We’ve succeeded in adding to our National List of Petty Rubbish: singer Taher Shah has left the country. The man was a fabulously bonkers musician, internet-famous for songs like ‘Eye to Eye’ and ‘Angels’, his really, really long hair and penchant for green and blue contact lenses. His music was heartfelt, and intended to spread happiness and brotherhood, bringing us all together under the mantle of flowing velvet robes and long shots of his cascading locks. It was so much fun to have Taher Shah in our midst. Even when one laughed at him, it was with a kind of admiring, fond incredulity that there was anyone as earnestly mental as he. I liked him, but now he’s gone because some people had a really big problem with someone wanting to be a pop star and sing perfectly harmless songs about love and friendship. Such a big problem, apparently, that Shah was routinely inundated with death threats, and this being Pakistan—a country far more insane than any of Shah’s music videos—he quite wisely and sadly decided to abandon ship. Anything can happen in Pakistan, and most of it is bad.
What a really sad thing to happen. Not because Taher Shah was so talented and it’s a real blow to the viral internet video industry (which it no doubt is), but because it reflects an increasing intolerance amongst us to difference and individuality. We are developing an ever-increasing mania for sameness, evidenced by the explosion of clothing outlets and weekend magazines that proudly single people out for being on-trend—in other words, following the herd. It’s fine to want to follow the fashion tide, you do you, but when it isn’t balanced by creative originality, there’s a problem. The same goes for anything contrary, be it a book review or restaurant critique or not wanting to wear furry loafers. Whatever is the done thing is done.
Who decides what this “done thing” is? Is sameness indicative of social approval or intellectual laziness? Can you be samey-samey and intelligent at the same time? One suspects not. There is a great social value to the herd mentality for people who control it: by dictating certain norms, you have the power to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’—the in people being the known entities that you know how to manage, and the out being the ones to keep an eye on. The idea of court etiquette—or formal, upper-class rules of behaviour—didn’t really exist until the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV developed an elaborate system of it at Versailles. The point of a complex hierarchy of manners, and allowances made accordingly, was to control the nobility, and to remind them of their place. Where courtiers previously mingled freely and spoke openly, now one had to observe meticulously planned rituals and rules. ‘Established’ nobility could, for example, sit on a chair but one with no arms—those were only for the King or elite royals. Lesser nobles could sit on a stool, the rest were allowed only to stand. Social control translated, for Louis XIV, into political control. Nobles wrapped up in so many rules were less likely to question, talk back or rebel.
Conformity was useful for the king, and the idea has trickled down into conformity being useful for anyone who is in a position of control. It is easier for parents to raise children that conform. It is easier for teachers to educate students that don’t ask difficult questions. It is easier for governments to be useless and corrupt when the electorate is uniformly obedient. But what is the use of it, really? To be neatly turned into sheep, automatons without any free will, more bricks in a wall? It is, of course, useful to have a level of conformity, but the kind that fulfills one’s social contract, or maintains a decent kind of ethics—don’t steal, don’t run red lights, pay your bills, don’t beat your spouse, don’t lie. Beyond that, how useful or necessary is it to feel obliged to dress a certain way, socialise a certain way, do anything a certain way?
It’s people like Taher Shah that make things interesting. We don’t seem to want interesting here, or charismatic, or idiosyncratic. To us it’s weird to be different, because it’s like calling attention to yourself and why on earth would you want to do that? But why not? And the more we quail from being whatever we want to be, the harder we make it for all the other people who actually go ahead and wear the wacky clothes and do spoken-word “songs” while stroking a fluffy white cat. Being different shouldn’t warrant a death threat. The fact that someone feels so enraged by a singer that they are willing to kill him—even saying the words to someone and meaning it—is disturbing beyond measure. What’s next? Men with fashionable haircuts? Wearing a sari? Driving? Where does difference begin? Taher Shah is representative of a larger imperative, and it’s not looking good.