I turned 30 last year, and I realized that for the last seventeen years of my life, AR Rahman’s music has been a constant companion to virtually everything I’ve done. It was what converted me from a casual listener to a rabid music enthusiast, and it is to this music that I map most memories of growing up, my college years, a lot of significant events of my life. Every Rahman release would be ( and still is) a mini-event, the only thing beating it would be the anticipation of what would come after this one. While I cannot confess to having listened to *every* song produced by him, the number comes very close to his complete output.
But hey, seventeen years is a long time, man. While there was a time that I listened exclusively to his music alone, it also got me to sample new composers in the Indian film music scene, and even go beyond my comfort zone and try out different genres – Qawwali, world music ( I remember hunting down and buying Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ just because it was recommended by Rahman, in a Filmfare interview, then the only way to keep track of what was on the cards for the next few months for the Rahman fix), good ol’ rock and roll, ambient music, EDM – and lots and lots of soundtracks. And while my tastes in other genres and kinds of music has morphed and evolved in various directions, I find my predilection for Indian music often gauged by the strict barometer of the standard laid down by Rahman. (And not just Indian music, mind you – there is an instant liking to some international artistes based on how Rahman-like their music sounds on the first hearing – Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ comes to mind, as does Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’ ) Which is to say that, every new composer or artiste I listen to has to stand up in a podium while I, with my halo of Rahman-love shining brightly over my head, pass judgement – the result is more often than not a thumbs-down.
Last December, while walking through the streets of LA, the album that played in my ears was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Now this is another of those college-level albums that was internalized to such an extent that I could not only sing along to all the songs, once upon a time, but also murmur the words that Kurt Cobain says in between song. True confession, I would do that, and even laugh along with the studio audience. During boring classes, I could play the album in my head all the way through – ah well, you get the picture. It was an album that I heard so much that after some time, I realized that I need not listen to it again ever again. And I didn’t, for quite some time – I remember hearing it again sometime in 2003 or 2004, and then relegating it again to the “been there, enjoyed that, time to move on” pile. But listening to it this December was a revelation. I frequently found myself being surprised by which song followed another, I could not remember most of the lyrics, and Cobain’s dry banter between songs actually had me smiling not by force of habit, because I found them genuinely funny. Needless to say, I loved that feeling.
So the deal with not listening to Rahman’s music for a year is this – I want to get back that unfamiliar feeling of discovering something new about an oft-heard song. The number of times I’ve heard ARR’s discography borders on the ludicrous ( check out my last.fm profile for the extremely skewed statistics) . I seem to use his music as a stress-busting choice or a mood enhancer, and sometimes plainly as a default playlist filler when I run out of ideas of what I want to listen to. In a way, Rahman has become comfort food, and I don’t think I am too comfortable with that idea. Hence, this experiment.
Sure, there are new releases lined up – I believe Gautam Menon’s latest release is already out ( Vinnaithandi Varuvaiya) and Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is coming soon, but hey, I’ve heard Justice, Leslie Feist and Katie Melua three years too late, and even now, discover artistes whose prime albums were released many years ago. There is no pressing need for me to listen to a new Rahman album other than the fluttery feeling that accompanies the first listen. The fear of that experience being marred by reviews and other people’s opinions is why you need to listen to the songs on the day of release, because you can be sure that every other blog, column and radio station would be talking about it in the weeks to come. Ah well, one has to live with that.
This does not mean I will run away if you play a Rahman song, or that I will cover my ears and go “la-la-la” if ‘Chiggy Wiggy’ starts playing in the mall when I am shopping. It’s just that I won’t actively add a Rahman song to my playlist if I can help it – I can spend that time listening to something new, something I haven’t heard before. It’s embarrassing to know that I hadn’t heard Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album until a few weeks ago, or hadn’t succumbed to the pure joy of listening to Lady Gaga’s Fame. Maybe seventeen years later, it’s time to go cold turkey and hey, if things get really bad, I am sure I can just press play in my mind.