As a Brown woman, I have experienced some harassment over the years. On the mild side, acquaintances have inquired whether I am a Muslim fundamentalist, it has been suggested that I landed a faculty position because I am racialized, and the epithet “Paki” has been hurled at me on occasion. On the extreme side, a Molotov cocktail was placed under my mother’s car after we had an altercation with former White neighbors (they objected to our use of the front lawn, where extended family would sometimes gather for BBQ parties, Bhangra music and card-playing). The bomb never went off. The threat has always stayed with me.
I never had the courage or the chance to respond directly to those tormentors. But when I was an undergrad, I did get to challenge people I believed were perpetuating another kind of racism. My “talk back” came in the form of a spoken word performance called, “An Open Letter to White People Who Love India.” It was, as you might expect, a scathing indictment. The piece critiqued white privilege with regard to tourism, exotification and the cultural appropriation of Indian symbols, culture and spirituality. The lines were sarcastic, the tone sanctimonious, the message pointedly political. In today’s terms, it “called out” my White peers for failing to see that their enchantment with all things Indian was deeply problematic. While I had to worry about racism and Islamaphobia, they got to pierce their noses, meditate to Sufi chants and tone their abs with power yoga. This ethnic fetishization -- as I understood it -- reinforced neo-colonial entitlement, ignored the complexity, heterogeneity and history of India, and situated my culture as a spicy market for White people to browse and savour.
Rashmee Kumar’s article on Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, which is set in Mumbai during the Holi festival, coincides perfectly with the politics of that poem, albeit with more intelligence, nuance and lucidity than my sophomoric rant. In the article, she persuasively deconstructs how the video traffics in orientalist stereotypes of India as a “lush exotic land” peppered with “dingy slums,” “pious, levitating holy men,” and “lanky brown-skinned children.” She condemns singer Chris Martin and the other band members for portraying themselves as integrated, accepted and entitled to share in Indian culture. Beyoncé is given a small amount of leeway relating to her portrayal of a Bollywood film star, because of the “history of cultural exchange between Africa and South Asia.” But she still gets some blame for her complicity in the video’s appropriation offences.
Given my experiences and earlier stance, you might think I would agree with Kumar’s critique of Coldplay (or the many others who launched similar condemnations in pithy tweets or detailed commentaries). And I do, I really do. But I don’t agree wholeheartedly. More like, halfheartedly. Because the other half of my heart has been stolen by Coldplay’s music. As has my body.
Let me explain.
When I was introduced to “Hymn for the Weekend”, it was love at first sound. The words and the melody whirled together in an ecstatic pop symphony that took me out of myself. At the same time, my reaction was visceral: a whoosh in my stomach, racing heart, tingles down my neck, constricted throat, intense pleasure. I had what neuroscientists call “frisson,” or a “skin orgasm” -- a physiological response to music akin to intoxication or sexual arousal. I have since listened to it dozens times, and it consistently has this effect on me. If the song comes on at a bar when I’m with friends, I have to try to block it out, or excuse myself so that I can commune with the tune somewhere in private. I’m afraid I’ll make others uncomfortable with my over-the-top affective response.
Evidently, not everyone was equally enthralled with Coldplay’s hit. In her critique of the video, Kumar mentions the song only once, summarily dismissing it as “formulaic.” That may be so (I don’t know enough about music composition to pronounce on that, one way or the other). But in my view, you can’t fully understand the video without considering the words and melody that accompany it.
The lyrics are not particularly complicated, but are still worth unpacking, to understand how they relate to the visuals. The narrator describes feeling “down,” “hurt,” “low,” “thirsty,” “dried up” and “heavy.” But something or someone has come along to revive him. There are four overarching metaphors that frame the musical narrative. First and foremost, Beyoncé (or rather, the character played by Beyoncé) beckons him, “drink from me.” She embodies liquid healing: as rain, as thirst quencher, and as libation. This leads to the mixed metaphor: “pour on a symphony.” Here music pours over Martin like a healing tonic. Third, a celestial theme recurs many times. Beyoncé is an angel who brings the stars out, puts her wings on him, and together they “shoot across the sky.” And finally, and most prominently, there are the metaphors of intoxication, expressed in a verse (“life is a drink, and love’s a drug”), and again in the chorus (“I’m feeling drunk and high, so high”). These elevated feelings thus appear to be inspired by love -- and given the earlier heavenly references, I understand any suggestions of romantic love to stand in for, and meld with, divine love.
