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Coke Studio 15 was a good-looking disappointment

Despite efforts at diversifying, the show's latest season remained hung up on a lost cause — the search for the formula to make a great song.
08 Jul, 2024

Is there a formula to make a great song? Is there a formula for hitting millions of views with that song without making certain compromises? Is there a textbook that can teach you this? If so, Coke Studio 15 makers discovered this book, took it as a manual to come up with some great ideas, roped in artists from (almost) every corner of Pakistan to execute those ideas that looked great on paper, and released an entire season of songs without realising one thing — there is no formula and there never will be.

Any book or person claiming to have discovered the secret to making a great song that is also commercially viable is either lying or delusional. That is not to say anyone on the team of Coke Studio 15 made this bold claim, but in hindsight, despite diversifying, the show’s latest season remained hung up on a lost cause.

Video versus studio

If the intention behind Coke Studio 15 was to create a visual spectacle, then the show-makers passed with flying colours. The latest season has been a lesson in visual storytelling and world-building. In fact, I would say that Coke Studio 15 is the most visually appealing season in the programme’s history. But at what cost?

Some would argue that the studio format, or setting as I would like to call it was unique to Coke Studio and therefore “sacred”. Unlike most Coke Studio fans, I am not hung up on the past. Frankly, I enjoy elaborate music videos just as much as I enjoy music. And if music videos were the problem, Coke Studio 14 would also have been dealt a blow.

But after closely following the latest season of Coke Studio, it has become clear that the studio setting had its ups — the biggest being its singular focus on creation without the burden of “representing” a certain identity or community in an attempt to “diversify”, that too at the risk of otherisation.

If viewed from that lens, the studio space was far more creator-friendly and inclusive as it welcomed all artists under one roof without making anyone feel like they didn’t belong or that they were included simply because they were. A studio provides space to artists because they’re artists and not because of their identity.

An attempt to recreate ‘Pasoori’

I feel that there’s been an attempt in Coke Studio 15 — conscious or otherwise — to recreate ‘Pasoori’. The result? A catalogue of music that is trying too hard to fit into an idea of a great song. This brings me back to my initial argument of the season succumbing to a formulaic approach.

Without viewing the show through the lens of the boycott or a disgruntled fan who feels cheated by the studio’s decision to cater to a newer generation, it’s safe to say that most of the songs this season sounded like rehashed versions of each other, despite being cater-made for diverse audiences and featuring musicians and singers from various backgrounds.

Coke Studio 14, despite its music video format, was a success in that regard because it offered so much musical variety. From ‘Tu Jhoom’ to ‘Pasoori’, ‘Peechay Hutt’ to ‘Ye Dunya’, and ‘Mehram’ to ‘Phir Milenge’, every song had its own personality and sound palette, whether or not it was a ‘great’ song. That was not the case this season.

This time, artists and producers appeared to have been provided with a sound palette that would guarantee sure-shot success. Stylistically, most songs featured reggaeton and trap influences, just like ‘Pasoori’. Despite linguistic differences due to the cultures these songs aimed to represent, most of them also catered to a singular mood — festive.

Individual moments of brilliance

Again, that is not to say these songs were ‘bad’. There is no such thing.

Babar Mangi shone in ‘Aayi Aayi’ because his delivery and style were not compromised. I was also happy to see that Marvi Saiban’s contribution to the song wasn’t perfunctory. But alas, like a great movie ruined by spoilers, ‘Aayi Aayi’ was riddled with formulaic structural embellishments that couldn’t help but make it sound superficial.

By the time ‘Blockbuster’ was released, it had become clear that the Coke Studio 15 makers were playing it safe. I’m not sure if that was producer Xulfi’s intention but I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of having so many diverse artists on a platform was when their individuality/artistry would not reflect. That also seemed to be the running theme this season.

‘Blockbuster’, for example, is this season’s most-heard track, yet, its stylistic choices make you question the show’s intent. Some artists and producers are identifiable because of their signature style, sound, or delivery, which is best not to be tampered with. Faris Shafi is one of them.

But had I not known Faris was featured in ‘Blockbuster’, I would’ve struggled to guess at first due to the treatment of his voice and how overproduced and over-the-top everything sounded. ‘Blockbuster’ is catchy until you realise that A) It’s a Faris song and B) Why it’s catchy.

