Inter-Asia Cultural Studies: Movements

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17.1 visual essay



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  »  Issues Contents  2010-01-14 Editorial introduction

Inter-Asia popular music studies: cultural studies of popular music in Asia

SHIN Hyunjoon
This special issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies is a collection of research papers about popular music in Asia. Popular music has featured occasionally and importantly in the journal before, contributing to Inter-Asia Cultural Studies’ aim to promote inter-Asian experiences and prospects. However, this special issue foregrounds the subject. It also marks the first publication of the Inter-Asia popular music studies group (, an off-shoot of the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society. 
        This international research group was initiated by several participants of the 2005 Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference held in Seoul. Since then, the group has organized meetings, conferences and workshops in and outside Asia. The essays of this issue result from two such meetings: a workshop at the Asian Research Institute (ARI) in National University of Singapore from 3-4 March 2007 titled “Asian Pop Music in Transition: New Economy, New Subjectivities and Inter-Asian Perspective”; and a workshop at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden, the Netherlands on 26 November 2008 titled “East Asian Popular Music: Small Sounds from Big Places?”
            Although since 1981 The International Association for Study of Popular Music (IASPM) has connected research of popular music in Asia with the ‘international’ field, interaction within Asia has been limited. In the 1990s, scholars in Asia would typically have read works that define the study of popular music internationally, i.e. those of Simon Frith, Philip Tagg, Will Straw and Keith Negus, among others. Simultaneously, their knowledge of the scholarship within Asia would be limited. Firstly because most studies about popular music in Asia had been written in local or national languages, which hampered dissemination across regional or national borders. Secondly, studies written in English and other lingua franca were predominantly produced by Western-based scholars and remained outside of the inter-Asian network of knowledge production. Paradoxically therefore, ‘international’ popular music has been well-known to Asian audiences, while Asian popular music has been produced, distributed and consumed in national or domestic level.
However, the times they are a-changing. After the 1990s, certain forms of Asian popular music have become truly pan- or trans-Asian. For example, Utada Hikaru, Jay Chou, Rain and Tata Young are not only domestic superstars but also regional celebrities with fans all over Asia. The last decade of 20th century has also witnessed a dramatic shift in the meaning ascribed to Asian pop, which came to be seen as an aggregation of popular music in different Asian countries. Not only have Asian countries “localized” popular music, both in terms of production and consumption, some of them have also exported it beyond national borders. During the Cold War period, popular music has played an important role in nation-building processes in Asian countries, and is now intricately intertwined with the regionalization process of the post Cold War period, with its transformed notions of regional belonging and a shared past/present. Since the mid-1990s, popular music and culture in Asia have flowed incessantly across borders, propelled by information technology, mass migration and so-called globalization.
This special issue deals with the aforementioned cultural shifts and their effects on popular music. In it four scholars address recent developments in popular music in and from East Asia, contributing to an inter-national, inter-disciplinary and inter-generational discussion. How are local, national and regional identities (re)constructed through popular music in Asia? Do the border-crossing practices of the music industry contribute to regional subjectivities? How does popular music integrate different localities in East Asia? Where and in what form has Asian popular music present itself outside the region? Each essay draws attention to a different community in Asia and its renegotiations of the local, the regional and the global through popular music. In short, the papers assess what is “taking place” in Asian popular music and Asian popular culture in general.
Yoshitaka Mōri and Jung-yup Lee deal with the recent transformation of Japanese and Korean popular music respectively, focusing on digital technology and ‘new economy.’ Both authors analyze new phenomena and their interaction with the social settings and power relations among the different agents of the music industry, musician, music fans and policy-makers. These Northeast Asian countries are not only production centers of pop culture in the region, but also trendsetting in the global market’s mobilization of digital technology. Mōri and Lee’s analysis may provide good reference points to compare the situation in other parts of the world. These two papers also address the tension between globalization and the emergence of (new) nationalisms, and offer insights in the present configuration of the cultural industries.
The following essay by Miaoju Jian and Chang-de Liu also investigates how new economy transforms the models of the music industry, in their case in China. However, in contrast to Mōri and Lee, Jian and Liu primarily deal with the ‘old’ rather than new media. They present Supergirl, a popular reality TV show, as one of the successful models for generating profits from music other than record sales. This new model of star production in China through Supergirl makes for a good comparison with the contribution of ShinHyunjoon, in which he analyses recent transformations in the star production system in Korea (postponed to the next issue of this journal due to the limit of the physical length of one issue of the journal).
      Although all papers deal with new nationalisms – an inherent contradiction in Asian popular music – no one would object calling Yiu Fai Chow’s essay the liveliest reflection on this issue. Based on his extensive experience as a lyricist in Hong Kong’s Cantopop industry, he engages in self-reflection of ‘nationalist songs’ (minzugequ) in Chinese popular music. If everything in China is riddled with “Chinese characteristics,” what should those of popular music “made in China” be?
The next two essays by Ho Tunghung and Eugene I. Dairianathan dwell on alternative or independent popular music in Taiwan and Singapore respectively; Taike rock in Taiwan and Vedic metal in Singapore. If certain forms of popular music have been romantically or exotically associated with youth rebellion, these two essays show how rebellion is negotiated through popular music in these post-authoritarian countries or regions.
Regrettably, Asian areas outside the East Asian sub-region as well as art music are underrepresented in this issue. To amend this partly, we have included a photo essay by Surabhi Sharma about South Asian music. The essay is based on Sharma’s ongoing film project tentatively titled Bidesia in Bombay. We invite scholars of popular music in different parts of Asia to contact us and push new projects.
Finally, this special issue can be seen as a ten track CD. If you are one of those people that think "albums are outmoded,” you may convert these ‘tracks’ into files, store them digitally and create your own archive. You could ‘play’ them in shuffle mode, mixing them with information from other sources. These essays, we hope, provide material for comparative analysis, contributing to research on recent developments in popular music and its relationships to the cultural industries and global capitalism.


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