"Norwegian Lakri": Thoughts on Cornershop
"She's the one that keeps the dream alive" --Cornershop "Brimful of Asha"
"IBM ta Coca Cola, muther fucker, Lak laam" --Cornershop, "We're in Yr Corner"
Though I'm enthusiastic about Cornershop, I've always had the nagging feeling they are a novelty act: that is, they use lead singer Tjinder Singh's difference as an Indian as a gimmick to distinguish themselves from scores of other retro indie-rock bands. I've been listening to the new Cornershop CD _Handcream for a Generation_ for a couple of weeks in the car, trying to make sense of it.
And last night I went to go see Cornershop at a club in Philadelphia. Cornershop raises questions about multiculturalism and hybridity in rock. Do they represent tokenistic rock multiculturalism? Are they in fact a 'political' band, as many of the profiles of the band in the American media have suggested - - despite their rather obscure, postmodern lyrics? Or is it more correct to say Cornershop mines Tjinder's Indian/Punjabi/Sikh heritage for a commercial gimmick? What kind of cultural work does Cornershop in fact do? To narrow these questions down, I'll pose the terms rock multiculturalism and hybridity, for the moment, not as synonyms but as opposites. On the one hand, rock multiculturalism implies appropriation, cultural mining, and gimmicky alterity. Hybridity, on the other hand, might suggest a more level kind of mutual borrowing -- criss-crossing patterns of appropriation. If rock multiculturalism is a crass, minstrelish mainstreaming of a minority culture for commercial reasons, hybridity might be a symbiotic exchange between two parallel traditions not driven by commercial success. In these terms, we might pose the question as follows: does Cornershop perform multiculturalism, or does it enact hybridity? At the show last night I realized for the first time that I like Cornershop as a band quite a lot, but I'm deeply troubled by Tjinder's performance of his own ethnicity for reasons that I find hard to explain simply. In the live show, they use the sitar on most tracks, and it works quite well. Since they have evolved into a Big Rock Band that likes to jam in concert, the sitar makes a distinctive melodic line in what would otherwise sound like loud rock-mush circa 1975; it keeps our interest up. There's the insistent sitar, the heaviness of the three (!) guitars, the conga player, some samples and synth- noises, and a powerful funk bass sound (I believe the new bassist used to play with Oasis). To my ear, it makes for a slight eclectic improvement of working rock n roll in the classic rock vein (i.e., the Rolling Sones) -- a pretty decent-sounding rock band overall.
For me then, Cornershop's hybridity problem is really about Tjinder's vocals, specifically the rock songs where he sings in Punjabi over the guitars, and the English-language songs where he references immigrant life and racial stereotypes. As I've been listening to my Cornershop CDs this afternoon, it occurs to me that it's a much more complex and interesting problem than we see with other cases of rock/pop multiculturalism (such as the awful rock/rap trend). It's also more dynamic than the stale mainstream pop-meets-immigrant subculture appropriation in the Bhangra remix scene. It might be worth briefly naming the different registers in which the Punjabi songs in particular operate:
--Masala. You don't need to know what he's saying, but isn't it nice that he's Indian? And a rock star? Isn't it wonderful? (I want to snarl at the hippies with their glazed, inclusive smiles -- crude, idiotic multiculturalism.)
--Distraction. To the non-Punjabi speaking audience, Punjabi lyrics are a kind of interesting distraction. It reminds people that, for the most part, we don't know what most rock singers are actually saying in their songs (and maybe we don't care). Sonic Youth, in concert, might as well be singing in Punjabi because no one can understand them anyway over the insanely loud guitars.
--FOB Performativity. Tjinder is generally pretty much motionless and slouchy on stage, but when he sings his Punjabi songs he seems particularly tense, both in voice and in body. Though he's hardly theatrical, we could read the stiff delivery as an act, a projection & channeling of the F.O.B. possibly lurking within himself, stiffly singing earnest devotional songs ("Jullunder 6 AM"), or the Punjabi version of maudlin Beatles Orientalism in "Norwegian Wood." The stiffness is part of the projection of a stereotypical FOB persona. The question then becomes, does Tjinder claim that persona for himself -- does he have these two sides of himself that variously find voice in the two languages (and postures) in play? Is he truly located at the hinge of languages, musical (rock/raga) and spoken (Punjabi/English)? Or does he use the persona precisely to separate himself from it -- is he mimicking the silly songs and unhip phraseology of more recent immigrants as well as his (our) parents, while remaining comfortably ensconced in a second-generation, "cool" vantage point?
