Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Top of the Pops

First there was J-pop, then came K-pop, and now I-pop stands poised to win over the world's teenyboppers. The attention of the whole world has been focused on Asian pop music of late in the wake of the "Gangnam Style" ear worm, a Korean pop-cultural phenomenon that has conquered the entire planet, notching up a record 861 million YouTube hits in the process. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has described the unprecedented global smash as a, "force for world peace,” which I think might be gilding the lily just slightly.

PSY's Solar System conquering hit, which parodies the lavish lifestyles of Seoul's Gangnam district, will probably prove to be a one-hit wonder, however Asian pop music itself has a long and illustrious past behind it, and now I-pop (Indonesian pop) is bidding to join J-pop (Japanese pop) and K-pop (Korean pop) on heavy radio rotation around the world.

Now, it should be stressed at the outset that if you're not a teenage female of the species then you may well rather, like myself, prefer to saw your own legs off with the sharp edge of a copy of Gadis magazine to actually listening to most of this stuff, however there is no doubt that the star of Asian pop is rising at the moment and that the music represents a social phenomenon most definitely worth remarking on.

J-pop was the first Asian popular music to be truly in and of itself, and entered the musical mainstream during the 1990s, although its history dates back to the 1970s and Japanese synth-pop bands such as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Southern All Stars. Currently, one of the biggest (in every sense of the word) J-pop groups is AKB 48, who are one of the highest earning musical acts in the world with record sales in 2011 reaching a whopping US$200 million in Japan alone (although the group’s share of this had to be split among its Guinness World Record-breaking 91 members!).

The huge group is divided into three subgroups, Team A, Team K and Team B and also includes a number of aspiring members known as kenkyusei (trainees). It's perhaps not coincidental that this hit-making behemoth of a group appears to structure itself like some bobby-socks wearing multinational corporation, and as the band's profits reach for the stratosphere, no doubt the accountants are rubbing their hands together gleefully.

And so over to I-pop, Indonesia's answer to the super-slick, Samsung and Sony powered smashes of the Far East. I-pop's profile is also on the rise at the moment and even Indonesia's Tourism Minister, Mari Elka Pangestu, is currently urging the country's pop musicians to try and emulate the success of their Japanese and Korean brethren. Indeed, Indonesia's Tourism Ministry recently sent a party of pop musicians over to South Korea to study the K-pop phenomenon.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, however it has to be said that Indonesia's music industry now dominates its own domestic market at least, despite being blighted by copyright piracy, and in 2010, Indonesia's creative economy contributed some Rp. 468 trillion (US$ 48.6 billion) to the economy, growing by 6 per cent in the process and absorbing some 7.9 per cent of the country's workforce.

I-pop (or Indo pop) acts range from long-time stalwarts such as Peterpan (now Noah), Sheila on 7 and d'Masiv, to new teeny-bop sensations such as Cherry Belle and Princess (both girl bands) and ZooM and HITZ (boy bands, if you can tell the difference). And, naturally, social media such as Facebook feature plenty of I-pop (as well as anti-I-pop!) groups.

J-pop and K-pop influences abound in the protean world of I-pop, it has to be said. Local bands such as J Rocks, Geisha, and Daisha, as their names suggest, remain in a thrall to their more illustrious, hair-gel abusing peers across the oceans of the Orient, and Indonesia even has its own answer to AKB 48: JKT 48.

This sister group was formed just over a year ago and, according to producer Yasushi Akimoto, can become, "A bridge between Indonesia and Japan." Dewy-eyed, feel-good, Oprah-esque platitudes aside though, a primary motivation behind many of these new Indonesian pop stars is surely the economic exploitation of teenagers for fun and profit. JKT 48, for example, have already notched up advertisements for Pocari Sweat, Sharp, Rakuten, Laurier, Yamaha, Biore and Pocky, as both the group's star and stock rise simultaneously.

I-pop is not completely derivative of its more established Japanese and Korean cousins however, and local flavours, sentiments and styles are increasingly featuring in the music as it develops its own national identity. I-pop is also extending its reach beyond Indonesia's borders to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, primarily due to common elements of language and culture of course, however they really seem to love the stuff over there. Indeed, Indonesian pop music has made such a splash over in Malaysia that back in 2008, the Malaysian music industry demanded restrictions on Indonesian pop songs broadcast by Malaysian radio stations.

As in demand as I-pop has become in Malaysia however, there is as yet little sign of the obsessive, compulsive behaviour of a certain section of K-pop fans being replicated over here. Specifically we’re here talking about fans who engage in stalking and invasions of artists’ privacy, and indeed there are even taxi services in Korea that cater specifically to fans looking to follow their idols around town. Obsessive K-pop fans have also actually been known to install GPS trackers under their heroes' cars in rather ingeniously James Bond-style acts of obsessive hero worship. Speaking personally though, I'd perhaps be more inclined to engage in anti-fan forms of stalking, such as that perpetrated by the strange woman who gave Yunho, a member of K-pop band TVXQ, a drink laced with superglue before turning herself in to the police.

So is I-pop poised to pounce and conquer Asia, and indeed the world beyond? Well, so long as the hair gel keeps oozing and the money keeps flowing, then I’ve every confidence in the genre storming the post-modern ramparts of cultural banality before next Christmas. Stay sexy pop pickers.