Then there is the music. The research on ‘skin orgasms’ suggests that musical passages that violate listener expectations in pleasant ways can stimulate sonic waves of pleasure, for example through unusual harmonies, or sudden shifts in volume, duration or pitch. A review of the sheet music for “Hymn for the Weekend” evidences some of these techniques. For example, after the line “When I was a river dried up, you came to rain a flood,” the next line (“And said drink from me”) drops an octave and a half, a sudden change in pitch that resonates as particularly intense. Another striking part of the song comes right before the chorus, as the notes steadily ascend while Martin sings, “when I’m low, low, low, low.” This clash of opposites, between what the music is doing (going higher), and what the words are signifying (feeling low), marks another pleasant violation of listener expectation. The song then moves into the chorus, “I, oh I, oh I, got me feeling drunk and high, so high, so high,” sung in the upper part of Martin’s register. For me, this is the most euphoric part of the song -- the climax as it were -- stimulating intense sensation all through my body, and often bringing tears to my eyes.
Explanations of this carnal response can be found in musicology, cognitive science, and sexology. David Huron, a professor of both music and science, states, "When singers sing high and loud, the brain releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, causing a general increase in physiological arousal - higher heart rate, faster respiration, increased perspiration and greater attentiveness." Several pop sexuality theorists also link opening up one’s throat (an essential step for reaching high notes) to orgasmic release. Given the theme of this blog, I will also mention that according to some Indian metaphysical theory on the chakras (in simple terms, transcendental energy centres), activating the throat chakra will stimulate the sacral chakra. Located three inches below the navel, the sacral chakra is the hub of creativity and sexual pleasure. This is confirmed by my own experience; high notes in a song that I enjoy sometimes feel like a lover’s caress.
Some people dismiss Coldplay music as, “shlock” i.e. “corporate radio friendly music of low quality.” Indeed, I have undergone what James Deaville identifies as “taste shaming” because I adore Coldplay (along with other maligned artists like: Nickelback, Pitbull, Taylor Swift and Black Eyed Peas, to name a few of my faves that music snobs love to hate). Of course, as T-Swizzle rightly observes, haters gonna hate hate hate. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it more academically in his book Distinction, which critiques this kind of taste elitism as a form of symbolic violence that reproduces social hierarchies. In relation to Coldplay’s video, I think a dismissal of the song as generic schlock makes it harder to understand how the pleasures of the song (for us fans) relate to, and are enhanced by, the images in the video.
When I watched the video, yes, a part of my rational brain noted the indulgence in certain stock images that recur in the Global North’s representations of India. For example, as Kumar notes, there are a lot of random glimpses of holy figures and spiritual practice.
On the one hand, the critique that such imagery is reductionist and cliched is a valid one. On the other hand, it’s a music video, not a documentary or a drama. I don’t mean to suggest that because it’s “just a video” or “escapism,” people shouldn’t take it seriously. Instead, I believe we should take it seriously, but approach it on its own terms. The music video genre does not generally strive for realism, authenticity or cultural accuracy. Instead, these are fast-cut and disjointed narratives that draw on fantasies, stereotypes and exaggerations in order to intensify the pleasure and meaning of the song. Given that “Hymn for the Weekend” specifically references divine love in many guises -- through angels, romance and spectatorship (more on this below) -- I relish the visually-stunning snippets of spirituality in the video. They correspond to the broader lyrical themes of transcendence and celestial upliftment. Musically, they also occur at significant moments, as when the fire-breathing happens at the beginning of the second chorus (also the final climax in this (skin) orgasmic song).
Interestingly, in the South Asian tradition of Qawwali music, love of the divine is often expressed through romantic and musical tropes, and intoxication signifies spiritual ecstasy. In this small way, the messages and the metaphors of Coldplay’s lyrics fit (probably inadvertently) within the Qawwali poetic tradition. Admittedly, Qawwali is a Sufi Muslim form of devotional practice not referenced in the video (at least, as far as I can tell). Nonetheless, for me -- who grew up listening to Qawwali – the tradition bridged the song with the video imagery in a pluralistic kind of way, an inter-faith response common among us Global North-residing, Indian-origin Muslims.
Along with the multiple representations of decontextualized spirituality, Beyoncé’s role in the video was condemned by a number of critics. We first see her image in a film poster as a Bollywood star. After that, we mostly see her mediated through a movie or television screen. This self-referential technique emphasizes that her role as Indian goddess-muse is a fantasy borne out of movie-making (and video-making) magic. This subtle self-awareness of the constructedness of her character did not deter critics of the video, who saw her Bollywood characterization as a blatant example of “cultural appropriation,” in that she assumes a role normally reserved for South Asians.
