I wanted to write a few thoughts on the latest season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, which as the show will remind you constantly by screaming it whenever possible, is SEASON 4. I have no idea why what season it is is important in the slightest, but this speaks to a larger issue with the show – which is that the show’s editors, and seemingly directors, exhibit little understanding of what parts of the show are actually important to the audience. I’ll continue cribbing in a second, but for the appearance of some structure, here are some assorted notes from good to bad.
The bands: This has been, at least in my view, a great year for Pepsi Battle of the Bands. The show has unearthed some really good bands, and I’d argue the crop this season has been better as a whole than the two years preceding.
Originals: I’m glad the show’s format has allowed for bands to play more original songs. It appears that in the audition rounds bands are asked to play one cover and one original – though I’m not completely sure (this frustrates me immensely and I’ll come back to this in a second). Most bands however seem to have had their original featured on the show. The first main round continued with originals. Covers took over in the second, and mashups in the third (where it appears the instruction was to mash up an original and a cover, unlike at least one previous year).
Judges: Strings have really grown into their roles as judges. Fawad and Meesha play their role as the cool kids well. It was pointed out to me that the judges’ comments are nearly always supportive, and if not positive then certainly not defeating. And in the age of TV that we live in this is not a given, so I really quite appreciate it. My favorite moments are when judges disagree, and their discussions say a lot about how the judgments are subjective and how the judges (and the artists) think about the music, which I think is the most compelling part. Also kudos to Fawad for pushing for better lyrics.
Knockout format: I’m not sure how I feel about the new knockout format. Arguably it makes for exciting viewing, but again this is the sort of argument that I assume flies inside internal meetings but we have no way of actually proving. The interesting bit for me is to see how the format affects which bands stay in the game. And I’d suspect that the presence of the Danger Zone allowed Bayaan to stay in for longer last year, and the lack of it might have hurt Uraan this year.
What irks me however is that we are not quite sure why this format was changed. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the show doesn’t owe us an explanation here, which is fair. But it is the show that made a big deal about growing the number of bands making it to the knockout stages to be 12. So I feel like if we’re going to make a big deal about how the show’s format is changing, then we’re also owed an explanation into the meaning of the format itself. Which leads me to more questions. How does the show decide who goes up against whom? Again, this could be not a big deal but then the show makes it a big deal when offering the winner of the second knockout round the chance to choose their opponent in the third.
The makeup and the wardrobe: I might be being a little unfair here. It was just a bit jarring to see the bands pre and post makeup from the audition to the knockouts. And the stylists’ formula is often predictable and obvious. Give everyone jackets and shiny accessories, and all the men that’ll have it, point their hair upwards. I just feel there’s perhaps an opportunity here to let the bands kind of develop their own visual identity a little bit more. And maybe that’s not what they are quite thinking about yet, but perhaps the show can help with that. It’d be nice to see some more ideas here.
Mashups: I really don’t get why bands are asked to do this. On occasion a mashup can produce smiles, and it can be quite heartwarming to have one song you like reference another song you like. But you can’t force these things to happen. And a part of me feels Pepsi instituted mashups because Coke Studio does mashups. And Coke Studio does mashups because Atif did one incredible set of mashups in Season 2 and we have been trying to recreate the magic since.
Band interviews: These have to be the second worst part of the show, and there are no points for guessing what the worst part is. But the unfortunate thing about the band interviews is that they can easily be the most compelling part of the show without much effort.
At the moment the bands are asked to give a synopsis of what happened in the last episode (a bad, unnecessary recap), explain how they felt (which bands tend to not be really good at since they show how they felt in the moment but the show has an annoying habit of soap-operafying the moments to be slow-mo and making the emotions out to be bigger than they are, hence fooling them into thinking there’s a lot more content here than there actually is), say a line or two about what they are performing, and then engage in cringey trash talk towards the band they face in the knockouts. On occasion the they are also asked to yell ‘the battle is on’, which please Pepsi, stop asking them to do.
I’d like to get rid of this entire segment. I’d argue that for people that watch the show the recap is unimportant, but if it’s really important include it in the beginning. What I really want to know is who the band is, how they write their music, who their influences are, what they play, some glimpse into their other music, their story. Show me who the band are as humans, and chances are when it comes to the finale I’ll care more about each band and be more likely to vote (and god forbid ‘engage’ with the brand), and just care more about everyone on the show. Ideally we’d have some off-set footage of the band as well, but I understand that’s an expense. So I’ll take the band talking, but not talking to random points given by the production team but about themselves.
The host(s/ing): I’m unsure what to blame here, the direction, the style in which the hosting is conducted, or if the people called in to do the hosting are just not catering to my taste. The barometer here is whether the show would be better or worse if the hosts were cut out completely. This is an easy answer for me. I imagine the argument to have the hosts in is that they provide the show with energy and star power, but that shouldn’t come from the hosts at all. It should come from the bands, and barring that, the judges. I can’t help but feel that the show will be better without the hosting as it is today, but I also can’t help but feel that someone in Pepsi’s marketing department or the production team thinks the show would be less appealing without it.
