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Princess Siti and the Peculiarities of Post Islamist Pop,
(A view from Malaysia)

 Bart Barendregt

     June 2012 saw the release of the instant hit song You came to Me, performed by ‘Islam’s Biggest Rock Star’, Iranian-English Sami Yusuf and Malaysian media darling Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza Tarudin, The song, - previously released on one of Yusuf’s solo albums and recorded in the nasheed idiom - was now repackaged for the Southeast Asian market and sung in English, Arab as well as Malay. The choice to perform in Malay is not surprising considering that Malaysia for decades has been known as the home of contemporary nasheed, with many global Muslim pop stars today enjoying most of their fame here rather than in their countries of origin. Also the nasheed idiom, being the most ‘modern’, global and commercial of Islamist genres, does not wholly come as a surprise. However, the male / female duet did stir considerable debate on how Muslim artists are to abide to ever changing rules of modest behavior and moral virtue. Popular culture increasingly seems to be become one of the main arenas in which such values are reframed and put to test, as especially Siti did experience.

     From the typical girl next-door Siti has made it to Southeast Asia’s number one pop princess. Since winning a prestigious local singing contest at the age of 16, her success has for Malaysian standards been unprecedented. Not only has she acted as a producer, TV presenter, has her own cosmetic line and other lifestyle product named after her, but she furthermore married a local nobler, an event broadcasted on national television. Aware of her new status, Siti has since moved into more spiritual performances, singing with nasheed combos and doing an album of Islamic popular song. At the same time she continues her international aspirations, performing regularly abroad and last year releasing an all-English album. Siti’s case then is a good illustration of the ambiguities modern Malay Muslim performers are facing, caught as they are between the global entertainment industry and the transnational Islamic community.

     This contribution considers how modernity is musically articulated in a Muslim Southeast Asian context. More generally, it aims not only to illustrate how such articulations have challenged the more secular public sphere, but likewise how Islamic popular music stirs considerable controversy among both Muslim orthodoxy and the Malaysian entertainment industry. In all of this especially Muslim Malay female artists turn out to be both subject and agent in defining the fine lines of an emergent Islamic chic.   


Pioneer in Dance, Song, and Stage: Tokuko Takagi

Charles Exley

     This presentation examines the transnational and multifaceted vocal, dance, and acting career of Tokuko Nagai Takagi (1891-1914).  Born in Tokyo to a wealthy banker father, Takagi left school and married Takagi Chinpei at fifteen in order to accompany him to the United States.  The couple travelled extensively across the country (Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Canton, OH, Boston) and to Canada as she worked to support Chinpei in a number of failed business ventures.  (The two resided for a time in Pittsburgh where the husband opened a business in 1909 in the Jenkins Arcade, a state-of-the-art space located at Liberty Avenue at Fifth Street Downtown.)  Relocating to New York City, Tokuko was encouraged to take dance lessons, and not many years later she was being touted in American newspaper advertisements as the “Only Japanese Contralto and Classical Dancer on Stage in the World.”  She quickly found herself acting before the camera for Thanhouser Company in New Rochelle, NY, appearing in four short features released in 1911 and 1912.  As the first Japanese actress on screen, Tokuko’s roles were innovative at the same time that they reflected larger political and cultural dynamics of the time.  That is to say, Tokuko’s roles in The East and the West, The Birth of the Lotus Blossom, For the Mikado, and Miss Taqu of Tokyo, none of which appear to be extant, place the actress in roles that accentuate Oriental stereotypes of exotic and docile sacrificing women.  

     Tokuko’s success as an entertainer in American cities leads the couple to visit London, but they return to Japan in 1914 with the approach of the First World War.  In Japan, Tokuko subsequently adapted and introduced a number of operettas to audiences at the Asakusa Opera, including notable renditions of Offenbach’s Heaven and Hell, Bizet’s Carmen, and Strauss’s Salome.  During her time in America, Tokuko also learned to dance en pointe, and she was the first to introduce this specific type of dancing to Japan in the 1910s.  As a female pioneer on stage and screen, Tokuko’s entertainment success contributed directly to the development of other actresses who go on to successful film careers. 

      This presentation draws primarily on Japanese language biographies of the actress and theater history in order to reflect on the ways in which Tokuko gives voice through mass cultural media to powerful female roles in musicals and considers the ways in which her dancing embodies new notions about performance on the stage of the Asakusa Opera.  The discrepancies in the types of roles she played in American film versus the Japanese stage are also revealing. 

      Tokuko’s journey from variety hall margins to hip urban mainstream—not to mention her remarkable range of life experiences cut short due to an untimely death at just twenty-eight--presents, I believe, an excellent point of departure for considering the role of women across Asia as innovators of cultural practice, as reflectors of competing cultural norms, and as popularizers of modern distractions in the twentieth century. 


From Female Dance Divas to K-pop Girl Groups: Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Popular Music of South Korea from the 1980s to the 2000s
Hee-sun Kim

     Korean pop music, or K-pop, has emerged and taken its dominant place since the turn of this century, but its girl groups can trace their lineage back to the 1990s, while the dance music so centrally characteristic of K-pop began in the dance music boom of the 1980s. This paper will take a look at the music, image, and performance styles of female dance divas and girl groups from the 1980s into the 2000s. Its purpose is threefold: first, to properly historicize the female dance singers of Korean pop music within their socio-cultural contexts and trace how the image of sexuality has evolved from those early dance divas to the K-pop girl groups of today; second, to examine the ways in which multi-dimensional cultural meanings and voices are constructed through the music, performance styles, and images, atop discourses of body, gender, and sexuality; and third, to dispute earlier assumptions about Korean female dance singers as merely innocent victims of the globalized commercial entertainment industry and patriarchal systems—their bodies presented as fetish images to create, spread, and feed discriminated gender roles or maximize the consumption of femininity. This study seeks to reveal the female dance singers as major subjectivities in shaping modern Korean popular music, a role inevitably overshadowed by the strong critical discourse on K-pop girls which emphasizes their sexuality.

