In the 1990s, when I was extensively covering the then burgeoning local pop music scene for an English language daily, I was convinced that if one can politicise certain corners of the music scene, one might then generate an alternative young urban middle-class consciousness in the new generation.
In my naivete, I thought this consciousness while being imparted by certain music acts may make the new generation of young middle-class urbanites question the hollow and hypocritical brand of morality and nationalism that the new generation of young Pakistanis inherited from the 1980s.
Nevertheless, in my youthful enthusiasm, I forgot that the end of the Cold War had begun to unleash a new era requiring a whole new way of thinking.
I feel silly now about the way I ridiculed certain commercial pop acts for being non-political, because the new truth was that from now on, even the most apolitical act of modern art and action, no matter how commercial, would work as a bulwark against a mindset in a society that was fast converting itself into an insecure, intolerant and introverted set of people.
Various major pop and rock acts of the time cringed whenever I criticised them for lacking political content. They vehemently defended corporate sponsorship in music and found my pleas for protest music as being unrealistic and even ‘Marxist’ in nature. ‘We’re not politicians,’ they insisted. ‘We’re musicians!’
They were right. But now more than a decade later, it sure is quite a sight watching many of the same people suddenly jumping on a rickety protest pop bandwagon — but I’d say 10 years too late.
Many of them are already in their late 30s and early 40s, and this sudden birth of ‘revolutionary’ fever breaking in and across their ageing veins, is, at best, sounding like a strange (albeit melodic) expression of a wobbly midlife crisis!
To begin with, there have been very few pop or rock musicians in the history of popular music who have also been astute students and commentators of politics.
One can actually count the good ones on one’s fingers: Bob Dylan, Roger Waters/Floyd, The Clash, U2, Billy Brag, Bob Marley… too few and far in between.
In Pakistan, I would like to point out former Junoon leader Salman Ahmed, whom I found to be quite well-read in matters of politics. Local are also a good example, but I would struggle to name a few more in this respect.
The truth is, by the late 1990s, I had started to backtrack on my own idealistic understanding of the music-politics fusion.
I had gotten deluded by my own work in this context not only due to the fact that I was engaging with the pop scene on a rather naive and overtly ideological level, but also due to what I saw was happening to a lot of musicians.
As our democrats went to war with one another, and the end of the Cold War suddenly rendered leftist thought inconsequential and in utter chaos, the new generation either fell lock, stock and barrel for the growing role of large multinational corporations and consumerism, or, on the other end, many of its members plunged into various number of compartmentalised outfits of faith that emerged from the fringes and onto the surface.
A large number of urban middle-class young men and women fell prey to all the so-called spiritual hoopla floating around at the time. Things like the Tableeghi Jamaat, Farhat Hashmi, Hizbut Tahrir and many other market-friendly religious groups began penetrating and making inroads into the middle classes, also gunning for pop stars and famous cricketers.
However, many musicians who did not fall for this repackaged version of orthodox and ritual-heavy faith ran into the arms of that great ‘liberal’ pretender: General Pervez Musharraf.
Thus, here lie the roots of the kind of exotic ‘political’ narrative being peddled these days by the likes of Ali Azmat, Strings, Noori, Atiqa Odho, etc. These are apolitical urban middle-class products of the Zia era, who then became the darlings of corporate manoeuvres in the 1990s and then (in their soft middle-age) became the enthusiastic mouthpieces of Musharraf’s duality-thick liberal-conservative mantras.
These were urbanites that were socially liberal but (ironically) they began to see this social liberalism as best served by the kind of conservative establishmentarian politics practiced by haughty military dictators.
It was this kind of orthodox pro-establishmentarian politics (and its paradoxical urban partner, i.e. elitist social liberalism) that began to feel threatened by things like the (albeit paradoxical) Lawyers Movement and the arrival of populist democracy from 2006 onwards.
This was a threat that suddenly generated the emergence of certain establishmentarian apologists (such as Zaid Hamid) who arrived cleverly packaged as hyper-patriotic occidental ‘rebels,’ who used conspiratorial trickery (if not simple intellectual thuggery), and a highly mythical take on Pakistan and Islamic history as tools and wands.
The underlying mission of such ‘rebels’, however, was no more than to safeguard the battered image of the political-military establishment, and in the process project the economic, social and political failures of the establishment as the doings of its various (largely imagined) enemies, mainly India, the US and strange sounding ‘Zionist’ outfits.
It worked… for a while — enough to encourage certain sections in the military establishment to continue generating this warped political narrative through the ever-willing mouths of small rightwing political parties, certain TV anchors and showbiz icons.
But the problem is that in the last few years the said establishmentarian narrative falls flat on its face every time the security/defence establishment is either caught napping or bungling during a terror attack, or worse, is alleged to have actually been accommodating the madness of certain extremists in the name of ‘gaining strategic depth’ (by proxy) in the region.
That’s why, though one can say that the issue of ‘corruption’ and drone attacks are certainly worth worrying about, they are unfortunately being used as red herrings by a cynical establishment trying to shift the blame of Pakistan’s statist, political and social failures entirely on mainly elected politicians, or on erstwhile external enemies.
What is even more bizarre is that those media personnel, ageing showbiz ‘icons’ and cultish politicians who are being used to dangle such establishmentarian red herrings, are doing so in the self-deluding guise of gung-ho clean-‘em-all revolutionaries!
Very surreal, indeed.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2011.