For me, even ‘2AM’ does a disservice to a vocal powerhouse like Zeeshan Ali. I get it! Not every Zeeshan song need be an exercise on vocal acrobatics. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if a ghazal singer like Zeeshan could’ve been better utilised in a song that demanded his expertise rather than cushioning his talents and making them more palatable for the mainstream — especially as he makes his Coke Studio debut.

Minus those musings, the song is executed with grace. If ‘2AM’ doesn’t immediately click it’s probably because it wasn’t meant to. The song grows on you with its simple, heartfelt lyrics that could be part of any conversation between lovers, delivered with the resonance and depth of Star Shah and Zeeshan’s collective talents.

Despite individual moments of brilliance, most Coke Studio 15 songs succumbed to predictable or clichéd musical choices that hindered its overall impact and authenticity. This was especially the case with ‘Harkalay’, ‘Maghron La’, ‘Chal Chaliye’, ‘Turri Jandi’ and ‘Piya Piya Calling’.

Hassan Raheem and Shazia Manzoor’s ‘Turri Jandi’ can still be a cool song to sing along to while on the road, vibing, because of how catchy it is despite its stagnance but Kaifi Khalil, Karpe, Delara and The Quick Style’s ‘Piya Piya Calling’ was an absolute sonic and lyrical wreck…

With no offence intended to anyone involved, that song has no direction whatsoever. Reminiscent of early 2000s Indian song remixes, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Also, what does Norwegian pop have to do with us? Going by this season’s theme, Coke Studio Global would’ve been a better platform for such a track.

Rare exceptions

The season, however, had its moments with exceptions like ‘O Yaara’, ‘Jhol’ and ‘Mehmaan’. ‘O Yaara’ and ‘Mehmaan’ are ballads relishing in bittersweet moments. The former, an Abdul Hannan and Kaavish song, is a touching piece that delicately fuses indie and ghazal elements. Its soothing melody and heartfelt lyrics make it a memorable listen.

The choice to have Hannan and Jaffer Zaidi pair up for this song was a brilliant one because of the vocal dynamic it created. The track is their love letter to all of us worried, confused and anxious listeners.

‘Jhol’ is refreshing for the simple reason that it sounds like a Maanu song. Perhaps because it was picked up by Xulfi for Coke Studio as opposed to being created on the platform. It preserves the musical and thematic elements characteristic of a Maanu song and, therefore, preserves a kind of sanctity missing from other tracks. Both Maanu and Annural sound on top of their game while providing us with some much-needed escape from our thoughts.

‘Mehmaan’ with Zeb Bangash’s clear yet playful voice and its delicate switch between the major and minor chords is instantly inviting. The song doesn’t save the season from falling flat but it does provide it with some much-needed variety. It is capable of transporting the listener to another realm, a heavenly realm, full of fairies and stars. The accompanying music video is perhaps the most spectacular from the season. A fitting goodbye.

Coke Studio 15 is a gentle reminder that not everything that glitters is gold. Despite overt efforts to offer distinctly Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi, or Pashto songs through collaborations and generous use of regional instruments, in the absence of a video, you’d realise that the tracks would sound the same if rendered in any language, making season 15, under the umbrella of its theme, rather superficial with a hint of tokenism.

Additionally, the songs suffered due to the incessant need to add layers and layers of effects to artists’ vocals. This does not include the tasteful use of autotune in some cases, which has become a stylistic choice at this point, but the decision to use certain effects to the point of saturation.

Even in a track like ‘Mehmaan’, which I’ve generously added to the rare exceptions bracket, Nizam ud Din Torwali’s contribution needn’t be sampled to be used as a filler, especially when he is gracing the show with an ancient language contributing to its theme. There is so much this season could’ve done that it didn’t do and perhaps it’ll be a lesson on what not to do in the future.