     The 1980s was a special period in the diversification of Korean popular music styles. Earlier, the tapestry of Korean pop music remained in the strong shadow of imperial Japan and the U.S., as seen in the dominance of local variations on Japanese enka-style trot and American-influenced pop music. One of the new styles in Korean pop music during the 1980s was dance music. Its emergence was, on the one hand, a reflection of changes to the whole society in which the co-existence of various ideas, discourses, and lifestyles stood in sharp contrast to previous periods. On the other hand, it was a reply to social demands, following the introduction of color television and the growth of youth culture: it was a local version of Michael Jackson. Eighties dance music was driven by many pioneering individual singers, including several females like Nami, Min Hae-gyeong, and Kim Wan-seon. These dance divas, as symbols of the modern urban soundscape, a new, consumption-based lifestyle, youth, and the sophistication of modern Korea, constructed new performance styles, discourses on gender, sexuality and the body, and new images and roles for female singers and female fandom culture which were distinct from those of earlier eras. Those images, styles, and discourses were directly followed, imitated, deepened, evolved, and/or altered by other female dance divas and the K-pop girl groups of the 1990s and 2000s.

     With the expansion of the nation’s democracy and the development of youth culture, the 1990s saw an explosion of dance music, beginning with the legendary group, Seo Tae-ji and Kids, which changed the whole Korean pop music environment. Newly-debuted female singer-dancers, like Um Jung-hwa, Lee Jung-hyun, and Kim Hyun-jung, found some success and perpetuated the powerful, energetic, mature, and sexy image of female dance singers, while distinguishing themselves through new genres like techno. The first-generation girl groups S.E.S. and Fin.K.L. arrived during the late 1990s, bearing “cute and pretty” girlish images which were distinct from those of the dance divas, and served as prototypes for the K-pop girl groups.

     Together with heightened globalization, a strong transnational media industry, and the international success of the Korean Wave, the 2000s have seen an increase in the number of K-pop girl groups. Early second-generation girl groups like Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation have maintained their “innocent and girlish” images while creating “cute sexy girls.” Other girl groups, like Kara, Brown Eyed Girls, 2NE1, Miss A, After School, f(x), 4Minute, and most recently, Sistar, Dalshabet, and Girl’s Day, have created distinctive musical and performance styles and images, even though girl groups have not escaped the critiques in which they produce sexuality, deepen the dichotomies of gender/sexual behavior, and commodify sexuality. At the same time, solo K-pop dance singers, including BoA, Lee Hyori, and Baek Ji-young, have stood their ground and constructed their voices on roles of gender, sexuality, and body through their music, performance style, life, and career.

     Over the past three decades, some female dance singers have created strong and progressive or urban-modern images, and have become new role models for their contemporaries in Korea and elsewhere in Asia. Some have challenged the role of gender in Korean society, while others became targets of severe criticism for emphasizing their sexuality. In either case, they created a diversity, not a uniformity, of female images and roles in modern Korean society, the ambivalent nature of which—both calling for and resisting gender politics—should be re-examined. In doing so, this paper seeks to reveal these female dance singers as active agents and pioneers of a new style, creating their own position in the contemporary national and transnational entertainment industry, as main figures in the tapestry of modern South Korea.


Sirens of the Secular Modern: The Politics of Iranian Female Pop Vocalists in Exile
Farzaneh Hemmasi

     In 2010, Googoosh, the most famous female vocalist in Iranian popular music, began a new venture out of the Iranian-oriented Manoto studios in London: the Googoosh Music Academy, an American Idol-esque reality television music contest. Over a series of episodes, eight young amateur Iranian musicians living in Europe learned and performed Persian-language pop repertoire and competed before three judges, including Googoosh, who now lives in exile from Iran in Southern California. One of the contestants in the 2010 season was Forugh, a 25-year-old graphic design student who grew up in Iran but was currently studying in Sweden. In the season’s first episode, Forugh provocatively described how she found participating in the Academy personally and politically meaningful: “Because women’s singing is prohibited in Iran, I couldn’t sing much [there]. And because my voice is loud, I had to find some way to stifle it. One way I found to do this was to put a pillow in front of my face to absorb the sound or to sing in the bathroom. It was hard but, well, I kept at it.”   She continued, “…Really, [the Googoosh Music Academy] is the opposite of the frustrations of mass suffocation in Iran, especially for women who want to sing. So [participating in this competition] is a really good feeling!”

     Forugh alludes to the restrictions on women’s solo singing in Iran that have been in place since the 1979 establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following the 1978-79 revolution, women’s singing voices, which have been understood by conservative Muslims as part of a woman’s ‘awra or intimate sphere and therefore inappropriate in public spaces, were banned in mixed sex settings and in recorded media.  This policy directly countered the explosion of female vocalists on stage and in mass media between 1924 and 1979 during the successive reigns of Reza Khan and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a period that marked the rapid, contentious, top-down modernization and secularization of many Iranian urban spheres. Female performers on stage, radio, and screen some of the most prominent representatives of secular modernity, with the fashionable, chameleonic Googoosh epitomizing the new Iranian woman at her most glamorous and most Westernized. Following the revolution, famous female vocalists -- particularly those who, like Googoosh, who were active in the Western hybrid genre musiqi-ye pap -- were charged with spreading moral corruption and were fined and even jailed. Today, women can only sing in all-female settings or perform in vocal ensembles where their individual voices are “covered.”  Given these restrictions, for the past 30 years many women who want solo singing careers have left Iran in search of performance opportunities through the large Iranian diaspora in Europe and North America.