--Irony. It could all be ironic: i.e., Tjinder is clowning on India for the amusement of Anglo-American (and perhaps also Asian) consumers. The vocals on the Punjabi songs on the albums are all heavily distorted, whereas the songs in English are recorded with his voice 'straight.' To me, this suggests that the use of 'Punjabi' as an effect, but without an interest in communicating the content of the songs, even to Punjabi speakers! I've been particularly puzzled by the song "Jullundar Shere 6 AM," which are credited to Tjinder on the album notes, but which sounds very much like it's borrowed from Sikh (or I'm thinking Hindu -- I don't remember the Gyanis talking about the "sai rasta" very often at Gurdwara) devotional tradition. The lyrics here are so earnest in their content -- in contrast to the jokey, ironic English language tracks -- as to make the ironic reading hard to dismiss. Here's the English translation (with Punjabi in brackets here and there):
Brothers and sisters, we are speaking of the true path [sai rasta de bolde han] / Some people say that the right path is simply for the purpose of getting to heaven / But the right path is not just for the purpose of going to heaven / Everyone should consider this path & Truth / The right way is different for different people / Let us live in union - then we all win, win /And Lord we sing your praises CHORUS: We aim to achieve [Prabati kariye] / And of hurt let us worry [Ta Dukha to me darie] / Tell of your hurting my beloved [Ta Das teria dukha mera laad] /They say tell me about your sorrows my beloved [Kende Das teria dukhia mera laad] Your forgiveness is wanted [Teri asees chaunde]
I find it puzzling that the climax of the song is this plea for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? I might speculate that forgivness is needed, not from God but from the Indian community; not because of a sin committed but because of the abuse of religion in this song! But perhaps that's a little too dark...
--And finally, citation. Even where's there's some investment in communication of the Punjabi, the randomness is of a piece with the Indie-rock emphasis on collage and citation. Just as most of Cornershop's audience doesn't hear the content of the Punjabi songs, few people listening to Beck recognize the references to Os Mutantes and the Tropicalia scene from 1960s Brazil (incidentally, Cornershop opened for Beck on their last U.S. tour). As with Beck (or Stereolab, or the Magnetic Fields), the audience may not know the citation, but is satisfied by its awareness that a citation is being made. This is the annoying side of postmodernism; it may not be as bad as vapid multiculturalism, but it's pretty bad.
The Punjabi songs, then, are a rather unpleasant muddle -- not hybridity but bad multiculturalism. Perhaps the English songs save the band? I see Tjinder's English-language songs as a much more natural and casual pose, even when he references immigrant experience or Indian politics ("We dont care 'bout no Govt warnings, / bout their promotion of a simple life /And the dams theyre building/ Brimful of Asha on a 45"). "Brimful of Asha" works so well because it has a great hook and a charming pop sound; it also perfectly captures the diasporic nostalgia for playback filmi music. "She's the one that keeps the dream alive" is the moment where the song crosses from nostalgia to the documentation of a struggle for survival (and also where it crosses from ironic postmodernism to politics). I see a similar moment in the explicitly political Asian Dub Foundation song "New Way, New Life" (off the overlooked album _Community Music_: "Every Sunday morning in front of the TV/ Recording with a microphone / Naya Zindagi / Gurdas Mann, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan/ Kept our parents alive/ Gave them the will to survive"). So while I would insist that Cornershop is not a 'political' band just by virtue of some essentialist politics of representation (i.e., just because he is a brown-skinned lead singer with a strange-looking Sikh name), Cornershop's English songs show there can be politics even in postmodernist play.
I might end with a thought on the new album -- what to make of it? For one thing, the Punjabi elements seem to have receded in favor of a rather trendy 1970s funk revival. Here, the standout tracks are "Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III" and "Wogs Will Walk," both of them loud guitar tracks in English. There's still a good deal of formal eclecticism elsewhere, including a goofy dub track with patois/Jamaican dub vocals, and a house music cut that just seems like a joke. But none of the musically more adventurous tracks actually have the quality of _songs_ (which may itself be an ironic commentary on the state of electronic music today). There are a couple of tracks towards the end of the CD that are in Punjabi, but one of these isn't really a song so much as an announcer's voice-over, and the other is unremarkable. And so we are left with the two power guitar tracks I mentioned earlier: "Lessons learned..." and "Wogs will walk." The former is the single released in Britain, with a trashy video (you can see it on www.cornershop.com), and an expletive in the chorus that makes me wonder how it could possibly ever be released here: "Overblown supershit!" Still, it's a clever and catchy condemnation of media (especially, record industry) excess, with only the slightest of embedded references to the Indian counterpart to hollywood -- Amitabh Bachchan, superhit = supershit. Finally, I read "Wogs will walk" in the vein of Hanif Kureishi's _The Buddha of Suburbia_ -- a sardonic, naughty critique of selling out one's "Mowgli" alterity for dollars.
Perhaps on their latest record Cornershop solves the hybridity problem. But if so, they do it by burying the positive attributes of difference in favor of harsh self-critique. Tjinder wields the word "wog" the way black nationalists used to use the word "nigger" against fellow African Americans they saw as Uncle Tommish. He's aware of the word's bloody history as a racial epithet used by Europeans to dehumanize people of color, but he uses it anyway as an in- house term of critique even if it deepens those very wounds. It's clear that Cornershop wants to distance itself from what might be called 'woggy' rock multiculturalism, but how invested is the band in the harder work of building hybridity? Sadly, not very.