Comments

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Alizeh Jul 08, 2024 12:53pm
I completely disagree with the writer. This seasons coke studio was the most brilliant audio and visual treat for the audience. This opinion is validated by scores across the globe. Each song has garnered more than about 10 million likes which is a testimony of its success. What was unfortunate, was that the songs were produced by Coke but the scale at which the videos were choreographed, directed etc , could only be afforded by a brand as big as Coke. Also, the songs were able to showcase Pakistani talent , culture and diversity through this platform which is soft tourism. In the midst of economic , social and political instability, these songs were a breath of fresh air- an escape for the viewer/audience. Before one song could be appreciated completely, a new song would be released with a captivating and complex audio and visual stimulus.
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OVAIS AKRAM Jul 08, 2024 12:57pm
We are proud of COKE STUDIO 1-15 We are proud of the TEAM led by Zulfi - we are the best internationally - Dear Coke Studio Team - Keep up the good work we as a nation are with you.
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Mahesh Kumar Jul 08, 2024 01:10pm
I dont agree with this review, as this season has went beyond expectations, and almost every track is on the loop in the playlist. However the content making has been low but the songs music, and cinematography has been top notch. And its not like CSp has done something wrong by including international artist. Its nice initiative if seen on positive note, music is becoming platform to bring artist in here, and its nothing new if you have seen CS india bangla and turkish, shae gill has previous year performed on some CS of other country. So i am very much contrasting to this review. This season has given great great tracks which will surely gonna rock our playlist for long.
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M N Rahman Jul 08, 2024 01:45pm
I appreciate your thoughts, however, in my opinion the old format of Come Studio after 13 seasons became dull and boring where mostly cover songs were being recreated. Sure there were many hits no doubt but there was no experimentation, no visual appeal and nothing to induce global attention. Xulfi changed that from season 14 and now season 15. The refreshing change not only engaged global audiences but also engaged the younger generation while maintaining its inclusive culture. The sonic and visuals made the experience a lot more enjoyable and memorable. Your last comment on the vocals of Kohistani singer makes no sense. There was no audio tuning done to his voice. In fact majority of the listeners heard it for the first time. Xulfi should be awarded for his amazing achievements for CS-14/15
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Adnan Jul 08, 2024 01:51pm
For the second time, the Pakistani diaspora abroad are proud of Coke Studio. The songs, the sets, the music, the storytelling, the surprising collaborations, the attention to detail, the MAGICAL JOURNEY features and the list goes on! Xulfi sahab should be given the highest award by the Pakistani government for making us Pakistanis outside of Pakistan, proud! In this gloom time, we all connected! Xulfi Sahab, sending you prayers and love from Hong Kong!
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Ishrat Hyatt Jul 08, 2024 02:32pm
Want to comment but cannot because everyone will say she is prejudiced!
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Rizwan Hafeez Jul 08, 2024 02:45pm
This is your personal view and respected but not of millions of people around the globe.
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Kashif Mehmood Chaudhry Jul 08, 2024 02:50pm
I dont agree with the essence of this article, coke studio is a marvel and shall continue to do so, I beleive its Netflix content, so dont be surprised to see it there in future.
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Saad Jul 08, 2024 03:02pm
Completely agreed. Xulfi's focus to add rap in every song and the idea to go visual first, music second is disturbing to say the least. Coke studio should always put music first. I still can't get over the fact that they added rap to a mehndi song. (Maghron La). Given the superior production quality and the choice of musicians, you'll obviously get good songs that you will listen to but you'll never get a Pasoori or a Jhoom if you lose the essence which unfortunately is being done. Everything is "hip hop", rap and easy to forget. O Yaara is a masterpiece, so is 2AM and Piya Piya Calling. Other than that, it's a disappointing season which not many will agree because you know it's easier to hop ON the bandwagon than OFF it.
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Abdul Haseeb Jul 08, 2024 03:04pm
Totally totally disagree with this article. It's a complete clickbait title, as this season was phenomenal. Every song was different and for different moods. Everyone in my circle is listening on repeat.
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Taj Ahmad Jul 08, 2024 03:12pm
Let’s maintain Coke Studio as best as possible and as team work together.
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SYED Jul 08, 2024 03:12pm
