It was a sequence of just two lateral, crab-like steps that took me from Pete Townshend of The Who to one of the more obscure corners of melophilia. So it turned out that Soli Sorabjee, whose avuncular smile imparts a sunny, SoBo charm to Delhi’s Jazz Yatra, is not the only man with that name in music. For here was Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, an elusive half-European composer who had scored some of “the most technically difficult piano works of the 20th century”. The notations onscreen have furious lines and squiggles. Nigh on three decades of obsessively stalking music hadn’t even alerted me to his existence—and here he was, aswim on YouTube, of all places. Two more steps, and another creature of the deep, Roslavets. When someone is monikered as “the Russian Schoenberg”, you know you’re in some plutonic sea.
A full inventory of chance encounters would screw up my word count. But one had long abandoned that initial disdain for this video-sharing jukebox, with its schlocky name, for a very good reason. YouTube inverted the entire logic of scarcity and desire that drove us on hot, lonely afternoons to tiny cassette shops, trying to score a Tarapada Chakraborty, or a Henry Cowell CD. And it did so more pervasively than the cache-and-carry economy of downloading—for there, you still stuck to the familiar. As YouTube hit maturation over the years—it turned 10 last year!—its catalogue of billion-plus videos grew around one premise: the rarer a piece of music out there, the higher the chance that some ex-hippie in a shack in Tennessee would put it up. All you had to do was give yourself over to aleatoric bliss. Learning that Yusufsaab could actually hold down a tune with Lata is so much better than your 2016threplay of RD’s klepto-classics.
So now to driving the household up the wall with The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, Polwechsel, UNESCO’s Gagaku videos, Blues 101, How to Travis-Pick. But wait…music isn’t the only thing there. There’s How to Speak Korean with Prof Oh, and How to Identify an Igbo (for other Africans), there’s beef rendang tutorials, there’s lymphatic drainage, Tabata workouts, ChiWalking, oil-pulling and enough wellness to make you live till 3016 AD, there’s the Chomsky-Foucault debate and bell hooks Speaking Freely, there’s that odd jaywalk through Jayan-Jayabharathi moments before one dives into MDR vaults and Tiger Varadachariar. Phew…I contain multitudes. Schizoid many times over. There’s plenty scopophilia, and cosplay cavortions, and a viewing history that’s nothing short of a historysheet. In between, the TV turned into a computer. Out goes ArGo! Click on Apps and let the Chabrol filmography, Chris Marker shorts and Clouzot unspool on your 32-incher. Via the good offices of Chen, Hurley and Karim, the ex-PayPal boys who cooked up this cosmic storm, this online society of the spectacle, with an inane Me at the Zoo in 2005.
Ritwik Ghatak had that laconic quip on Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat(1896), one of the early Lumieres, that it’s about “one machine watching another”. A similar cusp moment: we’re all human-technology symbionts now, they say, “thinking systems whose selves are spread out over biological brains and non-biological circuitry”. Still, there’s a laser line drawn between the ages. Whether you get your kicks from Buster Keaton or war documentaries, from inter-war jazz, Dylan playlists or Non-Stop Yesudas, you’re still essentially doing retro, taking something that already existed out of the archives. The millennials, on the other hand, have grown up watching visuals created for YouTube.
My 17-year-old dotter gives me the lowdown. This is a mode unto itself, with its own genres: gaming, beauty and makeup, sketch videos, reaction videos, prank videos (“most of them are douchebags”), vloggers, quirky science mavens (VSauce: 11 million subscribers), niche ones like Primitive Technology. Their eponymous creators, the YouTubers, are into the second generation! It even boasts a burnout in Kevjumba, a Taiwanese-Yank “who’s turned into a Hindu sadhu”. Nigahiga, long-time record-holder at 18.5 mn, is the Bob Beamon of YouTube. The Swede pewdiepie (48.8 mn) is the Usain Bolt. Cult K-pop releases tot up hundreds of millions of hits—Canetti’s ‘increase pack’ right there. And when Zayn Malik, a Brit boy band’s Pak-origin singer, said “pyaar” to a fan, the comments section resembled the LoC, with teenage verbal artillery sounding suspiciously familiar (“Omgg…that’s Urdu”…“no, Hindi, your ancestors were Hindu”). Plus ca change.
We who lived in our clay-and-wattle adobe huts of music may miss the “sense of owning” in everything being held in a shifting, impermanent commons. But isn’t this a more accurate conceit for culture? The comforting thought is, when Drumpfinator finally presses that button, there will be a fully annotated social history of humankind up there in some digi-cloud near Saturn, where Jimi Hendrix can pause and rewind to see just what the heck that young Mexican busker did between 3:01 and 3:07 secs
Sunil Menon is deputy managing editor at Outlook
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print