     My paper examines some of the ways in which this tumultuous history profoundly impacts how Iranian female vocalists understand their singing and how they are understood by others. As I show, Googoosh owes her enduring appeal not only to her artistry but to a pervasive “nostalgia for the modern” (Özyürek 2006) experienced by many Iranians both inside and outside of Iran. But Googoosh and other female vocalists in exile see themselves not only as representatives of the Iranian nation’s past, but of also of its present and potential futures. This is evidenced, for example, in Forugh’s conflation of her pop star ambitions and Googoosh’s pop competition with countering the “suffocation” of women who remain in Iran, as well as through numerous pop songs in which exiled female vocalists speak to and for Iranian women, and even for the nation itself. 

     I am concerned with the ways female agency is imagined and embodied in the realm of song, music video, performance, and transnational media, and how this agency is actualized (or not) off stage and on the ground. Some of my paper’s key questions are, How is Iran’s history of secular modernity reanimated and circulated through the works of female popular vocalists in exile? What kinds of openings - and potential limitations - do migration and participation in the exile Iranian music industries provide women seeking careers in popular music? How do women singers seek to authorize themselves in speaking to and for Iran’s history, its present, and its possible futures?  I explore these questions through video as well as songs and interviews drawn from my research in the large Iranian music industry based in Southern California.


The Bhadramahila as Public Performer: Sadhona Bose and Female Stardom in Indian Cinema of the 1930s and 1940s
Usha Iyer

     In this paper, I examine the figure of Sadhona Bose, a famous dancer and film actress in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly forgotten today, to investigate the relationship between public female performance and the construction of modernity in the Indian subcontinent during this late colonial period.

     While the “Voices of Asian Modernities” conference focuses mainly on music, sound, and voice, my paper engages with these themes by considering issues of female performance and the meanings of modernity in Asia, where one of the valences of the female “voice” is expressed through the dancing body. Additionally, discussions of music in Indian cinema call for a consideration of what accompanies the music: dance. By the 1940s, music and dance often had a conjoined presence as the song-and-dance sequence in popular Indian cinema. Bose epitomized this convergence by singing and dancing in all her films. Indeed, her authorship of a form of hybrid film dance, which went on to influence screen dance in general, makes her a pioneer of screen dance in India. Through her training in various dance forms and in theater, she created an amalgam of dance movements that she then popularized on film and on stage (as “dance dramas”). By examining Bose’s training and career in music, dance, theater, and film, I discuss how dance – especially Bose’s skilled and eclectic movement vocabulary – gives “voice” to the body, something missing in earlier female performance on screen. Also, since Bose is a key figure in making acceptable the participation of the “bhadramahila,” a woman from a “respectable” background, in the world of public performance, her performing body is a critical site for investigating constructions of modernity and categories of the popular in the 1930s and 1940s. 

      Born in 1914 into a prosperous family in Calcutta, Bose was trained in classical dances such as Kathak and Manipuri, took piano lessons, and received vocal training from a famous Thumri exponent. While these were considered appropriate accoutrements for an upper-class, upper-caste young woman, they were not meant to be professional pursuits. Tracing Bose’s training and career in dancing and singing allows for a range of explorations from the anti-nautch movement that sought to abolish traditional dancing women such as the tawaifs (courtesans) and the devadasis (temple dancers) to the rehabilitation of dance forms, with cultural revivalists excising much of their erotic content. Bose’s elite background activates a discussion of the history of the revival of classical dance forms and their adoption by middle- and upper-class women even as traditional performers of these dances were ostracized as prostitutes. The revival of classical dance reflects the urgency for “modern India” to assert its cultural and political selfhood, while the increasing presence of upper-class female dancers signals the widening of the public sphere, bringing with it the customary ambivalences, disapproval, and opposition that accompany the entry of these women into public life.

     Bose serves as an early example, and the most striking one in the 1930s and 1940s, of a Hindi film actress whose stardom owed in a very great measure to her ability to dance. An examination of her career as a dancer and as a stage and film actress produces an illuminating narrative of female performance paradigms during the period, and the performance registers available to female dancers and actresses of the time. Additionally, since Bose was among the first and very few costume designer-singer-choreographer-dancer-actresses, an analysis of her career throws light on women’s roles in the production of popular entertainments. A consideration of her personal life, including her early insistence on dancing and acting, her marriage and then separation from her director-husband, Modhu Bose, rumors about extravagant parties and later, a life of penury and destitution suggests narratives of resistance to contemporary gender norms and directs our attention towards the socio-historical contexts in which such voices are produced and circulated.

     Using clips from the few extant films that Bose starred in, images from the booklets, flyers, and handbills of her films, as well as the autobiographies of Sadhona Bose and Modhu Bose, I examine the role of music and dance in articulating a new kind of star text in Indian cinema. Resurrecting this history of female performance directs attention to the discourses of censorship, tradition, and body cultures that are mobilized when the moving female body is on display.


Gender, Modernity, and the Death of the Singer
Jean Ma

      From the earliest years of Chinese sound cinema, singing actresses captivated the attention of audiences and demonstrated the symbiotic potency of new synchronized sound technologies. Their rise to stardom changed the course of Chinese cinema’s evolution as an expressive medium, with musical performance emerging as a powerful rival to the predominance of storytelling. These ubiquity of these songstresses points to the symbiotically interwoven relationship between the motion picture and music recording industries. The films in which they featured betray a persistent fascination with the figure of the female entertainer, often framed within the self-referential star-is-born plot, and with the musical attractions of song and dance. Moreover, a clear division of musical labor structured Chinese cinema from the outset: its singing stars were invariably and with few exceptions women, with men participating in musical performance as composers or instrumentalists. The songstress phenomenon points to a distinctive gendering of lyrical expression and persistent alignment of femininity with audio-visual spectacle within the Chinese filmic tradition. 

