’ by venerated Indian film singer Lata Mangeshkar, featured in the 1963 movie, Sehra.
When uploading it, @kalyansunuwar wrote, in Nepali, of how much he “can’t get enough of this voice no matter how many times I listen to it,” and punctuated the sentiment with two heart emojis. Sunuwar titled the post “hahahahahaha” after the singer’s breathy syllables. Perhaps that destined the clip for comedic purposes.
Almost instantly, people began using the clip behind videos in which they comically encounter a painful, frustrating or anxious situation. They bang their toes on tables, sip or eat something too hot, entangle their hair in a vacuum cleaner. In rhythm to the music, their face jiggles with the distortions of TikTok’s “wind tunnel” effect. Famous TikTokers like pop star Jason Derulo and YouTuber James Charles jumped on — and thereby accelerated — the trend.
Commenters — no surprise — piled on with complaints against “insensitivity,” “racism” and “appropriation.” Responding to @bellapark1310’s post with the cosmetics catastrophe, one wrote, “I really don’t want to be that person but this trend is kinda offensive to Indian culture & their classical arts,” but still signed off with a tiny heart. A 15-year-old from Delhi — where TikTok is banned — discovered the trend on Twitter. “I found that really disrespectful towards my culture, since they were laughing on it,” she said in a Twitter message. “That’s Indian cultural music.”
As if living within its wind tunnel effect, TikTok itself undulates between admiration and derision, not knowing where to land in the cloudy debates over the importation of tunes whose provenance users may appreciate, research or remain entirely clueless about.
Byrd McDaniel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University, says circulating a tune like this without acknowledgment or understanding “can reproduce this idea that the world’s cultures are simple raw material for white consumers in the United States.”
But TikTok traded this commodity globally, not just with white people. It’s impossible to tell who or how many, among the millions who posted such videos are white or even Western. Who knows if Indians would have taken part were TikTok available to them. While such practices do seem most egregious when powerful people thoughtlessly pluck treasures and trinkets from wherever they please, treating the cultural archive as an open stockpile has become universal, at least among those with Internet access.
The song’s original singer is a stalwart of Indian cinema’s foundational “golden era,” according to Dr Mandar V. Bichu, who runs the website Lataonline, dedicated to Mangeshkar. She sang countless tunes for over 1000 films throughout her career. Her singularity and skill attracted thousands to her concerts worldwide, and saw her awarded India’s highest civilian honor, Bharat Ratna, in 2001. She’s like the Aretha Franklin of India.
“When it comes to white people pantomiming along with popular music from India, we have to understand it relative to longstanding forms of cultural appropriation, theft, and exoticism, all of which appear across U.S. popular culture,” McDaniel says.
In the case of Mangeshkar, that exoticism dates back at least to 1959, when Time magazine featured her in a short piece that simultaneously recognized Mangeshkar’s impact in India and mocked her. It presented her as “barefoot Lata” with a “sweet, childish voice.”
The article’s opening line sets the dismissive tone: “Hollywood would not look twice … Tinpan Alley might cover its ears.”
Derulo, Charles and the hoards who took part in the TikTok trend have not looked twice either, but simply picked up the tune for a lazy gag. Charles removed his video after being scolded by viewers, however.
McDaniel says it’s the platforms that should be questioned, as blaming individuals is mostly unproductive. “Platforms are not neutral conduits for cultural practices. They persuade people in certain behaviors,” he says.
But Bichu sees another side. The popularity of the song — even clipped out of context and used for a joke — is a testament to Mangeshkar’s impact, 57 years after she first performed it. “By my age you’ve seen it all, so you don’t become really angered with this kind of nonsense,” he says. In 100 years, nobody will remember the TikTok trend, he adds. But people will still remember Mangeshkar.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.