RIP, playback singing stars?

05 Aug,2013


By Madhu T


Everyone knows the song, but nobody knows the singer who sang it. Perhaps nobody really cares. In a country where film music has always been a Lata gem or Rafi magic or more recently a Shreya or Sunidhi number, the transition is a bit unsettling for many music lovers. “My young daughter often plays new songs at home. When I ask her for the singer’s name, very often she doesn’t know who sang it. It makes me very sad because we grew up listening to our favourite singers,” says Alka Yagnik, a National Award-winning playback singer.


“Can you name a singer from the recent hit film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani? Or can you remember any hit songs of mine or my contemporaries in the past two years?” asks Babul Supriyo, who has sung many memorable romantic numbers. Go ahead, quiz your antakshari friends about the voice behind the latest hit and all you would get is an indifferent shrug or a raised eyebrow or, if you are lucky, an informed guess. “It is not that there are no great melodies or hits these days. It is just that the importance of the singer has diminished in the past few years,” says Supriyo.


His friend, playback singer Shaan, the voice behind many soft romantic hits, recently called playback singing obsolete. Just like telegraph and post, he said. He refuses to talk about the issue anymore, as he feels he has done “enough talking on the subject”, but he says categorically that technology has changed the singing scene drastically. It’s RIP playback singer superstar.


Press Rewind

Let’s take a quick two-minute history lesson in playback singing. Anyone would score a straight A in this history lesson because one can almost count all the playback singer-superstars in independent India on their finger tips: Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi (the voice of heroines and heroes in the ’50s and ’60s); Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar joined in the ’70s. The four of them dominated the scene till the ’80s. The ’90s would see a bunch of new singers like Kumar Sanu, Anuradha Paudwal, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy entering the fray. Shaan, Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan were the last superstars who occupied the spotlight in the past decade or so.


Sure, you can expand the list further if you are aiming for an A-plus. Add a few honourable names like Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Manna Dey, among others, who carved a niche for themselves, or even Shabbir Kumar and Mohammad Aziz. However, the scene is entirely different today. The male playback scene is an open field. As Supriyo pointed out none of the prominent singers – such as Nigam, Shaan or Narayan – are heard regularly these days. A succession of singers is delivering hits and disappearing at regular intervals. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s nasal voice was the essential ingredient in many romantic pseudo-Sufi songs until two years ago, before similar high-pitched voices of both Indian and Pakistani origins replaced it. Mohit Chauhan was the toast of town until recently, but everyone is now talking only about Arijit Singh, the male voice behind the season’s biggest music hit Aashiqui 2.


As far as female singers are concerned, Shreya Ghoshal is still holding on, but only just. Sunidhi Chauhan is not heard much these days. Yagnik says it is really unfair on new singers because nobody gets a chance to establish their identity through their voice and style of singing. “The trends are changing constantly and singers are made to sound different all the time. They really don’t get enough time or opportunity to truly establish themselves,” says the singer who has been around for three decades. Perhaps that is exactly what composers are wary of: one can’t mess around with an established voice much.


The Tech Tweak

“This new trend is not because society and films are changing. It is mainly because of digitization and technology. Thanks to technology you can change the scale, pitch, voice, sound… A singer is not that important anymore,” says Shaan wistfully. Anu Malik, a seasoned music director, says the change (though not very visible earlier) has started with the advent of internet. When people started accessing music videos across the globe at the click of a mouse, things started changing. They started listening to different sounds, different kind of music from across the world, different kind of voices, he says. “People started downloading new sounds. It changed the way music sounded. Also, with the help of technology you can change the way a person sounds or even alter the pitch,” Malik adds. Supriyo says a few software such as Melodyne that cost less than $200 are the game-changers.


“It is not necessary that the singer has to pitch correctly or have a great voice. Anybody can sing from the comfort of his home and sound like John Mayer,” he says. It is all about tone now, says Nipa Nag, a budding musician. “Your neighbour won’t like the way you sound, but you would definitely get a break if the music director likes the uniqueness of your voice. That was not the case, say, 15 or 20 years ago,” she says.


A postgraduate in performing arts and a classically trained musician, Nag says she is planning to give a shot at western vocal training to see whether it will add variety to her repertoire. Abhijit Ghoshal, a playback singer, jingle composer and music teacher, says, “Earlier, you would go on practicing endlessly and wait for the break. But that break would never come. People used to call it the politics in music at that time. The truth was nobody was ready to take the risk with a new singer those days,” he says.


Happy Ever After

So what happens to these one or a dozen hit wonders when they fade away from the playback music scene? Well, they are living it up. Most of them make money on stage shows in India and abroad. “They are all doing well and the trouble is that most of them are doing so well and have enough money to start a business that they don’t have enough time to practice their craft anymore,” says Raju Singh, a music director. Abhijit Ghoshal says he also faces the question whether he makes enough money. “I tell them ‘look, I bought this house in Mumbai with money I earned from music’.”


As for veterans, they are also doing very well. “Some show organisers wanted to save a few lakhs and used new singers for their shows. But they soon realised that you need experience and talent to hold the audience’s attention for two hours,” says Supriyo. “Now they are back to senior singers.”


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One response to “RIP, playback singing stars?”

  1. Himanshu Agarwal says:

    I did not get the point one tried to make in this post. What about the recognized pool that is entering the fray through a never ending stream of reality shows on both national and regional channels. What about the slant of different banners to give new singers a chance (say Vishesh films). What about regional superstars…(Lopa Mudra, Usha Uthup…)There are many aspects to playback singing which deserve a post of their own.

    This post is a beginning. Speaking in the music parlance, this is a title track, we’ll await the complete album…