      The songstress belongs to the lineage of Chinese modern women – alongside those creatures of fashion and glamour, independent new women, and fallen women who have riveted the attention of filmgoers since the silent era. Like these antecedents, she appeals to the senses as an embodiment of the allures of modernity. At the same time, she is often rendered as an object to be disciplined, sacrificed, or redeemed, reined in by narrative impulses that betray the deep anxieties surrounding women, performance, and publicity in the age of mass media. These anxieties persist into the postwar era of modernity, even while the singing actresses of postwar cinema also anticipated a new phase in the history of the modern woman. The songstress embodied the contradictory impulses of an optimistic embrace of the new and a reluctance departure from tradition, and the ideological tangle of progressive and reactionary values. This paper examines the forms this contradiction takes in the postwar production The Wild, Wild Rose (1960), which featured one of the biggest singing stars of the 1950s, Grace Chang. On the one hand, the film demonstrates the extreme identificatory power invested in the female singing voice; on the other hand, it participates in a disturbing tendency to narratively contain this power – and silence the singer – by staging her death.


Female Passivity or Musical Democracy?: Making Music with Hatsune Miku

Jennifer Milioto Matsue

     Hatsune Miku is immensely popular. Since debuting in 2007 over 10,000 songs have been produced for her and she has appeared in 250,000 videos on-line. 4000 professional recordings have been released of her songs and numerous dolls, games, and other seemingly unlimited forms of merchandise feature her big violet eyes, floor-grazing blue pigtails and futuristic schoolgirl uniform. She is so popular now, with over 2,000,000 fans worldwide, that Google Chrome recently used her image to represent global interconnectivity in a marketing campaign in Japan. In live performances her ten-foot-tall body confidently, though coquettishly strides across the stage, commanding the audience – or does it? Hatsune Miku is actually a type of vocal synthesizer software produced by Yamaha and marketed by Crypton known as “Vocaloid 2.” Other vocal synthesizer softwares with associated characters have come before, but none have enjoyed the same success as Hatsune Miku.

     Based on samples of Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita, Hatsune Miku is the personification of Vocaloid 2, initially depicted on the product packaging in the style of an anime character that continues to resonate with fans today. Indeed, according to Hiroyuki Itoh, CEO of Crypton, fans hungrily devoured the image of Hatsune Miku, using her as a “collaborative hub” for their creativity, resulting in the copious amounts of songs and video posted on “Piapro,” a website Crypton developed precisely to allow the creative chain of shared work to continue to flourish (Itoh 2013). It was her ever-increasing popularity and global presence that inspired Crypton to project her image as a 3D-hologram “live” in concert.

      Hatsune Miku’s performance – whether in amateur produced songs posted on Piapro or in multi-million-dollar live 3D productions – raises many questions about the potential effects of Vocaloid software on the future of making music in Japan. Through the technical production of songs, the quality of vocals, and her presence on stage, Hatsune Miku slides back and forth between a position of classic passivity to one of female empowerment and feminist approaches to equity. This paper further explores Hatsune Miku’s complicated position as a performer who perpetuates an objectified position of women in popular music while at the same time promotes democratic music making.

     For example, as music synthesizer software, users enter lyrics and melody and Hatsune Miku essentially “sings” for them. She thus is a passive receptacle, open for input and existing only through someone else’s creativity and control. Itoh argues, however, Vocaloid software ultimately creates a democracy of singing, providing an opportunity for an amateur songwriter to promote his or her own music (Itoh 2013). Hatsune Miku’s “cute” voice is questionable in terms of musical sophistication (or lack thereof) and it’s continued feticization of youthful femaleness found in much Japanese popular culture. But the quality of her voice also enhances the democratic potential, as it is quite common amongst the immensely popular and globally recognized female characters in anime. Her voice is also similar to the high-pitched, nasal and slightly flat style of many constructed, and therefore indistinguishable human female idols. However, though these idols have created a problematic position for female performers, who lack agency and positions of power within the popular music industry, they nonetheless have enjoyed tremendous popularity in Japan since WWII, which is of course a form of power itself. Indeed, as a “virtual idol” (Condry 2013), Hatsune Miku perpetuates an image of woman constructed primarily through a heterosexist male gaze, but at the same time, is accessible in a positive way, affording opportunities for music production not possible before the invention of Vocaloid software.

     The contradictory nature of Hatsune Miku is highlighted in her live performances as she performs songs written by her fans. Hideki Kenmochi argues without an actual human, there is no risk of emotions coming between the producer and the ultimate product (Kenmochi 2012). The songwriter is able to express his or her own emotion more immediately to listeners, again promoting the democratic ideal purported by Itoh. Thus, though Hatsune Miku appears to command the stage, she has no control over her musical selections and does not imbue her personality into the emotional quality of the songs. She is in fact once again an empty receptacle performing at the bidding of the audience, but in turn empowers them. As Itoh summarizes “one can’t always afford a singer but they can purchase Miku at $149” (Itoh 2013). She is a woman for sale at an extremely reasonable rate, but through her a democratic, even utopian vision for equitable music production may be realized.


Condry, Ian (2013). The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media
Success Story
. Durham: Duke University Press.
Itoh, Hiroyuki (2013). Public Lecture at the Japan Foundation in New York City on October 8th.
Kenmochi, Hideki (2012). Singing Synthesis as a New Musical Instrument pp. 5385-5388 in Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing (ICASSP).


Cinema, Memory, Women and Art Installations

Madhuja Mukherjee

     This project grows from my research on glass-plate negatives. The project involved methodical scanning of the negatives; afterwards, it involved turning these digital scans into positives and consequently identifying the material. A comprehensive catalogue was produced for emergent archives. What initially appeared as unclear blotches later emerged as images of more than a thousand lobby cards of films, stills and posters for theatrical display, as well as blueprints of posters and working stills of Indian cinema from the 1940s until the 1960s. Furthermore, a large number of advertisement slides of consumer items used for theatrical projections also came forth, highlighting the fact that cinema shares its boundaries with various other cultural domains. Beyond this, there emerged a range of mysterious images which could not be dated, situated within particular contexts, nor identified in terms of year, place, author/actor, and production. Notably, the material did not comprise big street posters, but rather pictures and teasers for theatrical exposition.

