Rock Music in Post-Liberalization Bangalore

A review of Rock Bands/Rock Brands: Mediation and Musical Performance in Post-liberalization Bangalore, by Chloe Louise Coventry.

In Rock Bands/Rock Brands, Coventry addresses the manifold conflicts that arise in the discussion of the rock music discourses, scenes, and authenticity in the context of Bangalore as a global city. While her research is situated within the field of ethnomusicology, readers interested in communication and media studies, popular music studies, and contemporary Indian expressive culture will find her approach to be interesting and accessible.

In the Introduction, Coventry argues that any discussion of a local scene must also account for the transnational discourses that accompany an international music genre like rock. These discourses raise problems for musicians when they develop transnationally-inflected material for local audiences in ways that might be deemed “derivative” or “authentic.” As such, she situates her work in the disjunctures that accompanied post-liberalization and post-satellite India (i.e., after market reforms of the 1990s, and after the emergence of satellite television broadcasting international television shows). This period of Indian social and economic history is inflected by the omnipresence of marketing and branding discourses that many rock bands reproduce in order to be relevant to the emerging global middle-class audiences that came to define themselves, in part, through their consumption practices. Thus, even as even as rock imagery permeates brand narratives for a variety of other commodities (e.g. mobile phones, clothing, etc.), the representative brand image is as relevant to rock bands as their sound or performance practices. In India, rock music has not been a topic of much academic engagement, as scholars far more frequently focus on Indian classical, folk, and film musics. Accordingly, she presents Indian rock music as a kind of translocal music scene (as opposed to a local subculture) that can never be fully detached from the musical discourses that consistently crosses national borders through ramified social networks. In order to account for these distributed discourses, Coventry takes a novel approach of blending ethnography in Bangalore as a field site with the internet ethnographies of Facebook posts, blogs, and Internet discussion groups.

Chapter 2 contextualizes this translocal problem in terms of the history of “Western” music in India and its colonial and post-colonial history. She addresses the narratives of rock music with a particular emphasis on the role of journalism in creating this history. Rock fan magazines were foundational in recreating the myths of a rebellious youth movement that would later be adopted by brand campaigns. These discourses glorified rock music as the epitome of Indian globalization, even as it was troubled by discourses of imitation or non-Indianness (i.e., discourses of value to the nation). Coventry notes that this perspective is tied to a larger history of Western music and instruments in India in the post-colonial era, such that the guitar itself was a signature component of the figure of the “West.” Following the introduction of jazz dance bands in the late colonial era (which is also tied to the syncreticism of Indian film songs), she describes how rock music discourses were being performed by English-educated elites in a particular conception of Indian modernity of the 1960s, even if this discourse was not shaped by the same conception of rebellion in India as it was outside India. Out of these practices emerged a symbolic pool of a youth style that returned to relevance in the 1990s in brand campaigns of multinational corporations. It was also tied to a kind of consumerism and class identity that could only be enacted through transnational connections with people who could bring signs of this material culture from abroad (e.g., albums, fashions, magazines). But these signs were also available through the broadcasts of Radio Ceylon and Voice of America, which exposed Indian youth to the sound of international musics. Coventry argues that, in this 1960s period, there was a dearth of recordings and musical instruments to form rock bands. Nevertheless, as Beatlemania flowered in metropolitan Indian cities, colleges desired the performances of local youth bands, even if those bands were not a large part of the pop culture and most disbanded as the college students moved into day jobs.

Chapter 3 discusses the historical phases of the city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), the conventionalization of the local rock scene, and language and cultural politics of the city. Coventry notes that the city has long been bifurcated between Anglo-Indian and Kannada populations that have never been reconciled fully. The former had a distinct British orientation and more relaxed attitudes about leisure, conspicuous consumption, and inter-gender socializing that contrasted with the language and cultural values of the latter. In many ways, Bengaluru was a good place for the growth and development of a transnational music genre like rock, as the tech industry boomed and the transnational labor groups that emerged perceived a kind of cultural capital in maintaining an interest in rock. As in the 1960s, rock music and its fandom were college-based and much of the performative dimension took place at annual rock and cultural festivals that were increasingly commercially sponsored after economic liberalization. Coventry argues that these competitions became a kind of domestication mechanism in which the criteria for evaluating bands led to the aesthetic formalization of performance that carried forward into the development of the scene. Similarly, the post-liberalization efflorescence of rock music schools provided a way for professional musicians to earn an income, but had the additional problem of formalizing rock conventions, even as the expense of attendance excluded much of Bengaluru’s population. At the end of the chapter, Coventry returns to a discussion of the cultural politics of the city in her analysis of the periodic live music performance bans in 2007, 2008, and 2011, when rock music was conflated with the cabaret shows of “bar girls.” As such, the ban on live music was not about music, but part of a moral crusade against alcohol, drugs, and inter-gender mixing that some members of the Kannada population felt were inappropriate.

In Chapter 4, Coventry takes this formalization argument forward by describing the sponsorship of rock bands by corporations and the integration of rock images in advertising in the fashionable areas of Bangalore. Coventry interestingly points to the semiotics of rock imagery embedded in a larger field of commercial symbols that bind rock bands to larger advertising narratives or brand campaigns. After examining theoretical literature on signs and consumption, as well as brands and the values of signs in the context of post-liberalization India, she argues that rock bands gradually became aware that they needed to brand themselves as much as produce music. Thus, as creative entrepreneurs in the mold of neoliberal capitalism, rock bands tied themselves to brand discourses of corporate sponsors, who in turn borrowed rock iconography for their brand promotions. As such, corporate sponsorship facilitated the live music scene in Bangalore in the early 1990s, even as it introduced particular kinds of constraints on the bands’ musical content. After the 2008 recession, however, these brand campaigns shifted to focus more broadly on the Indian market in ways that dispensed with much of the rock imagery, in large part because sponsors felt that that rock tropes were so deeply attached to aspirational and luxury commodities that they did not appeal to mass audiences.

