The 2020 jukebox: Strains of a pandemic
We take stock of the music scene in Tamil cinema, this year: the trends, highs, lows, and how the industry survived a pandemic
Taylor Swift once said that while people have not always been there for her, music always has been. If there’s any one year in which this quote assumes special relevance, it has to be this year. A lonely year of forced isolation and uncertainty—not just for the future, but for human touch and connection—2020, to put it mildly, has been tough on everyone. It’s a year that reiterated the significance of artists and creators, whose professions seem to be thought dispensable. Holed up in our homes, almost all of us found solace in music, much more than we have been used to. The melodies and lyrics filled up the void for emotional connection we all longed for.
The first three months of 2020 were one of peace and stability. It is the music from those months that accompanied us as we stepped into the pandemic. The most memorable of albums from this time would be Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack for Gypsy, which allowed us to live the life of a nomad with his songs—again, of vicarious use once we got shut in. There’s also Oh My Kadavule, which had a refreshing, breezy album by Leon James, of which ‘Kadhaippoma’ and ‘Haiyo Haiyo’ would be my top picks. And then, there’s also the ensemble album of Dharala Prabhu which had some interesting music from multiple composers—Anirudh Ravichander, Sean Roldan, Vivek-Mervin, Inno Genga, Madley Blues, Bharath Shankar, Kaber Vasuki, and Oorka. The title track from this album, composed by Anirudh Ravichander, was the go-to song for the many lockdown weddings that happened this year.
2020 has been a big year for Anirudh, and such an observation assumes more significant proportions when you notice that it’s an extremely unkind year for many other composers. He kicked off the year with the generic Darbar, but then came the Master storm. What seemed like usual Anirudh fare before Master made way for ‘Vaathi Coming’ on my playlist. It just had to. The track became my quick fix during the insufferable days of mental exhaustion. This eventually got replaced by Santhosh’s boisterous ‘Rakita Rakita’ from Jagame Thanthiram. The raw energy of the song is bonkers, in a good way. And interestingly, this crazy dance number also doubles up as an inspirational/motivational song. The album's second single, ‘Bujji’ (sung by Anirudh), is also equally addictive, but Rakita Rakita wins the game, thanks to its lyrics. Lyricist Vivek gives us some relatable couplets, like ‘Enakku raja va naa vazhuren; edhuvum ilenalum aaluren’. The words gain immeasurable depth when you place them in the context of the pandemic, where lives and livelihoods continue to get annihilated. But the song leaves you with renewed hope: Usurukku iruku vera enna venum, ullasama irupen. Can another verse capture the human resilience, the human ability to find happiness in tragedy, more accurately?
Despite Anirudh and Santhosh doing good work, the year truly belongs to GV Prakash Kumar who has continued his fine form from 2019. Soorarai Pottru is easily the film album of the year. There is a bit of everything in perfect measure in this album: angst, companionship, love, lust, ambition... It is a testament to the quality of GV’s music that one feels a tinge of disappointment when these songs were shortened in the film. He also put out his first international album, gave us a fresh title track, and an adorable, nostalgic mini-soundtrack for Sudha Kongara's short film in Putham Pudhu Kaalai, Amazon’s Tamil anthology (A shout out to Govind Vasantha’s ‘Kanna Thoodhu Poda’ in Gautham Menon’s segment as well.) Speaking on anthologies, Tamil cinema's latest flavour du jour, Netflix's Paava Kadhaigal also has interesting music to offer. The Gaana Girl’s pensive ‘Kanne Kanmaniye’ and Justin Prabhakaran’s lilting ‘Thangamey’ deserve mention.
The pandemic changed the game for creators in several ways. And for a while during the peak of all the chaos, we got songs on the coronavirus almost every week. Out of the rubble, a trend emerged: that of several mainstream music composers taking to YouTube to create a consistent stream of non-film music. Some of these composers already have a history with indie music, like Hip-HopTamizha who dropped the ‘Naan Oru Alien album’. Sean Roldan, who started with a band named Sean Roldan and Friends, began his YouTube channel, and launched a series of originals. He also made the catchy, irreverent number ‘Idli Chutney’ in collaboration with Think Music. If you are keen to stretch your body after a long zoom call, the ‘maavu araikkara’ step in this song is quite the musical exercise. Ghibran, who has consistently dabbled within the indie space, dropped spiritual and mainstream singles across the year. This year even marked Yuvan’s return to non-film music, probably his first time after the 1999 album, The Blast, with the composer releasing an Islamic indie named ‘Yaa Nabi’.
It is interesting that Tamil music, especially concerning our cinema, is most popularly distributed, and consumed as videos on YouTube. A song is not just a song anymore, but a lyric video. Not surprising then that one of the biggest ‘music’ moments this year was the 'Rowdy Baby' video crossing the one billion mark on YouTube, the first South Indian song to achieve the feat. However, we might have to wait and see the effects of this trend on the creation and consumption of our music.
Nevertheless, the biggest takeaway for the year 2020 would be a famous line from Jurassic Park: Life finds a way. We could not meet each other, conventional methods of creation could not be relied on, a legend (SP Balasubrahmanyam) left the nation in tears... And yet, amid all the loss, grief, and doom, art has soldiered on, much to our relief. We found new ways to create and consume, tweaked our methods, and adapted to every uncertainty that came our way. Life will find a way, and so will art and music. As jazz icon Louis Armstrong once famously said, “What is music, if not life itself? And what would this world be without ‘good music? No matter what kind it is.”