     Within this context, I argue that these materials should be studied as objects that call to mind memories of certain spaces and places, as well as specific sights and sites, which are connected to personal memories, urban histories, architectures, and the mobility of women. In short, there is a spatial meaning to this material. With reference to the images and patterns in which the female body is positioned, or the ways in which the face of the star addressed an imaginary male viewer, questions of gender vis-à-vis masculine domains and larger frameworks of public spaces (such as theatres) become crucial. Located at the edge of several fields—including the technological history of glass plate cameras and uses of glass negatives, the study of film distribution-exhibition, the architecture of cinemas, the history of labour, star studies, and art history—this material evidently demands a new approach.

     These realizations led me to create a set of media installations that attempted to produce an environment that is playful and provocative, and an abstraction of the ways in which women remember cinema. My installations evoked intimate memories of specific spaces (for instance, the dark room of the cinemas, the mirror shining in the theatre lobbies, the cinematic stairways, the chandeliers) and certain unresolved conditions, which were transported into art spaces through fragmentary images, lights, objects, and sounds. The installations attempted to re-create the notion of cinema as a public phenomenon and underscored the conspicuous presence/absence of women within it.


The “Comfort Women” and the Voice of East Asian Modernity

Joshua D. Pilzer

     Korea’s colonial modernity (1910-45) notably produced both female pop stars and legions of sex workers, a sex-industrial development which reached its zenith in the “comfort women,” the Japanese military’s wartime system of sexual slavery during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-45). The concurrent rise of the female voice in Korean popular music and the rise of colonial sex industries are not the result of opposing forces of modernization and barbarism, but deeply intertwined parts of the search for the place of women in colonial modernity. In this essay, through a detailed analysis of the references to popular music and dance in the testimony of former Korean “comfort women,” I first seek to reconstruct the place of these performing arts in the “comfort women” system; I then consider the resonances between the figure of the colonial female pop star and the sexual slave, and the reasons for these resonances.

      An examination of the testimonies reveals music and dance as vital parts of the culture of the “comfort women” system. Performances for common soldiers, shows in officers’ clubs, organized dances, and casual singing were variously rehearsals of domination and subordination and important resources in women’s struggles for wartime survival—as a means of improving one’s situation, and of sustaining oneself physically, psychologically, and socially. The picture of music and dance in the “comfort women” system which emerges from the testimonies provides a vivid example of the linkages that connect wartime with times of so-called ‘peace,’ of the role of the performing arts in wartime violence, social domination and survival, and of the importance of gender and sexuality in war, violence, and social domination.

      The Korean female pop star was as a symbol of the legitimacy of colonial modernization; at the same time, as a commodity, she helped to circulate a new model for the modern, colonial subordination of women, and to circulate a sense of the legitimacy of this model. This duality is a significant driving force behind the dialectic of adoration and abjection of female pop stars in popular culture. We find these processes at work in the “comfort stations” as well. Music and dance in the “comfort stations” were a theater of domination and submission that attempted to legitimize the colonial project and the war effort; in this atmosphere soldiers fell in love with “comfort women.” Performances were also part of the project of commodifying women’s bodies and sexualities in the sex camps, and soldiers alsotreated the victims of the “comfort women” system as disposable objects of contempt and sexual violence.

     The cultural life of the “comfort women” system was deeply imprinted by the entertainment cultures that soldiers and the young women brought with them, and by wartime popular music and film. The gwonbeon, colonial-era schools for Korean traditional female entertainers, sent girls and young women into pop stardom and to the “comfort stations.” So a sizeable minority of “comfort women” had themselves aspired to be entertainers at a time when the distinction between the traditional and the popular was radically unclear. Some “comfort women” went to films with soldiers, and sang film songs together with them, and reminded them of the variously uncivilized and unspoiled heroines of colonial cinema. Performances of popular song in the “comfort stations” channeled Korean and Japanese female pop stars. The role of the colonial female pop star afforded new opportunities for female agency in the colonial public sphere; and performance in the “comfort stations” had a similar strategic value for the victimized girls and young women. Music and dance were tools for improving one’s station: some “comfort women,” channeling the female archetypes of colonial and Japanese popular culture and pop cultural tropes of romantic love, secured the affections of an officer and became private sexual servants, thus dramatically reduced their work load. In some cases such officers even facilitated “comfort women’s” release from bondage and passage back to Korea.

      So the legitimization of colonial modernization, the commodification of women, and new opportunities for women enabled by the figure of the colonial female pop star can also be found in her dystopian sibling, the “comfort woman.” The musical life of the “comfort women” system provides a stark example of the deeply ambivalent place of entertaining women in emergent Japanese and Korean popular cultures, and of the grain of the voice of East Asian colonial modernity.


Musical Voices of Vernacular Modernity: Women Singers of Colonial Malaya 

Sooi-Beng Tan

     Popular Malay music developed in Malaya in tandem with socio-political transformations which took place as a result of British colonialism. Rapid economic development attracted Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian immigrants who provided labour for the tin mines, rubber estates, and the construction of roads and railways in British Malaya. Port cities and towns were created and an urban multiethnic population emerged.   A variety of non-indigenous cultural activities and commercial theatre (such as European and American operetta, revue, and vaudeville, Chinese opera, and Parsi theatre) which toured the main port cities and bigger towns provided entertainment for the multiethnic urban population. It was at this time that a new type of local commodified urban popular music known as lagu Melayu (Malay song) emerged to entertain the multiethnic urban audiences from different social and class backgrounds. This new music was shaped by the convergence of the new social conditions, technology such as print, gramophone, radio, film, microphones, cultural forms, and performance sites, that emerged (Tan 1993).