Coventry delves into the journalistic discourses of rock music in India in Chapter 5, paying particular attention to the role of the Rock Street Journal in creating a community of rock aficionados who found themselves in conflict with the MTV discourses of the 1990s about rock oriented to heterogenous Indian audiences. As in other scenes, she points to a consistent animosity between nominally inauthentic “pop” music (i.e., Hindi film song) and authentic “rock” discourses. Yet rock discourses also had to struggle with the problem and production of an “Indian rock” that was somehow authentic to local values. This authentic “Indianness” was inflected by a class problem of rock music and its associations with an upper middle-class, English-speaking elite in ways that never really succeeded for MTV. The chapter goes on to address this problem of an “Indian sound” by examining the narratives of rock bands and reality television. In particular, she analyses the responses made by judges to aspirants on the show Kurkure Desi Beats Rock On. She points to the conundrum of rock music and the ways that it could never completely succeed as authentically Indian for its judges (several of whom had belonged to Indian rock bands). This lack of success was due, she argues, to the limited engagement with local languages and the assumption that incorporating a local language was the central enabling condition for Indianizing a rock sound.

Coventry continues the discussion of the conundrums of an “Indian sound” in Chapter 6 by examining the connections between cover bands and fusion bands and their constraints within the market. She notes in particular that her musician interlocutors were constantly in a double bind, insofar as audiences frequently wanted to hear covers of international rock songs in local performances, yet these same audiences otherwise saw local bands as being merely derivative. Similarly, local audiences in certain contexts frequently did not want to hear “original” material, but audiences were less engaged with original songs of a band unless that band was already established. In other words, cover bands that reproduced songs from internationally recognized artists, for which there was a great demand at bars and at private “corporate gigs,” were viewed as derivative. Fusion or folk rock bands, by contrast, were deemed to have greater authenticity insofar as they produced original music, but local audiences (who were outside of the scene of rock discourses) were not particularly interested in listening to music they had not already heard. In order to get the international success they needed to succeed with local audiences, the bands had to tap into transnational world music discourses to incorporate “Indian” instruments and sounds, branding themselves with an ethnic locality (which in turn meant that they could never escape the double standard of rock, i.e. supersede their ethnicity in ways that other international acts were naturally able to do).

Coventry takes this discussion of musical genre forward in Chapter 7 by addressing the metal subculture in Bangalore and the gender normative conventions that accompany it. After briefly reviewing the academic writing on metal, she goes on to look at the circulation of metal bands and shared fan discourses, especially after the 1990s (when bands began to tour India more regularly). She then turns the discussion to entrepreneurism in metal (i.e. creating the scene) which, as with the discussion of sponsorship described earlier, nicely connects to the entrepreneurship discourse in neoliberal capitalism. Coventry notes, however, that the maintenance of insider knowledge is strongly masculine and heteronormative. As she blogged about the local scene while conducting research in Bangalore’s metal scene, like metal scenes elsewhere, she came to understand femininity was perceived as anathema to fans that was expressed by way of homophobia. This issue welled to the surface in the heavily sponsored Rock N’ India festival, which in 2010 brought in Richard Marx and the Backstreet Boys rather than acts like Megadeath and Iron Maiden. She contrasts this with the emergent, but unsponsored “independent music scene” that attempted to create a “local sound” that depended less upon transnational discourses (e.g. rock, metal, world music), but in a way that was much more difficult to bring to profitability. While a laudable effort, she notes that the creation of an independent music scene is problematic insofar as it was unconnected to other social movements (as opposed to punk, metal, hip hop), which thus limited its efficacy within the city.

In Chapter 8, Coventry reviews the fundamental questions addressed in the dissertation, namely the balance of transnational discourses about rock with local discourses, the problem of developing an “Indian” sound, and the double bind created by India’s turn toward neoliberal capitalism that corporate sponsorship brings with it. Concluding with this last idea, she notes that emergence of the MTV show Coke Studio nominally provides rock bands with a space to expand their audiences, but in practice most of the musicians used by the program are from the film, folk, and classical worlds. More problematically, however, Coke Studio provides one way in which the company can gloss its environmental abuses in India.

Taken as a whole, Rock Bands/Rock Brands provides fascinating insight into the transnational movement of musical discourses and the frustrations that accompany the localization of these discourses. In addition, the dissertation nicely addresses the lacuna of rock music in the study of Indian musics in a nuanced way that complicates the notion of “Indianness.” As such, it will be an important resource not only for scholars of rock music practices in other national contexts, but also for scholars of Indian music more generally.

Jayson Beaster-Jones
Department of Performance Studies
Texas A&M University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork in Bangalore
Musician interviews
Rock Street Journal

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 296pp. Primary Advisor: Timothy D. Taylor.

Image: Indie rock band Lounge Piranha playing at B flat bar, Bangalore, April 10, 2010. Pictured: Abhijeet Tambe and Kamal Singh. Photograph by Chloe Coventry.

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