All the songs are good (some exceptional) and videos even better. You can see that Xulfi and CS 15 team have endeavored to evolve CS in a direction where it hadn't gone earlier (pre Xulfi era) . Review is harsh and doesn't do justice to all the efforts done by CS 15 team. One recommendation would be do a straight up classical ghazal but with new sound and instruments or do a proper urdu / punjabi rap with deep lyrics. All in all CS 15 is not what the review would like us to believe considering the impact it is having globally introducing aspects of our culture so keep it coming Xulfi :-)
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Syed Hasni Jul 08, 2024 03:22pm
Oye Cutie Tenu Mein Samjharyaan Hun Chadd De Ve Fankariaan Ve Marjaanyaan! I agree with the writer and Faris Shafi. Follow the KISS policy, keep it simple silly, I mean Zulfi!
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Zubair Jul 08, 2024 03:36pm
I totally agree with the writer. Moreover, I feel this downhill trajectory was imminent as I feel quality was downgrading with every passing year. I mean, you can still differentiate between the songs which Coke Studio made 10 years ago. They were muchhh better. P:S. : This is only my opinion.
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Rubab Jul 08, 2024 03:51pm
Coke studio 15 was simply amazing. The problem was the time they choose to release it..many viewers boycott coke studio.if it had released before isreal attack on gaza...it wud gained much more views.
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Saad Rasheed Jul 08, 2024 04:13pm
Well every Coke Studio song is not for one taste bud....you may like few and don't bothered to listen others...... so unnecessary criticism to get sympathies is what the writer is looking here, but he's not at fault as CS has made expectation so high with each season.
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Sami Jul 08, 2024 04:54pm
It was very easy to predict each song this season - just wait for the rap. Peechay Hut was mind blowing because of Justin Bibis. This time they overdid this phenomenon.
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Abdul Basit Jul 08, 2024 05:45pm
Thank you for saying this!
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Ehsan Jul 08, 2024 06:36pm
Cs 15 was next level, thoroughly enjoyed it on repeat
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Javed Iqbal Jul 08, 2024 06:48pm
Is such a postmortem, in some cases an autopsy, really necessary? Let us just enjoy the variety - the poetry, the music, the unique rendering. If you don't like a song, move on to the next. I think #15 is a wonderful addition to the Coke Studio collection.
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SHAFAT Jul 08, 2024 07:02pm
I am sure majority of people like the studio setup, that's what the foundation of the show was. Coke Studio Sessions. Keep it simple and stick to the basics. Don't try to ape Bollywood music videos.
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Aftab Qureshi Jul 08, 2024 07:18pm
With apologies, this commentary appears to reflect the writer’s own preconceived notions rather than merit or overwhelming positive public reaction.
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Lubna Shah Jul 08, 2024 07:36pm
Agreed. The whole thing was all over the place. A sensory overload, and unnecessarily so.
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Faran Jul 08, 2024 07:45pm
I respectfully completely disagree with what Asfa has written about Coke studio 15 in this article. In fact, "everyone" (and I don't use this word lightly) I know is really enjoying the diversity and creativity of sound, music and song on offer in Coke Studio 15.
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Lubna Shah Jul 08, 2024 07:47pm
Agreed. It was all over the place. A sensory overload and unnecessarily so.
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Nadia Jul 08, 2024 07:59pm
Completely agree with the writer. That is exactly how I felt. There was no diversity in the style of music. I don’t like this style and so the entire season was a waste for me. I was really looking forward to it. Please diversify the music in the next season and include some slow, soulful songs too.
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ahtesham asif Jul 08, 2024 08:31pm
We are totally disappointed withe the views of writer. we are in california USA, Piya Piya is so hit here among our white and black fans
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Sohail Jul 08, 2024 08:38pm
I am so happy that someone looked at the season with the right angle. Musically speaking, Jhol, to me is only song that can be listened without the video as a complete song. Also, very badly written grammatically wrong and above all destroying poetic beauty if Urdu and other languages has been a huge theme in this season. Music isn't up to the mark when you can't enjoy it without headphones or awesome speakers to listen to digital layering and effects. Some of the songs when played on an average TV or audio player, look rubbish. You can make a great video of any song but you can't get away with a great video with a formula filled season. Even in Mehman second part is more like a neat tvc of the brand vision. In short, they created music around the videos.
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Yolo Jul 08, 2024 08:51pm
I totally disagree with the author. Every song amassed more than 10 million views on average. What else do you need?. This season was a resounding success and their subscribers and view count is skyrocketing.
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Sami Jul 08, 2024 09:12pm