     By examining the song styles and texts of 78 rpm recordings of Lagu Melayu, oral interviews with performers, and published texts of the colonial period, this paper illustrates how the new popular music accorded women performing artists voice and agency to negotiate dominant discourses regarding modern colonial subjectivity and gender (Spivak 1988).  As Feld et al (2004) have stated, the musical voice was a ‘metaphor’ for expressing ‘difference’ and ‘experiencing identity’.

     Women singers promoted a type of vernacular modernity that was not defined solely in European terms but was characterized by continuity, difference, and hybridity. They negotiated the relationships between the local, Asian, and Anglo-American through musical style and content. They actively appropriated elements of commercial Anglo-American popular music and added new texts to generate new meanings. With the introduction of the microphone, their musical voices changed from a narrow tense nasal quality to a soft melodic one.  Tuneful melodies  considered modern  were emphasized. Nevertheless, local Malay elements were maintained while Chinese, Indian, and Arabic musical elements were incorporated in the new songs. Local and foreign dance rhythmic patterns were juxtaposed.

      Through their song texts and lifestyles, women performers advocated for change and progress, which evolved in response to Malay nationalism, Islamic reformism, and modernity. Issues regarding gender roles were performed in the new songs.  Women artistes sang about the demands imposed on them in local customary practices and the traditional notions of women, men, and Malay-Muslim way of life. They contested their conventional status through involvement in specialized careers such as singing in public, recording at studios, popular theatre, and film.  The Malay women singers found an alternative means of self-expression and went against tradition by creating alternative lifestyles. Through their performances and lifestyles they could express the impulse to be free from the traditional expectations of how the trajectory of a woman’s life should be.

     The musical voice can be seen as a performative act for assessing women’s modern subjectivities and positions in colonial Malaya. The new songs enabled women to form alternative identities for themselves and to voice them to the wider public; they encouraged audiences to empathize with them. The women singers contested prevailing stereotypes and expectations about gender through their lifestyles and songs.  Women artistes were survivors who strategized and negotiated with patriarchy and other dominant discourses that tried to contain them.

     These articulations and negotiations created anxieties in the conservative circles of Malay-Muslim society. As they juggled social roles and identities singing and dancing on stage (oftentimes being packaged to be desired by men), the women performers continued to engage with conventions of Malay-Muslim female respectability and cultural decorum.  They danced with men in the ronggeng performance stage without touching them. Instead of the European dresses that were worn by non-Malay cabaret girls of the period, they were always featured in Malay costumes in their performances and in the photographs of advertisements in the record catalogues and newspapers. By so doing, they were able to manipulate two sets of social expectations – one required by forces of modernization and the other by the dictates of traditionalism. The musical recordings and stories of their lives reveal the complex polyvocal and sometimes contradictory experiences of women performers in colonial Malaya.


Feld, Steven, Aaron Fox, Thomas Porcello, and David Samuels. 2004. “Vocal Anthropology”, in A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, Ed. Alessandro Duranti, Mass: Blackwell.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana: Univ of Illinois Press.

Tan Sooi Beng. 1993. Bangsawan:  A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Theatre, Singapore: Oxford University Press.


Fearless Nadia, Woman with the Whip: From Cabaret Dancer to Circus Queen

Rosie Thomas

     Fearless Nadia was queen of the Bombay cinema box-office of the 1930s and 1940s.  Known as hunterwali or ‘woman with the whip’ after her 1935 debut film of the same name, she played a swashbuckling, horse-riding, masked avenger who championed India’s independence and women’s rights.  A white-skinned, blue-eyed blonde sporting hot pants, leather boots, plunging necklines and a voluptuous body, she tossed burly villains over her golden curls, beat hapless men to pulp, swung across ravines and rescued her heroes before taking the reins in a no-nonsense romance.

     My paper addresses this conference’s call to “understand the conjuncture that enabled women’s voices to emerge simultaneously with modernities in Asia”.   Like several others here, I use “voice” in its widest sense to refer to both singing and dancing, talking and walking – all modes in which the body moves expressively – including kicking and punching.  I argue that not only was the emergence and visibility of a modern femininity in India gradual, complex and fraught, but so also was the empowerment of this ‘modern girl’.  Following Kathryn Hansen, I suggest that European and Eurasian bodies were key to the gradual process of the emergence and acceptability of the modern Indian woman.

     This paper interweaves three parallel stories: (i) Nadia’s real-life journey from subaltern outcaste cabaret dancer to daughter-in-law of one of Bombay’s most respectable Parsi families; (ii) Nadia’s on-screen journey from heroine who sang, danced and cried to one who set the world to rights through her authoritative voice and body language; (iii) the transition that made song and dance (and the presence of feminine voices – and bodies – in public) gradually more accepted and ‘respectable’ in India. Perhaps perversely, I am primarily concerned with why my central character, Fearless Nadia, mostly didn’t sing or dance on screen, despite the fact that she clearly had these skills.

     Nadia was part of a demi-monde of subaltern European and Eurasian women whose lives are not documented in histories of colonial India. Whilst their appeal, as glamorous ‘white’ bodies, allowed them to earn a living as low-class performers in theatre, circus and vaudeville, their livelihoods were precarious: memoirs and contemporary accounts of prostitution suggest that many were exploited and almost all lacked ‘respectability’. The performance forms these women fed were invariably premised on visceral ‘thrills’, which included the ‘thrill’ of gazing on European female flesh. The circuits on which the circus, carnival, theatre and dance troupes travelled overlapped with more rooted local bazaar culture, where song, dance, poetry, music, wrestling, acrobatics, kite-flying, animal-taming and a host of traditional itinerant performers flourished. The bazaar – a space beyond the reach of both colonial authorities and the bourgeois nationalist elite, and referred to by Dipesh Chakrabarty as “the paradigmatic form of the outside in India” – was characterized by a strong Islamicate ethos but encompassed a vibrant hybridity of representational forms, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

     In this context I examine the lacunae in Nadia’s own accounts of her life on the road as a singer and dancer in the early 1930s, and the ways in which this history was later erased from both her biography and her films. Although Nadia started off as a cabaret dancer, in the popular memory her career began in the circus and ended with the 1959 film Circus Queen. In fact she spent less than six weeks in the circus and made only two circus-themed films, both late in her career. Why has Nadia been insistently remembered as a circus artiste not a cabaret dancer? Why has circus legitimized both her on- and off-screen persona?

