I used one helpful article on some of the recent trends in Indian popular music, by Peter Kvetko. It's called "Can the Indian Tune Go Global?" (Drama Review 48.4, Winter 2004; not online, though people with a subscription to Project Muse can download it here). Kvetko went to a conference on "IndiPop" sponsored by Planet M and MTV India in Bombay in 2000.
The attendees at the conference seemed to be most preoccupied about the prospect of an emerging global audience for the newish genre of non-filmi pop music -- by artists like Lucky Ali, Colonial Cousins, Adnan Sami Khan, and Stereo Nation. If Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias are so huge in India, why can't Stereo Nation be as huge in Puerto Rico? This question doesn't interest me all that much (I'll believe it when I see it), but Kvetko's explanation of the musical distinction between Indi-Pop and contemporary Hindi film music is helpful:
The inﬂuence of this music on Indipop artists can be clearly heard in the increasing use of “riff-based” compositions, as opposed to the typically “raga-based” music of films. For example, Lezz Lewis and Hariharan of the successful Indipop duo known as The Colonial Cousins sit together with an acoustic guitar when writing songs. The chords and riffs they choose dictate the form of the song. Film song composers, on the other hand, pick out single notes on a harmonium (a small organ with hand-pumped bellows) in order to ﬁnd a memorable melody. Later, a music arranger will ﬁll in the background with accompanying chords, but the organization of the ﬁlm song is determined by the melody and lyrics.
Furthermore, the overall structures of many Indipop songs are formed around moments of harmonic tension and release. Similar to many Western pop songs, "the hook" is deferred by a sequence of chords to create the effect of a buildup.8 Only then, after we have been kept in anticipation, do we reach a moment (often intentionally brief) of musical release. In many ways, I ﬁnd this to be a fetishization of the act of listening itself, and it stands in direct opposition to what several ﬁlm music directors told me: "If the audience can’t sing along within the ﬁrst few seconds, the song will never be a success."
Other characteristics of Indipop music include a preference for guitars and drums over the synthesizers and electronic drum machines of today’s ﬁlm music. Examples include Lucky Ali, The Colonial Cousins, Silk Route, Euphoria, and Strings. Of course, the founders of Indipop—Biddu, Daler Mehndi, and Alisha—came out of a disco-inﬂuenced era and made extensive use of synthesizers. But as the Indipop movement has come of age, the trend has been toward “authenticity” and a heightened sense of tradition with the use of Indian instruments and rhythms.
Kvetko seems generally right to me, though this passage forces us (if we're trying to teach this) to explain in some approximation of technical detail what exactly a raga is. Yikes. Even with Google, this turns out to be fairly hard to do, especially if you don't know your modes from your chord progressions...
Separately from the issue of defining "raga-based music," there are a couple of blind-spots in the essay. For one, with his exclusive emphasis on Indi-Pop, Kvetko doesn't allude to the other trends in Indian popular music. Especially glaring is the omission of reference to A.R. Rahman, who does make raga-based Hindi film music -- but who is equally comfortable using the western pop/rock format. And quite a number of Rahman's compositions are considerably more complex than your standard filmi fare. If corrected for the advent of Rahman (and Rahman's imitators), Kvetko's history of recent Indian pop music might look something like the following table, if he charted it (the table is actually mine):
|Era||Film music||Non-film pop music|
|18th C.-Present||Hindustani Classical Music (Raga)|
|1950s-1980s||Classic, Raga-based Hindi film music|
|1990s||Contemporary Hindi film music (still raga based)||Disco Indi-Pop|
|Late 1990s-Present||Neo-traditional/folk & Rock/Hip-hop film music (Rahman, etc.)||Neo-traditional Indi-Pop (Rabbi Sher-Gil, etc.)|
[Note: One significant problem with this table is the way it short-shrifts the 1950s-80s era in Hindi film music. Anyone who knows their R.D. Burman from their Kalyanji and Anandji Shah is likely to be peeved; same for fans of the lyricists. How might my table be improved?]
Finally, I think Kvetko is on to something when he outlines a shift in production values across the board in Indian popular music in the 1990s:
One of the clearest distinguishing features of Indipop production is the lack of the heavy reverb that characterized much of ﬁlm music throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Indipop producers prefer a clear tone that will sound good on headphones, personal stereos, and in other modes of individual consumption. This is in clear opposition to the echoing sounds sought by film music producers, who attempt to create a sonic space compatible with the modes of public consumption associated with ﬁlms—such as movie theatres, rickshaws and taxis, and open-air bazaars where ﬁlm music is blasted from loudspeakers.
Good point, though again, I think Kvetko isn't anticipating the degree to which Indipop production values have been integrated into the Bollywood music universe. Lucky Ali and Adnan Sami Khan routinely do songs for films, and mainstream, 'timepass' movies like Hum Tum hire producers like Rishi Rich to produce Hip-hop inflected tracks. And IndiPop has itself maybe lost a little steam recently, with the overwhelming crush of classic Hindi remix numbers...