A Soundbyte of Rage: Popular Culture and the Political in a Networked Age
Shouting, chanting, murmuring, whispering, and of course, choosing to remain silent are all ways of making oneself heard. And if we agree that people entertain the political in, as Stephen Coleman argues, a range of “embodied, kinaesthetic, and paratextual ways,” then surely listening for the political is an important part of the story. However, while there is a wealth of scholarship on music and politics (protest music in particular), we are only now beginning to take into account a wider range of sounds, their circulation across media platforms, and varied listening practices that are reconfiguring political culture in different parts of the world. In fact, academic writing on the symbolic dimensions of mediated activism has so far privileged the visual over the aural. This essay focuses on the circulation of a catchy tune, a sound-byte from a popular Tamil film song, Why This Kolaveri Di (why this murderous rage), across various media and political contexts in order to explore how emergent media practices involving a contagious sound can make a particular issue or topic salient and, under the right circumstances, even eventful, in a contentious and raucous public sphere.
Why This Kolaveri Di was released on YouTube in December 2011 as part of the marketing strategy for a Tamil language film 3. Shot and edited in a ‘making of’ style and featuring the lead actors in the film, the director, and the music director, the song became popular within a few days. In part because of the quirky “Tanglish” (Tamil + English) lyrics, and because the lyrics appeared on the screen thus making it easy to follow and sing along, the song became popular among non-Tamil speaking audiences in India and across the world. Over a span of 2-3 months in late 2011 and early 2012, individuals in different parts of the world uploaded cover versions and remixes. And not unlike the circulation of other global pop hits such as Gangnam Style, Kolaveri Di also inspired flash mobs in different cities.
What was different in this case, however, was how the song – the catchy opening line and the phrase Kolaveri Di in particular – was re-deployed to express political views. Kolaveri Di became a potent symbol for public expressions of rage against corruption in various government and corporate sectors. It resonated with a wide swathe of people whose political imaginations had been fired by an anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare and brilliantly orchestrated by Arvind Kejriwal, the political and public relations face of the movement who has since gone on to launch the wildly successful Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party).
While some individuals created videos set to the Why This Kolaveri Di tune but re-wrote the lyrics to express their frustration about political and corporate scams, others used the phrase KolaveriDi as a Twitter hashtag and contributed to the formation of a networked public that cohered around the anti-corruption campaign. Not surprisingly, there were several videos featuring Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal set to the tune. Not to be outdone, mainstream news media also emerged as key players in stoking this sentiment of rage. Popular parody and satire news shows such as NDTV’s Gustakhi Maaf (Pardon the Transgression) produced segments that featured major politicians including the ruling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi singing – again, to the tune of Why This Kolaveri Di – about their own political (mis)fortunes. As one news story put it, “KolaveriDi became an anthem for [Anna Hazare’s] supporters across the country to express their anguish against corruption.” Even as the anti-corruption movement faltered, the Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party tapped into this sentiment of rage to launch its own campaign for the New Delhi legislative elections in 2013.
This is, in some respects, a familiar story. We now have a growing body of scholarship on the surprising ways in which symbols and icons from popular culture are at times deployed with great effect in the political sphere (cross-ref Guobin Yang and Min Jiang’s essay). In the Indian context too, the phenomenal expansion of mobile and digital media since the early 2000s has transformed the ways in which popular culture mediates the political, weaving political talk and engagement into the rhythms of daily life. However, we have tended to pay attention to the proliferation of screens and visual dimensions of public political discourse while ignoring the accompanying changes in the soundscape. In fact, the curious thing about the KolaveriDi case is that the videos accompanying the song were pedestrian if not altogether boring. KolaveriDi proved effective because it was a catchy sound-byte. A sound-byte is what raged across media platforms and resonated, bitingly so in some instances, with the sense of rage that had come to structure political discourse in 2011-2012. The question then is, what work does a sound-byte do that is distinct from visual symbols and icons?
Roshanak Kheshti’s analysis of the aural dimensions of post-election protests in Iran in 2009 offers a way forward. In her account of Iranians expressing dissent against the state, Kheshti draws attention to a video entitled “Inja Kojast” (“Where is this place?”). The video is powerful not because of its visuals but rather the nightly rooftop chanting that made up the soundtrack – “All-Ahu-Akbar…Inja Kojast?” – and that was taken up in numerous other anonymous videos circulated via YouTube. Kheshti suggests that we think of the nightly chanting as “sonic performatives, cries that, through the deployment and recontextualization of an Islamic Revolutionary ethos, have the capacity to enact a counter-politics” (p. 53).
Following Kheshti, I would argue that KolaveriDi can also be regarded as a “sonic performative.” Taken up in remix videos, news parodies, Facebook pages and posts, re-deployed as a Twitter hashtag, and so on, the sound-byte KolaveriDi became an insistent question in a political culture shaped by a largely amnesiac, sound-byte and ratings-driven 24x7 television news business. Repetition, as we know, is a key dimension of performance. And the constant refrain of KolaveriDi, I would argue, played a crucial role in keeping the issue of corruption salient in public political discourse.
Further, it is hardly surprising that we do not pay attention to sound-bytes given public distrust of television journalism. Besides, one might respond, a sound-byte is just that – a byte/bite-sized piece of information. How powerful could it possible be, especially one that is, in the first instance, merely a line from a film song? The KolaveriDi moment reveals, on the contrary, that a sound-byte can serve as a potent vehicle for cultural and political expression. Moving across spatial and linguistic boundaries, and deployed in conjunction with other symbols, sentiments, and discourses already in circulation (rage and political corruption, in this instance), a sound-byte can serve as a bridge between the popular and the political.
 Stephen Coleman (2014). How Voters Feel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
 For a sustained critique of the neglect of sound and listening practices in scholarship on the public sphere, see Kate Lacey (2013), Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age, Cambridge, UK: Polity. A notable exception to the privileging of the visual, see Charles Hirschkind (2006), The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, New York: Columbia University Press. For essays on the aural public sphere, see Jonathan Sterne (Ed.) (2012), The Sound Studies Reader, London: Routledge.
 Roshanak Kheshti (2015). “On the Threshold of the Political: The Sonic Performativity of Rooftop Chanting in Iran,” Radical History Review, Issue 121, pp. 51-70.