I don’t agree with this review, due to: A- Zulfi has indicated in BRS videos that he is trying to reach global audiences- it did for me who has lived in US for 40+ years. I felt connection with Sindhi, Pushto, Punjabi, Baluchi and seamless fusion of multiple languages in Puya calling. B- This season was full of creativity, art and discovery of art and culture of Pakistan. Of course it is not classical thumri, datra— that will not be for global audiences. I think Season 15 hit right on the mark- promoting and discovering new talent , fusion of music with a global reach.
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Danish Jul 08, 2024 09:45pm
The coke studio views speak for themeselves!
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Yaqoot D Mir Jul 08, 2024 09:53pm
You can't be perfect every time, a good effort and maybe they will be back to their sweet spot next year inshallah.
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Atif Ahmad Jul 08, 2024 11:00pm
Totally disagree with this writer. Problem is these people so called critics cannot think outside the box. 13 seasons of studio step up and keep rotating Atif, Abida, Aima, Momina, Ali etc every season making remakes of old songs was getting boring. Hats off to Xulfi for thinking outside the box. It was an amazing season. Pakistanis will criticize every good thing.
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Nadeem khan Jul 08, 2024 11:50pm
Totally agree with the reviewer, musically it was a disaster with nearly every track sounding like more of the same . Coke studio was and should be about the vocal prowess of the artist .
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OBAID Jul 09, 2024 12:01am
What show was the writer watching? This season was brilliant. Every song is a treat to listen to repeatedly. And the visuals this time around were world class.
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Sara shah Jul 09, 2024 12:14am
Disagree completely, if it was only a visual spectacle it wouldn't be the most heard spotify playlist on my account
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Ali Bukhari Jul 09, 2024 12:27am
Can't disagree more with the writer. Each song had its own merits, with the visuals, lyrics, and composition. The audio mixing and composition is on it's own level. Xulfi doing his thing with bringing up new talent that wouldn't have seen the light of day if it wasn't for Coke Studio. Kaifi is a prime example of a gem of a singer and even a better person finally getting recognition. All over the world, Coke Studio Pakistan is being recognized as the face of the Coke Studio franchise.
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Kashif Ajaz Jul 09, 2024 08:23am
This review can best be defined as a personal opinion, general view is otherwise. Xulfi & team is producing great music.
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Nzaar Jul 09, 2024 08:33am
Don’t agree. It’s no “pasoori”, but season 15 is great music.
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Atta Jul 09, 2024 09:22am
I somewhat agree with this article but honestly 2 am was the best of the lot and if this writer doesn’t even mention the name of star shah then apparently this is one sided review with prejudice glasses on
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Mobina Zafar Jul 09, 2024 11:42am
Absolutely disagree with the writer. Coke studio 15 was the most amazing season so far. writer Must go through the magical journeys of all the songs to see the tireless efforts, sentiments behind every song. It feel so bad , While coke studio is the only best thing happening in Pakistan at the moment and this writer has put so much energy and time to prove it as disappointment. infact Dawn writer, you have disappointed us badly.
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Zubair Ahsan Jul 09, 2024 12:01pm
Totally disagree with the writer on almost all the points. 1: it's totally incorrect that the songs catered to a singular festive mood. There were 11 songs this season: 1 Ayi ayi celebrated a sindhi folklore 2 Magon LA recreated and presented typical punjabi wedding celebrations with all the autheticity. 3 Blockbuster meant to be a celebratory piece of art and an ode to open-hearted punjabi people and culture 4: "Piya piya calling" was a great attempt to celebrate oneness and through it create a template which can cater to both global and pakistani audience. In that coke studio is attempting to expand geographical outreach which is brilliant yet bold step. Apart from aforementioned songs all other tracks catered to different human emotions and feelings which are missing in today's popular music scene. The kind of themes these tracks have touched upon make it very clear that instead of trying to create senseless remix music or creating run of the mill stuff, Xulfi and Co have focused on blending art, culture, music to create artwork which has a purpose of uniting people while celebrating diversity and at the same uniquely speak to each one of us. The writer also said that previous seasons were more inclusive which to me is again far from truth. Just look at how much effort is put in to find out hidden gems across pakistan. This season is perhaps the most inclusive season actually. I mean i can go on to dismantle each and every argument of the writer but that warrants another article. To conclude i didn't find a single complaint as noteworthy.
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Anarchist Jul 09, 2024 12:49pm
Nothing can match the brilliance of coke studio season 14. But hey , I considered Piya Piya calling as one of the best songs of the season.
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Ahmad Jul 09, 2024 01:13pm