Cultural appropriation is often defined along the following lines: “a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” While I grant that American culture, in general, is dominant over Indian culture, this characterization misses the specificity of Bollywood on the global scene. The movie-making industry in India, and specifically Bollywood, is not some downtrodden cultural manifestation struggling to stay alive in the face of Global northern hegemony and transnational capitalism. It is a force to be reckoned with. Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world, sells more tickets than Hollywood, and its stories are exported to every continent. It blithely (and possibly illegally) appropriates other cultures and specific narratives into its lavish epic form. When you take this into account, the notion that there is something harmful about Beyoncé assuming the role of a Bollywood actress seems a bit of a stretch. Perhaps more concerning, it may reflect an essentialist over-identification with victim identity, such that anything produced in the Global South, no matter how much money it makes, or how many cultures it infiltrates, is still vulnerable to being co-opted or tarnished by the big bad West. Are we sure we want to endow the Global North with such mighty force, while disavowing our own cultural power?
Then there is the obvious context of skin colour, and the significance of Beyoncé as a Black woman. Much as I might enjoy casting stones at White folks, it needs to be acknowledged that India is rife with anti-Black racism, and Bollywood is plagued with shadism, particularly in relation to leading female characters. Because of this, Beyoncé as a Bollywood star makes an important and empowering intervention. And as Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Natassja Omidina Gunasena point out, featuring a dark-skinned woman as worship-worthy was experienced as deeply affirming for many South Asian women, who are normally bombarded with the message that you have to be fair to be ‘lovely.’
So what about the portrayal of the fair fellows who make up the band? While their self-representation was not accused of direct appropriation because they don’t cast themselves as desi, they were still condemned for the ways they interact with the city and its people. At the start of the video, Martin positions himself as a visitor riding in a taxi through the streets of Mumbai, in awe of the sights around him.
A later scene has Martin arriving at a cinema, where he sits riveted by Beyoncé playing Rani (meaning queen) amongst an audience of Indian moviegoers.
The fact that two key moments feature Martin’s gaze mediated, once through the taxi window, and the next at a movie screen, calls attention to his role as voyeur. In other words, the video does not hide the fact that he is an outsider who, to a certain extent, is making sense of India through his own projections.
Martin’s rapture with Mumbai reflects the “honeymoon” phase that privileged travelers often experience when they first arrive in a new city, and are overcome with wonder and joy as they absorb every detail of their surroundings. This connects to his enchantment with Beyoncé’s character. In both cases, spectatorship love is expressed towards a foreign city or a dazzling celebrity that has provided comfort and joy. While the lyrics on their own do not make any reference to tourism or fandom, the video clearly suggests it. In this way, the music video can be interpreted as an exploration of the ways that exposure to a new culture, or the mesmerizing power of artistic expression, can be experienced as spiritual enlightenment as well.
Other scenes have Martin and his mates walking through the Holi festival, a springtime observance that is celebrated, in part, by people throwing colored powder on each other. The band members quickly become integrated into the festivities as young boys gleefully splatter them in a rainbow of colour. Stained from head to toe, Coldplay performs their song while the boys do some awesome breakdancing. Many critics complained that the Coldplay members had no right to show themselves accepted into this celebration. I’m not sure why this is a problem. Any outsider who has visited India knows that this is one of the most hospitable places on earth. And though this may be a Hindu holiday, it is not unusual for people of many faiths and backgrounds to participate.
Furthermore, given the Bollywood theme of the video, a scene of Holi makes a lot of sense. Indeed, Indian flicks love to feature musical sequences during this vibrant celebration. As with the fire-breathing, and later the fireworks, this display of dancing color intensifies the ecstatic elements of the music.
So, what is the effect of this video on power relations? Some critics insist that the video reproduces classic orientalist fantasies of the primitive/civilized binary, and thus serves to justify neo-colonialism. I’m not persuaded. When everyone is drenched in the same array of colours, for me, the insider/outsider dichotomy is symbolically dissolved. On a very pragmatic level, the comments that accompany the YouTube video indicate that it operates as a multi-sensory tourism ad. People from all over the world have attested to their love of India and their desire to visit. Granted, tourism is a double-edged sword that can have many negative effects. But until the workers of the world unite, at this point, it’s probably a good thing to entice globetrotters to spend some of their money in the Global South. And there were, in fact, many desis in India and across the diaspora who wrote of their positive assessments of the song and the video.
Nonetheless, I realize that “Hymn for the Weekend” may not be everyone’s cup of chai. I accept that the arguments regarding appropriation and privilege have merit. At the same time, I don’t think they tell the whole, or even the most important, story. If the melody or the lyrics don’t resonate with you, the video may appear a sterile cultural artefact. You can’t feel the meaning. For those of us moved by the song, our own corporeal responses can inspire other more positive and complex interpretations.