Tesher’s “Jalebi Baby” and a problematic aspect of desire.
A tall kid in his mid-twenties wearing a light pink hoodie walks into a hotel banquet room and sits down at a large round table. He is joined by an odd group of elderly eccentrics and they are served a number of strange-looking desserts by the staff. While this is happening, he sing-raps a sweet song in praise of the girl he is seeing over a relatively minimal beat. She has a special quality that he calls “yummy-yum.”
The 2020 song, “Yummy,” which was the first single from Justin Bieber’s fifth album, did not perform as well as hoped, despite massive efforts to promote it, including asking the Beliebers to buy multiple copies on drop day and to leave it on repeat all night on their streaming services. Maybe the producers left a little too much space in the mix. Then a young Indian-Canadian guy who goes by the name Tesher mashed it up with the beat from a 2011 Bollywood dance number and the result went viral on social media. He quickly followed up in November with a second version that dropped Bieber altogether and added more of his own vocals in English and Punjabi. “Jalebi Baby” was a phenomenal smash hit all over the world, though not so much in India itself.
This song is the one I heard on July 28, 2022, at the lakeside Pennsylvania wedding of two young Indian-American finance professionals. With this track the DJ pulled almost everyone out on the floor, including me. I struggled to remember my trademark moves from the 90’s. With feet planted solidly, I bobbed up and down, turned and shifted from side to side, and cycled my arms. In our mid-fifties, my wife and I are jalopies, not jalebis.
The lyrics of “Jalebi Baby” are a very conventional double-entendre. The singer compares the female object of his desire to a type of sweet cookie. He mentions a famous cooking show, a few other desserts, and an attractive heroine from a Bollywood film. All of those allusions were completely lost on me, including the cookie itself, so I only heard the secret message of the song which was shockingly obscene. In fact, I was almost certain I heard Tesher say “lemon tight like pussy,” though the Punjabi lyrics read differently. Some part of me wanted to fetch the father of the bride and bring him to the DJ booth so we could chew him out together.
I assumed that a Jalebi Baby was a hot chick from some place called the Jaleb region, something like the girl from Ipanema. Morphologically this makes sense, as Hindi, Punjabi and other ethnicities tend to share the same adjectival ending. Later I discovered that the Jalebi cookie is very similar to what we Iranians call Zulbia, a fried treat made by squeezing syrupy batter in circles into a pan of boiling oil.
To me, the two-line hook of the song—let me see it, I want to eat it—perfectly encapsulates a problematic aspect of desire: If you get what you want, you will only want more. The first claim is a lie that one believes, that one has to believe: I can accept the minimum. But in this case, it is immediately followed by a new demand, a dangerous escalation, caution now thrown to the winds. In truth, this is only one of the many faces of desire, which can also be immediately disappointing or profoundly and even permanently satisfying.
It will be a long time before we know the final outcome of the wedding I attended, beyond an agonizing week of feverish delirium under the boot of the Covid virus, bitterly cursing every human being whose name I could remember. We do know the outcome of Tesher’s song, which was a major label contract and a nomination for breakout artist of the year. He also recorded a third version of the track joined by the six-foot tall American R&B star Jason DeRulo, dueting in a glitzy big-time production which is still funny but loses some of the underdog charm of the second version.