As the Pakistan Super League (PSL) prepares to kick off its sixth season, its anthem has produced a rather confusing reaction. The latest anthem, titled Groove Mera, featuring Naseebo Lal, Aima Baig, and rapper duo Young Stunners, has garnered mixed reviews. There are haters and there are lovers, as is the case with almost every new release. However, most negative reactions, in this case, seem to share an oddly similar characteristic: their love for Ali Zafar. While the song’s admirers outline the numerous qualities they find pleasing, a significant percentage of the critics have their arguments fixated on a singular factor—the absence of Ali Zafar.

Ali Zafar had been the core voice of PSL anthems ever since the league’s inception in 2016. After three consistent years of acting as the Super League’s lead singer, Zafar was suddenly sidelined. This move came amid sexual harassment allegations against the singer by Meesha Shafi, along with a cohort of other women. According to speculations, Zafar’s sudden absence from PSL’s center stage was prompted by this controversy.

Others applauded the production team for its inclusion of the Punjabi language and for featuring veteran songstress Naseebo Lal, who Jibran Nasir described as a ‘queen whom we don’t cherish and celebrate enough.’ They mentioned powerful voices and great rhythms, with Mehwish Hayat appreciating the ‘diversity of voices and ideas.’

Yet, most users on Twitter couldn’t find a well-reasoned explanation for their hatred of the latest PSL anthem, except that it wasn’t sung by their favorite pop star; there was barely any mention of anything else.

The following is a brief selection of the tweets that base their dislike of the PSL 6 anthem in the context of Ali Zafar:

Muhammad Hamza said he routinely listens to Ali Zafar every time PSL comes out with a new song.

Another Twitter user claims that the standards set by Ali Zafar are ‘really really difficult to match.’

Reactionary memes also emerged following the anthem’s release, pointing towards Ali Zafar’s revival in this arena.

A user went as far as to say that Ali Zafar is the ‘the only man who put smiles on the faces of cricket lovers.’

A familiar pattern

PSL 5’s anthem “Tyaar hain” – sung by Ali Azmat, Arif Lohar, Haroon Rashid and Asim Azhar – also faced a similarly surprising backlash. The anthem, incidently the first one without Ali Zafar, recived stiff online criticism online, forcing Asim Azhar to issue an apology to the fans.

Ali Zafar for his part, released his own independently produced PSL anthem “Mela loot liya”, which was warmly received by his fans, raking up more than 10 million views on YouTube. This move was widely seen as a rebuke to the PCB and the performers of the official anthem.

Following the backlash, while speaking to a private TV channel, Ali Azmat alleged that “paid bloggers” planted by a “rival singer” had created the online derision. Confronted by the host, Ali Azmat implied that Ali Zafar was the one behind the hate, without explicitly taking his name.

Ali Zafar subsequently confirmed that he was the target of the implication, by releasing a video mocking the accusations of Ali Azmat on his Twitter account.

“Life problems, personal problems, social problems, financial problems, song problems, event problems; anything, then you’re not responsible for it, I am,” he said with a smirk, adding that he is so powerful and he has bloggers on his payroll.

“What is this Cambridge Analytica, who got Trump elected? Your brother,” he added while pointing towards himself.

Bloggers, media cells and bots

While social media has become an effective barometer of public sentiment, it has become increasingly easy to “game the system”, and promote trends and talking points artificially. Hiring bloggers, media cells – organizations composed of individuals who would work to promote a certain narrative on social media – and bot accounts currently exist in a grey area. While it is acceptable for brands and businesses to hire online support, the practice is looked down upon in politics – despite being more prevalent in that sphere.

However, it is easy to spot the difference between a social media account that is pushing a narrative as an objective, and one that is simply expressing their opinion on the issue. A qualitative analysis of Twitter post criticizing the PSL 6 anthem shows that a significant sub-section of the critics were tweeting multiple times on the matter, using the same hashtags, and variations of the same message.

While that in itself is not enough to prove the existence of a paid campaign, it does prove the existence of a coordinated campaign – run independently by fans of Ali Zafar, or by opportunists looking to create strife.

In either case, coordinated or organic, paid or genuine, the common denominator of the backlash is Ali Zafar. The explanation that Ali Zafar’s influence is wide enough to propagate a nationwide movement seems plausible, especially given how events after PSL 5 played out.

Regardless, ‘Groove Mera’ crossed 3.5 million viewers today, only four days after its release.


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