Pop music is decadence gone mainstream. Indulgence defined by the powers that be as acceptable. And, with the rise of reality TV shows like The X Factor, such decadence is blown open, made into a musical soap opera writ large on a frightening scale, yet all the while assuring the ephemerality of the whole exercise – here is your pop star for the next few months, before we start it all over again next season.
As grumbly geeks and cynical twerps, it’s incredibly easy for us to look upon the various arms of Simon Cowell’s empire with knee-jerk disdain, cradling our Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or The Stooges, or Animal Collective, or Autechre, or Alice Coltrane) albums and projecting outwards our false estimations of authenticity, sincerity and artistic worth for all to hear.
Know this. Afghan Star, the UK-produced documentary about Afghanistan’s equivalent musical talent show, is a supremely cutting, enlightening affirmation of the important, and controversial, nature of pop music. This is a country where, under Taliban rule, it was considered a crime to dance, listen to music, or watch television.
Unsurprisingly, Daoud Sediqi, Afghan Star’s host and director, has high hopes for the social, cultural effects of bringing popular music and television together. By its third season, which is documented by director Havana Marking and her documentary crew, the show at its peak enjoys an audience that equals a third of the country’s population, and Sediqi’s ambition of turning the Afghan collective consciousness away from the gun, and towards music – in the process uniting the disparate ethnic social groups – looks to be within grasp.
Afghan Star is a pitch-perfect documentary. Using its central subject as a narrative structure, it effortlessly goes beyond the representation of Afghanistan seen in headlines, where it is ostensibly a context for dead soldiers, or a political hot potato, giving the culture depth and humanity, without removing any of its complexity. Of course, it helps that any televised talent show comes with its own mini-narratives of hope and talent and public voting, but the developments over Afghan Star‘s season brings startling resonance.
The film hones in on four contestants, pretty boy Rafi, classically trained musician Hammeed, relatively traditional singer Lima and ‘open-minded’ whirlwind Setara, and follows their paths through the competition, with all the related practising, performing, and canvassing required to drum up support. In the process, Afghan Star covers a lot of ground, gently touching on the relations between the various ethnicities, and the reflection this has on the wannabe pop-stars. Rafi, for example, is worshipped as an idol by fans from his hometown of Mazar e Sharif; Lima, on the other hand, must pursue her ambition in hiding, as she fears the disdain of the ultra-religious residents of Kandahar.
However, Afghan Star‘s controversial turning point occurs when Setara, dolled up and raring to go, decides to break into a dance during a performance. The resulting outcry, especially coming from erstwhile down to earth, positive figures (even her fellow contestants), highlights in stark fashion the cultural boundaries that Afghanistan’s modern culture pushes against. The backlash threatens the show as a whole, and the Muslim authorities lobby for an outright ban of dancing on television.
This ideological gloom, however, is shown as being at odds with young Afghanistan – generally shown as peace-seeking and progressive – epitomised by the Khan family, fans of the show and bright-eyed, smiling advocates of a more secular way of life. As they – two parents who were hip students in the 1980s, three sharp daughters obsessed with pop – go to the Afghan Star final, they joke about the Taliban and proudly leave their veils at home. Alongside many of their neighbours, they cheer for their favourite star, at once revealing and subtly changing the complex landscape of their country.
Afghan Star is not bland, ephemeral stuffing. This is vital. This is controversy, the front-line of cultural progress and taboo testing. This is identity-building culture, a reason to live and a life-changing brand of entertainment. This is not music. Afghan Star is pop.
Extras consist of a trailer and a short, but incredibly insightful interview (11 mins) with director Havana Marking.
Afghan Star is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.