     I suggest that circus – both Indian and European – was the acceptable form of the ‘outside’ in India: people of all social classes went to the circus.  Whilst circus was a hybrid space of mimicry, spectacle and inversion of gender, it was also place where dangerous Others (human, animal or technological) were tamed within the show itself under the sign of the ringmaster’s whip. Interestingly, circus was the only form of vernacular culture approved of by India’s nationalist elite.

      Nadia was quintessentially ‘the woman with the whip’ or hunterwali – a form of cinematic ring-mistress. Nadia’s ‘voice’ – in all its physicality – tamed dangerous Others. In doing this, it helped the emergent ‘modern Indian woman’ to become visible and audible, authoritative and empowered. But the stigma of singing and dancing – indelibly associated with the bazaar – was so great that, in order to achieve authority (on-screen) and respectability (in real life), all traces of Nadia’s earlier career had to be ruthlessly erased.


Enacting the nation through voice, body, and gender: Filipina singers from the close of the Philippine-American War to the onset of martial law (1912-1972) 

Ricardo D. Trimillos

      For the Philippines in the twenty-first century strands of modernity, globalization, and nation are closely interwoven, the result of processes in play during the previous twentieth century. The time period for our discussion has two important “bookends”—the close of the Philippine-American War in 1912 and the onset of martial law in 1972. For the purposes of this paper I refer to these six decades as the period of Developing Modernity, a duration of relative social and political stability enabling self-reflection upon identity and nation.

     Philippine commercial music during this time illustrates and informs these processes in play, which we examine through the careers of two female vocalists with national and international reputations, jazz singer Katy dela Cruz and chanteuse Pilita Corrales. Modernity in the Philippines, according to populist views, arrived with the US occupation of the archipelago, which extended from 1898 until 1941, and has continued de facto as economic domination well into the Second Republic. Developing Modernity itself constitutes a significant time of changing notions of modernity: initially the successful mastery of Western lifeways as promulgated by the US (the “little brown brother” image), through struggles of ambivalent and colonial identities (“three hundred years in the convent and fifty years in Hollywood”), and re-asserting an Asian-ness as part of the ASEAN community, to an evolved modernity that appropriated and domesticated Western music through what the national music industry labeled “Original Pilipino Music” (OPM). The period Developing Modernity involved negotiations of culture and nation evident in these two singers.

     Katy dela Cruz embodied nation defined by its center both symbolically and actually; she was born in Intramuros, Manila, the “center of the center”—the walled city of the Spanish colonial capital. At the time the Manila metropole determined Philippine economy, politics, education, and religious life. Tagalog, the language of Manila and its environs, was renamed Pilipino and became the putative national language.  Dela Cruz emerges early in the period from a family of modest means, beginning her career as a “bodabil” singer in the cinema theatres of 1920s Manila. As a teenage sensation in the metropole she quickly graduated to jazz styles. Her persona was earthy, “downtown,” and occasionally risqué, as evidenced by her signature song, “Ang Balut” with its double entendre and sexual teasing. During her heyday, Filipinos were widely recognized as the jazz and pop musicians throughout Asia and the Pacific and were prominent in the US entertainment scene; dela Cruz contributed to this reputation. In the 60s she settled in the US until her passing. Signal for international recognition was her top billing at the famed Forbidden City in San Francisco during the 40s and 50s; national recognition for dela Cruz includes Katy! the 1989 musical on her life, restaged by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2013.

     Pilita Corrales, emerging in the 1950s toward the close of Developing Modernity, represented cultural diversity and an idealized womanhood for the nation. Reared in Cebu, an historically important province in the center of the archipelago, Corrales spoke Cebuano, the regional language that often contests the hegemony of Tagalog cum Pilipino as lengua franca. She came from a privileged background: both parents were Spanish; the resulting fair complexion—a highly valued aesthetic trait—enhanced her public image. She established a singing career in Australia and then returned to the Philippines with international credits in hand. Her image as ilustrado elite and “proper” Filipina combined with her smooth pop stylings in seven languages reinforced an image of the nation as diverse, modern, and cosmopolitan. With previous engagements in Las Vegas, Corrales remained in the Philippines during martial law, and in the Second Republic continues to be a music and media celebrity. 

Each artist enacts Filipinicity—what it is to be Philippine (as political identity), Filipino (as cultural construct), and Filipina (as gender role). Both engage the ongoing relationship of the Philippines and the individual Filipino with the United States in terms of embraceable imagery and lifestyle aspirations. Each singer, although part of the same commercial music industry, presents a distinctive trajectory of engagement with nation and culture during the Developing Modernity period. Regarding relevance for the present twenty-first century, each references alternative modernities relative to the international circulation of mediatized music and the globalization of vocalized and gendered bodies. Both argue for cultural continuities within environments of social change.


