“Do you like English songs?”
It was my first week in India, in Bangalore, that I was asked this question at a house party by an enthusiastic young woman in her 20s. We hadn't been speaking long.
“Well, yeah, I guess it kind of depends what you mean,” I replied. “Do you?” (I figured her answer would show me what she meant by 'English songs', especially as she was obviously asking me in the hope that I might ask her back.)
“Oh yeah! Let me see: I love Backstreet Boys, Vengaboys...um, Michael Jackson...”
This was the year 2008, in case you're wondering. Fully ten (10) years after Backstreet Boys and Vengaboys were hot tickets.
“...oh, and Akon! He's got such a unique voice.”
Without knowing it, she had presented a neat little illustration of how India perceives Western pop music. At first, I thought India was exactly ten years behind. This would mean that if 1998's Western superhits were gaining popularity in 2008, India's 2009 would see Britney Spears blast back to her 17-year-old self, and in 2010 we'd be treated to another round of Eiffel 65's 'Blue (Da Ba Dee)'.
Much as Britney would love to be 17 again, the ten-year gap didn't hold true. (Which was more in alignment with my wish that 'Blue (Da Ba Dee)' be sealed in a vault and sent to the bottom of the ocean.) In 2009, Michael Jackson's passing meant a surge of fresh interest worldwide, and that very much included India. In 2010, a group of young men on my morning train commute got all excited when they spotted me and, after conferring for a while, started blasting Backstreet Boys' 'Show Me The Meaning', grinning smugly at me for approval. The past had stayed where it was, but India hadn't moved on.
Don't get me wrong. I have a special place in my heart (and on my music player) for terrible pop songs. I need them to evolve, though; to shed their skin and be reborn at least every year or so. To India, Western pop music seems to be a neverending jukebox rotation of Jackson and various groups whose names end in 'boys'.
The thing about those other artists is that none of them have actually come to India. U2, the biggest and richest musical act in the world, haven't yet come here; this Facebook group, among many other online communities, begs them to tour. A contemporary popstar like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry performing in India is still impossible to imagine (although Gaga has dropped tame hints, and Perry last year married Russell Brand at Ranthambore National Park). Perhaps the record is stuck in the late 90s because India sees nothing useful and finding out what's fresh – after all, they're never going to tour here anyway.
But then there's Akon. Hindi music may rule the roost on the Indian charts, but if there's one Western popstar who has offered any sort of challenge to the deeply entrenched Hindi and local language music market, it's Akon. He visited in 2008 to drum up support for his album 'Freedom', then actually performed three concerts last month and spent time in the studio on songs for the Hindi film 'Ra.One'. As a result, alongside the tinny Vengaboys dance-pop on my daily train commute, Akon's distinctive refrain has intruded on an ever-more-regular basis.
If Akon – whose influence in the West has diminished with each passing year since his breakout – can infiltrate the Indian pop subconscious, anyone can. At the moment, the country is so starved of foreign idols that anyone who visits will be guaranteed success; all they have to do is turn up, and they'll sell albums for years. And it's not like India is still the dark continent of decades past; five-star hotels and luxury travel options can be easily arranged. It might be a bit hard to imagine Kanye West booming 'BENGALURU!' into the mic before an audience of thousands, but if they can do it in Tokyo, why not here?