wohoo! That's too harsh and a bit unfair criticism. I struggled to find a single positive sentence about CS15.
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sunny Jul 09, 2024 02:53pm
yeah coke studio 15 sucked. period. full stop. the american pakistan diaspora agrees.
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Elif Jul 09, 2024 03:03pm
I am quite astonished at your review While everyone is entitiled to have his/ her opinion, I would differ with yours If there is sth that i am consistently proud of being a Pakistani, that is Coke studio season 15 was an amalgamation of folk music with pop. Won't you be acknowledging how rap was fused with our folk music. We simply loved all the songs. To top it all, the innovation of diaspora music was heartening both to the ears and to our hearts. Coke studio did its best
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salman Jul 09, 2024 06:08pm
Author too generous here. Season 15 was the biggest flop. 10m views mean nothing for a big channel with millions of subscribers. Comments in favor don't seem organic. Time to retire for Xulfi. You will be remembered for season 14. thanks
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Ivana Jul 09, 2024 08:04pm
Arrey bhai, what do you want to say? It's a jumble of ideas in this articles. Matches the coke studio style
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Faizan Jul 09, 2024 10:47pm
One line sums it all up.... A leaf from the history books from Mtv's origins: 'video killed the radio star'
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Mahwish khan Jul 09, 2024 11:49pm
Actually season 15 was really good but became a victim of being an entity of Coca-Cola. Most people boycotted even music affiliated with Coca-Cola in their support of Palestine. From river to sea Palestine will be free.
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Haroon Khan Jul 10, 2024 03:06am
The criticism about the tracks sounding similar and the overproduction is valid, but it also reflects the ongoing challenges in blending traditional and modern sounds. It’s a balancing act that many artists and producers are grappling with, and it's a process of trial and error.
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Aneeza Jul 10, 2024 04:28am
I think the writer of this article and i have been listening to two different coke studios. Coke studio 15 was pure bliss and amazingly brilliant. Every song was beautiful and pleasing to hear and entertaining to watch. It showed lots of history, art and culture which only coke studio Pakistan could show.
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Zoob Jul 10, 2024 06:20am
This season of coke studio was beyond terrible. What a huge disaster and disappointment. Every coke studio was unique but this.... It belonged nowhere.
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K Jul 10, 2024 06:56am
Disagree entirely. These songs and visual effects make oversees Pakistanis proud that this type of work is being produced in Pakistan. Songs are so catchy and I can see them in our playlists for a long time to come. Every long distance drive of ours will have some, if not all, of these songs.
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Khan Jul 10, 2024 06:41pm
Completely agree with this article, bang on analysis! The views garnered are primarily due to coke now advertising these songs. I don't recall seeing any coke studio song adverts in the past! What a shame..
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Sofie Jul 10, 2024 11:38pm
Since art is subjective, including music, it’s hard to find a format that appeals universally to such a diverse audience as CS has. I personally enjoyed the season including the more experimental sound, mixing and diversity of languages and the videos which were mostly very enjoyable.
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Hamza Jul 11, 2024 02:17am
Somewhat agreed that this season was lackluster. The Coke Studio to me has become more like a music video production company rather than a song producing one. The latest focus on only the video aspect of it while giving meager attention to the selection of the artists, and the composition has been a rather disappointing turn. Sure, the last season (relatively) went great because it was a new concept but trying to do the same thing could have been a hit or a miss and in this case it was a miss. Let's see what the future holds. P.S; most of the comments here sound paid and sponsored. Or maybe it is just me.
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Kafka Jul 11, 2024 08:57am
The author can only consume a 10sec tiktok so the longer than average songs are going to be difficult to consume. I would them to actually listen to music before writing about it.
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Kabootar Khan Jul 11, 2024 08:33pm
Criticism for the sake of criticism. In today's globalised world, the author clings to a parochial view of circumscribing music within the narrow confines of what they're used to and comfortable with. To flip it to the author, it's not 'Coke Studio 15 makers were playing it safe.', it is them refusing to engage with the boundary-pushing nature of this season. The comment on Norwegian pop reeks of a xenophobic cultural nativist attitude, especially given the large Pakistan diaspora based there and in neighbouring countries. Also, as a Sindhi speaker, i'd like to hear more about what 'formulaic structural embellishments' in aayi aayi aggravated the author. I'd be pleasantly surprised if the author even understands Sindhi.
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