Voices of Asian Modernities

On April 4-6, 2014, the University of Pittsburgh will host the second of two conferences that constitute the project “Voices of Asian Modernities: Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Asian Popular Music of the 20th Century.” For more information, please visit the Pittsburgh conference website at http://music.pitt.edu/vamp

Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Asian Popular Music of the 20th Century

Popular music – mass-mediated, commercialized, pleasure-filled, humorous, and representative of large segments of society – developed in Asia during the first half of the twentieth century and has become a world-wide industry by now. One of the most striking characteristics of its early years was the proliferation of new performers, often drawn from existing local theater or entertainment traditions that were changing into new fields such as cinema and advertising. Among these early entertainers, a large number of women came from local performing arts. Their voices, mediated through new technologies of film and the phonograph, changed the soundscape of global popular music and resonate today in all spheres of modern life.

Women surfaced as popular icons in different guises and in different Asian countries through different routes. The ascendency of women as performers paralleled, and indeed generated, developments in wider society such as suffrage, social and sexual liberation, women as business entrepreneurs and independent income earners, and new life styles. Often, these women established prominent careers in colonial conditions, which saw Asian societies in rapid transition and the vernacular and familiar articulated with the novel and the foreign. Further, these female performers emerged from the underclasses of society and had been engaged in activities with low social prestige and little remuneration. Through the present day, female performers, willingly or not, have often taken on a role model of the modern woman challenging conservatism, morality, and religion. Calling for changes in attitudes and life style, they have evoked discussion and admiration, as well as derision and conflict. Some, including Hibari Misora in Japan and Lata Mangeshkar in India, were elevated as official national cultural heroes, while others, like Inul Daratista in Indonesia, were denigrated for transgressing moral boundaries. Some were rewarded and celebrated, while others faded into oblivion. But their historical significance did not diminish, even if many of the women themselves did.

This conference aims to demonstrate how female entertainers, positioned at the margins of different intersecting fields of activities, created something hitherto unknown: they were artistic pioneers of new music, new cinema, new forms of dance and theater, and new behavior and morals. They moved from the margins to the mainstream and in their wake Asian pop cultures now have followed. These female performers were not merely symbols of times that were rapidly changing. Nor were they merely the personification of global historical changes. They were active agents in the creation of local performance cultures, of the newly emerging mass culture, and the rise of a region-wide and globally oriented entertainment industry.

This interdisciplinary conference will bring together a group of scholars from a range of fields including Music, Literature, History, Anthropology, Film Studies, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Performance Studies, and Asian Studies to properly historicize the artistic sounds, lyrical texts, visual images, and social lives of female performers in Asian popular music of the 20th century.

The conference will emphasize multiple valences of “voice” as a key concept in the social construction of changing identities in a global world. In one sense, “voice” refers to the sound and materiality of the singing voice that can be heard on recordings and embodied in film and in live performance. In a broader sense, the voice activates an affective and emotional bodily identification with subjectivities, events, characters, and places through which people can recognize themselves. Placing singing voices in social and historical contexts, conference participants will critically analyze salient discourses, representations, and meanings of “voice” in Asian popular music of the 20th century. For example, “voice” may refer to the expression of a singer’s inner emotions, ideas, and aspirations. But, echoing the views of early 20th century philosopher Theodor Adorno, it may also refer to the voice of a dominant and manipulative culture industry. “Voice” calls attention to agency and subjectivity and the historical contexts through which they are produced, circulated, and embodied.

Last Modified: 18-03-2014