What was the relationship between women and modern media in different parts of Asia in the 20th century? Under what historical and social conditions did women achieve prominence in popular music in Asia? What forms did women’s voices take in popular music? What meanings about women did audiences derive from popular music? Central to these questions are the role of mass media in (1) constituting feminine identities, especially among youth cultures; (2) defining publics according to gender and class; (3) promoting certain kinds of feminine values while submerging others; (4) creating alternative media spaces; (5) shaping perceptions of the modern woman.
This project differs from previous projects on female subjectivities and global modernity in terms of its scope and orientation. For example, The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group focused on the emergence of a new kind of young woman around the first half of the 20th century who challenged social conventions and stereotypes (for example, the dutiful daughter, mother, or wife). The “Modern Girl” project, however, emphasized visual iconography in art, advertising, journalism, and cinema whereas “Voices of Asian Modernities” focuses on music, sound, the voice, and performance. It is our contention that music, sound, the voice, and performance mark women’s agency in different ways than commercial advertising. For example, the voices of playback singers in Indian film were heard but not seen, lending them a different valence than the flashy and fashionable image of the modern girl. Further, the Modern Girl project identified the near simultaneous emergence of modern forms of femininity around the globe. In this project we wish to identify ruptures and discontinuities that complicate the notion of an emergent type of the “Modern Girl.”
In focusing on the popular and the everyday we also hope to contribute to the field of Asian popular culture studies. The burgeoning field of Asian popular culture studies is deeply implicated in the academic study of the popular and quotidian, but equally (and notoriously) implicated for its lack of a well-defined methodology and singular obsession with the present. The often shallow theorizing of historical dimensions in Asian popular culture studies is in particular in need of historiographical remediation.
Studies of pioneering women in popular performing arts of Asia have shown how ideas of performance have been instrumental in the construction of new identities by questioning and rejecting conventional forms of presentation. For example, Asian performers play with ideas of “glamour” (defined as dressing up; allure; and enchantment), “camp” (artifice and exaggeration), and “kitsch” (sentimentality and melodrama) for strategic ends. These ideas, and others, will allow us to map the ways in which performers have articulated their own positions in specific contexts. The conference will reveal how women in popular music contributed to new processes of social differentiation, of culture formation, and of history making.
Conscious subversion of gendered behavior, parody, and strategic use of cultural stereotypes have not only been instrumental in the making of new fashions but have also found their way to a larger audience and society as a whole. Asian entertainment industries have as such not only seen the rise of the Asian diva, but they have also offered a productive playground for those experimenting with the effeminate and other alternative forms of masculinity, cross dressing, and sheer travesty. The conference will consider these forms, among others, as effects of female voices of modernity.