Of course it’s always easier to break a difficult market if you can get a couple of high-profile collaborators on board. Enter two of pop music’s most polarizing contributors: will.i.am and Pitbull. Ask most people — including me — and we’ll tell you that both tend to detract from otherwise serviceable pop songs with throwaway raps about being flush with cash, women, and international clout. Still, they appeal en masse to a lowest-common-denominator segment of music consumers which, again, seems like the most sensible way for Chopra to play down her other-ness and get a direct line to the widest reach of American listeners.
Chopra’s first two singles are a complicated proposition. Both are bogged down by gimmicky, over-the-top nods to her Indianness — enmeshed with flabby, milquetoast lyrics. The video for the will.i.am-assisted “In My City” clumsily strives for the East-meets-West aesthetic:
Her latest single “Exotic,” however, is more problematic.
Its chorus — “Cool me down / I’m feelin’ so exotic / Yeah right now / Hotter than the tropics / Take me there / Mumbai, Cuba, baby let’s go / L-l-love all the way to Rio” — is enough to make most Indians, NRIs or otherwise, feel uneasy. To make matters worse, a sleazy masculine voice periodically punctuates each refrain with “Desi girl.” There is never a moment during this otherwise-passable dance anthem that we’re not reminded of Chopra’s otherness — namely, her Indianness. But it’s not Chopra’s fault that she’s peddling pop that’s so cringe-worthy. She knows her market well enough to consent to playing into the age-old trope of the “exotic Indian culture.” Chopra wants to be a pop star and she’s playing into a motif that has already been tried and tested.
At The Rumpus, Anita Felicelli wrote about the problems facing South Asian writers trying to enter the American marketplace:
In a back issue of an Indian-American magazine I read regularly, I notice that one of the reviewers of books and films is white. I am irritated when she says, in her review, that she wishes she were Indian, too, that she would change her name to sound like an Indian writer, because it would be easier to get published by one of the big six—Indian fiction is hot right now!
Um, no, not unless you want to write sari and mango novels. Not unless you want to play into the stereotypes of what American people seem to want to read about India and Indians: that it’s all rape, poverty, plucky slumdogs, arranged marriages, mystical, yoga retreats, spiritual revelations, corruption, and elaborate descriptions of North Indian food. A hodge-podge of the sacred and profane packaged for easy consumption, rather than serious consideration.
This same argument can be made across other media/entertainment markets in America. If you’re someone wanting to break into the American market and you don’t enjoy the inroads that an established performer like Mindy Kaling might, you have few options. Indian-American culture/media narratives currently exist in a binary: Those which romanticize Indian identity and those which altogether seek to downplay the other-ness thereof. Up until a few years ago, the latter category didn’t even exist and American audiences were fed a never-ending stream of Indian narratives bent on accentuating the politics of arranged marriages, culture clashes, and generational differences, with an odd accentuation on food, fashion, and flowers. On the other hand, whether you’re watching “The Mindy Project” or the “Harold & Kumar” films, the other-ness of Indian identity might be hinted at, but it rarely serves to move the story along.
Pop music is a different beast. In pop, performers don’t enjoy the ability to build context by telling a story. They immediately jump into the deep end and are pressured to build an audience right away. The best way to do this? Cater to a market with an existing palate. Chopra might be huge internationally (way bigger than Kaling, if we’re being honest), but she’s unknown in America. Going “Exotic” is the most reasonable option she has given her bombshell appeal.
She told the Wall Street Journal about filming the music video for the track in Miami: “The song is called ‘Exotic’ so I wanted to keep it just that…[i]t’s very dance-heavy, and in India, that’s what we do in all of our movies, so it definitely has an Indian flavor to it.” We may shake our heads at Chopra’s usage of the phrase “Indian flavor”, but to its credit, “Exotic” manages to play up both Chopra and Pitbull’s cultural other-ness with surprising success. Bollywood and reggaeton fuse together like poetry in an otherwise unpoetic track.
“What are you?” “You look so exotic.” “You just have…really awesome features.” “Where are you from?”
If I collected pennies each time complete strangers uttered these phrases in lieu of proper, respectable greetings, I’d have a fortune to rival Warren Buffett’s. And yet, you can imagine a performer like Priyanka Chopra walking into a crowded room, fielding all kinds of remarks of this nature. Chopra’s likely not a stranger to this kind of casual objectification. So, instead of alienating audiences, she’s going to take their expectations in stride. “Exotic” in this context is less a weak cash-in on sexuality than it is a smart, winking nod to the very people likely to make these kinds of outbursts.
Indian entertainers are caught within a tricky Ouroboros of Western expectations: Critics claim to want something disruptive, but then expect — to Felicelli’s point — the same tired stew of tropes. If we’re going to blame Chopra for trying to play into a motif that’s already worked to establish a baseline identity for Indian culture in the American market, why not tread into the upper echelons of popular culture and blame authors like Bharati Mukherjee, Arundhati Roy, and Jhumpa Lahiri for pigeonholing Indians into a narrative of ennui-ridden other-ness?
A hard truth: Chopra and Lahiri’s contributions to popular culture are equally exploitative of Indian culture. Critics may be more loath to slice Chopra’s music than Lahiri’s stories because one services the model minority myth while the other relies almost entirely on sex appeal. While “Exotic” and “In My City” are disposable and tacky, they represent attempts to carve out a market share in a very-crowded and xenophobic entertainment industry.Then again, to say that either Lahiri or Chopra — or any other South Asian performer marketing to an American audience — is exploiting their culture is silly. This culture is theirs — is ours — to do with as we need to. Lahiri and Chopra are just two extreme examples of how a couple of performers have tried to tackle a market that is hostile to other cultures.
At the end of the day, we can’t fault Indian performers for playing into the extant narratives established by the Western media; if Chopra wants global domination via pop music, she very well knows that sexy outfits, vintage Bollywood samples, duets with name-brand rappers, and earth-shaking dance beats are going to get her closer to conquest than trying to reinvent the wheel á la M.I.A. The Top 40 crowd that Chopra’s gunning for doesn’t want something revolutionary — they have no interest in music that explores identity politics; they just want to dance.
That Chopra is playing into the threadbare, unimaginative trope of oversexualized Indian otherness is indeed bothersome; but it works for her. And it works for me too, as an active critic and consumer of pop music. I can buy the idea of Priyanka Chopra, the pop star, in the context she offers with songs like “Exotic.” It’s not coerced; it’s not awkward. It’s a direct translation of her Bollywood legacy for an American audience.
Chopra knows that in stepping into the limelight for American audiences, her brownness will be the first thing everybody notices and remarks about. The color of her skin and her heritage will, unfortunately, guide the discourse around her body of work. So, rather than letting critics and consumers over-explain the arc of her pop career, it makes sense for Chopra to take that power away from her critics, from an American market that will seek to other her from the outset, by way of proudly proclaiming, “I’m feelin’ so exotic.”
Rohin Guha is a writer currently living in the Metro Detroit area. His work has been featured at Flavorwire, Tumblr’s Storyboard, Gawker, New York Magazine, The Rumpus, and many others. His first book, “Relief Work,” was released in 2010 by Birds of Lace. He firmly believes that pop music will save the world.