The Acoustic Ladies: Remediating “Chinese” Femininity and (Inter)nationality in Early Talkies

Yiman Wang

     July 1935, a British newspaper reported, “China’s own most famous actress, Miss Butterfly Wu, of Shanghai, shook hands yesterday with Hollywood’s most famous Chinese star, Miss Anna May Wong,” at a reception in honor of both Wu and Mei Lan-fang, “China’s leading stage actor.”  The reasons for the three ethnic Chinese performers’ visiting or sojourning in London–the interwar metropolis--were very different.  Both Wu and Mei were invited by Soviet Union in Feb. 1935, which led to their European tour.  Wong had just returned to London from her one-woman vaudeville performances in Northern Europe, and was to embark on her first and only China trip in half a year, where she was to be reunited with Wu in Shanghai and Mei in Beijing.  Their historical meeting in London not simply marked a coincidental convergence in their individual traveling itineraries; but more importantly, it signaled increasing international visibility endowed upon ethnic Chinese stars and Chinese popular culture (including the new medium of film and the traditional Peking Opera that was going through significant reform).  It is within this transnational display and performance of “Chineseness” that I study a specific dimension of the three performers’ convergence, namely, the lineage and intertwining of their vocal as well as visual performances in relation to cinematic modernity that unfolded amongst ethnic Chinese artists both within and outside China.     

     All three performers became involved in filmmaking as it was emerging into a new dominant entertainment industry (Wong 1919, Mei 1920, Wu 1925).  Interestingly, if Mei needed to foreground the visual choreography at the expense of his vocal performance in 1920 when some of his repertoire pieces were filmed as silent shorts, his vocal performance came back as a highly desirable feature as the silent era gave way to talkies.  Both Wu and Wong informally apprenticed themselves to Mei, seeking to study the operatic performance in order to expand their performance skills in response to the constantly shifting film technologies and aesthetics.  Wong’s apprenticeship in Beijing during her1936 China trip possibly triggered her stage performance in Turandot in 1937. 

     Also importantly, both Wong and Wu played a key role in ushering in the talkie era with their singing voice.  Wong starred in Flame of Love (1930) in all three versions of German, British and French.  The British version literally opens with her off screen singing of a love song.  Hu starred in China’s first Vitaphone talkie, The Songstress Red Peony (1931), which featured her Peking opera episodes dubbed by Mei.  Both films received enthusiastic publicity that highlighted the two actresses’ accomplishment, the superb sound recording techniques, and in Wu’s case, the film’s contribution to the Chinese national cinema.

     These emphases raise important questions regarding the technologization, commercialization, and (inter)nationalization of the female voice, which in turn underscore the process of remediation inherent in the production and circulation of the female vocal performance.  Instead of seeing the female singing voice as spontaneous self-expression or simple virtuoso performance, we must attend to the ways in which the singing voice were filtered, reconstructed and rearticulated through the technology of sound recording (and the various interferences inherent in the early recording processes), the use of a separate sound disk to accompany the film and the acoustic mediation through Mei’s singing voice in his female impersonating performance (in The Songstress Red Peony), and equally importantly, Wong’s tri-lingual training and self-dubbing in performing her role in the multi-lingual versions of The Flame of Love

     In this essay, I will study how the two instances of female singing voice were triangulated and intermediated with Mei Lanfang’s female impersonation derived from Peking Opera on the one hand, and on the other hand, remediated through new filming and recording technologies at the cusp the sound era.  My goal is to unpack the cultural phenomenon of the emerging female singing voice, using it as a lens to examine the reconfiguration of gendered performance and performative gender identity in relation to colonial modernity and cosmopolitanism, national identity and international aspirations.  ‘


Female Voices in the Public Sphere: Playback Singing and Performance in South India

Amanda Weidman

     Song sequences in Indian popular cinema play a central role in organizing affect and desire through imagery and sound.  These songs feature the voices of “playback” singers, so named because their voices are first recorded in the studio and then lip-synced by the actors and actresses on the set during the filming process. Beginning in the 1950s, playback singers became known figures, some of whom would overshadow those who appeared on screen in their popularity and longevity as public celebrities. This paper will examine how playback singing, which emerged as a professional career possibility in the 1950s, produced new forms of stardom and opportunities for women to enter the public sphere, while serving as a key site for the creation and circulation of ideologies and aesthetics of gender and voice.

     Through film songs in which voices were powerfully linked to images of class, caste, community, gender, and regional/national identity, playback singing became a realm of vocality intricately encoded with meaning. Within this field, the female voice and the persona of the female playback singer took on particular significance as sites for the mapping of oppositions between tradition and modernity, East and West, middle-class and lower-class, morality and debauchery.  Beginning in the 1950s, a certain kind of female playback singer attained iconic status. She was a recognizable type who managed to embody seemingly contradictory elements: a high-pitched, girlish voice and a modest, even plain appearance-- a woman whose singing voice might be matched with on-screen characters of varying social position and status, but whose live persona and demeanor remained that of a non-glamorous, “respectable,” middle-class woman.

     The aesthetics of the new female playback voice were shared across the Bombay-based and South Indian film industries. However, while Lata Mangeshkar, and to a lesser extent her sister Asha Bhosle, dominated the field of Hindi films, in the South Indian context, from the 1950s through the 1980s, the situation was slightly more diversified.  Three or four female singers who sang for Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam films became dominant in the 1960s, their voices immediately recognizable and well known to the public.  This situation allows us to examine how a typology of female voices emerged, articulated in public discourse about playback voices as well as in the division of labor these voices were made to perform in films, based on voices that were heard as clean and licit and voices that were considered “husky” or immodest. 

      Based on interviews with singers, music directors and sound engineers in the Tamil film industry, as well as archival research and critical analysis of films and film songs, this paper will explore the ways female singers of this period were constructed in the public imagination and negotiated their role as public performers in the 1950s and 60s. It will focus on three singers: P. Susheela, S. Janaki, and L.R. Eswari, examining how their voices and personae were used in films of the time, and how they placed themselves in relation to norms of public female respectability.  In particular, it will examine the career and persona of L.R. Eswari, who, although she did not start out as such, came to be bran