Some thoughts also on each of the bands that made it to the knockouts:
Skehlaj, Seismic Tremors: Both bands presented interesting tests of how far the show was able to stretch its preference for genre. To play heavier rock, you have to be exceptional, which I don’t think Skehlaj was on the day. But they’re definitely interesting. Seismic Tremors I felt were a very interesting concept that failed to live up to the hope pinned on them. While (at times devotional) rap in the middle of a rock band can be interesting to think about, in truth the band was too loose compared to everyone else on the show.
Mousiqa & Jhoot: Both songs for both bands were quite fun to listen to, but this show over-indexes on vocal quality.
In general I felt the best 8 performances went forward.
The Starzone: I quite liked them, and was rooting for them being the only band with a woman. Strategically I think the band made an error going dark in the tone of their songs, especially in the first knockout. In the second knockout the odds were against them facing Auj. Their performance was perfectly competent, but the quality of bands this year made it necessary that each performance have one awe-inspiring moment, which sadly their cover of Ajnabi did not have. Note that I am not saying this criteria is correct, but that the show as it is requires that each song have some sort of epic moment. And while musically this may not be optimal, strategically it is given how the show seems to work. (Interestingly Kaghaz from last year also hit a wall going dark.)
Marjaan: Did I have a soft spot for these guys. Rang Ja is beautiful. There was nothing wrong here, just that the style of the band meant that they weren’t going to win a face-off against another band that had more prominent instrumentalists. I’d gladly listen to an album, it would be great.
Uraan: I heard more than once that this band reminded people of the Vital Signs. Anyone being compared to the Vital Signs is blasphemy to me, but I see why the comparison arises. Uraan’s sound is soft, mellow, largely in happy sounding scales (even if the song itself is not exactly happy), and the songs have simplicity and vocal clarity. I’d love an album. Their undoing, like the Starzone, was that the song had no epic moment. I liked the song better for it, but it’s just not the winning strategy.
Neon: Oh boy this band. Certainly fun to watch, but the fun got old even in the three songs this season. I loved the guitar riffs, and the humor in the songs was enjoyable. But the cover of Mera Mahi was right to be written off. I think in general bands that participate in the show think of covering well-known songs, often classics. It is easy to make the argument that one should never touch classics, inevitably someone will make the argument that the original was ruined, and the risk is too high. Occasionally bands can pull of a miracle, but I don’t know if that’s a chance worth taking. My ideal strategy would be to cover a song that had promise but was recorded with obvious missing pieces. Which gives bands the ability to simply iterate on an already good song by adding the missing pieces in a way that lets them have their own voice. So if you were to cover something by the Vital Signs, I wouldn’t cover Ajnabi, I’d cover Har Chehra, or Bazaar.
I felt it fair to say the best 4 bands went to the third knockout.
E Sharp: These guys are great, and have had a following for a while (which includes Meesha (cool points to Meesha for keeping tabs of not-so-famous bands)). After Sikandar Ka Mandar’s absence from last year’s post-audition stages it was good to see an underground favorite on the show. And I’m glad they performed their hits. I was a little perturbed by the renaming of Sarkari Mulazim to Awami Mulazim, and wondered whether that was mandated by the show. The band even referred to it with the original title in the interview before the performance. Their cover of Neend Ati Nahin was great, showing why the strategy I laid out above can be easily ignored. Frankly I had been preparing for them to be in the final, and had to rewatch the episode a number of times to understand why they didn’t make it – their cover was good, the drum circle was the epic moment, the national anthem was the cherry on top to give the show the feel good moment. A bit over the top perhaps but can’t fault the strategy. If they were failed by anything it was the strength of their original, which had potential but was held back by simplistic lyrics and perhaps another round of editing. I think they made the right call picking Aarish as their opponent in the second knockout. Both other bands had two gears, and if there was one band you’d reckon might fail to push that higher gear it was Aarish. But it became a game of margins in the end.
Black Hour: The sort of harder sound that’s just controlled enough to work on this show. They had a full-on Coldplay moment in the middle which was quite fascinating. But in general a solid band that knows what they’re doing. Daulat and the Tanhaiyan/Tanhai mashup were solid. They were never going to beat Auj, but hard to hold that against them.
The selection of the top 2 was a surprise to me as I saw it, but on rewatching I can see why.
Aarish: It’s hard not to root for these guys, and perhaps between E Sharp and them, Aarish needed to be in the final more. The covers have been smart, the originals have been solid. Often their music is not my personal favorite, but it is hard to deny that they have soul. The judges seem to see something really profound about their work, and I’m inclined to trust them here.
Auj: This band is good, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s hard not see them win. The vocalist’s two gears are incredible, and at 21 it’s hard to believe he has this control. Which is before we get to the rest of the band which hasn’t put a foot wrong. Yeh Angraizian was their loosest song for me, and Strings thought they’d be proud to play it. So who am I to talk. And if you haven’t heard their cover of Pappu Yaar, it’s worth seeing.
I’m usually one to provide an overarching narrative, or meta-analysis, in which to fit Pakistani music. I don’t have much of that for this show, except that I hope the show-runners do a sort of meta-analysis themselves. What does the show want to communicate? What story is important to tell? And what are the principles/tenets that help provide the framework for these choices? Just watching, it is hard to fathom what they are, and when I can think of reasons they are not good ones. I think the music scene is better off with the show around, I just think it can do much more that’ll be good for the music and for Pepsi.