Opinion

‘Dangdut’ the collateral
damage in the Gaga saga

In the mainstream media, the recent Lady Gaga brouhaha has been seen as a conflict between Muslim conservatives and the decadence of the West, represented by the music and stage antics of the American female performer. No one, however, seemed to notice that in the midst of this fierce battle dangdut got caught in the crossfire.

The disappointment over the gig cancellation was so great that supporters of Lady Gaga marshaled any evidence they could find to attack the hypocrisy of those who vetoed the Gaga show.

One of the weapons that the Gaga camp used to attack the Gaga naysayers was the popularity of dangdut shows that feature female singers performing “erotic” dance moves, which according to one report would make Lady Gaga’s onstage antics look “tame”. In her piece titled Lady Gaga Denied Permit for Indonesian Concert While Raunchy ‘dangdut’ Shows Continue — which was used by major news outlets around the world — the Associated Press’ Robin McDowell wrote as follows:

“Preteen boys watch the singer wide-eyed as she straddles a speaker, whipping her long hair wildly. She licks the microphone and drops to the ground, repeatedly thrusting her pelvis toward a camera… tens of thousands of young women here put on performances like [dangdut performer Titin] Karisma’s every night. They shake and grind in smoky bars, ritzy nightclubs, at weddings, even circumcisions. In most cases the hosts say the sexier the better,” McDowell said.

McDowell was not alone in her morally preening tone. Indonesians joined the chorus in drawing comparisons between Gaga’s stage antics and sexually-charged dangdut performances. Former Aktuil music magazine journalist Denny Sakrie, who prides himself as a holdover from the glory days of the 1970s rock scene condemned the “immoral” dangdut shows. “In Indonesia, we can see any number of erotic dangdut shows. Where’s the morality there?” he said.

As if the piece didn’t make it clear enough about the dangdut scene in the country, several mainstream news media reprinted McDowell’s story complete with pictures of sexy dangdut moves taken by wire-service photographers.

And with a flurry of YouTube videos being distributed in the social media depicting all kinds of sexually-charged dance moves, the smear campaign against dangdut for a while reached fever pitch.

We’ve heard this story before. Dangdut is the bête noir of the middle classes, the type of music they love to hate. Members of the country’s middle class have a long history of bias against dangdut, and the Gaga controversy saw the old grudges being rekindled.

As Andrew Weintraub writes in his seminal work on the subject Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia’s Most Popular Music, soon after the establishment of dangdut as a musical genre in the 1970s, mainstream media rushed to print lurid tales about the music and its audience.

Popular music magazines like Aktuil — which regularly promoted Western bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and advertised accessories for the modern lifestyle — made fun of the fact that female dangdut singers “wore short skirts and high boots that stretched up to the knees.” Dangdut fans were portrayed as “gangs” (komplotan) and the singers “screamed” (meneriakkan) their songs rather than sang them. Fast-forward to today, Led Zeppelin is Lady Gaga and the YouTube videos, distributed on Twitter and Facebook, the playground of the country’s middle class, are the vehicle through which to mock dangdut.

Weintraub concludes that “in the pages of popular print media, dangdut has become a social text for
assigning all sorts of meaning upon which elites could register their own class positions…and dangdut became both a sign and a target of (essentialist) elite constructions of Indonesian identity.” Aktuil is most well-known for quoting a statement from one of the country’s bona fide “progressive” rockers Benny Soebardja who said that “dangdut is dog s**t music.”

All this in spite of anthropological work, as well as anecdotal evidence, that points to the fact that dangdut is a liberating force in working class communities.

Anyone who has ever gone to a dangdut show — and willing to discard their middle-class preconceptions — could see that dangdut is the tie that binds the community. This is the type of entertainment that, and this may sound patronizing, the poor can easily relate to.

And for those who think that dangdut erotic performances are a gateway to prostitution, ethnomusicologist Jeremy Wallach offers an evidence-based rebuttal. In Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997-2001, Wallach writes that “the monetary offerings, or saweran, in dangdut shows have value not only as a display of personal wealth but as an index of personal restraint; the patron rewards the singer (who dances erotically) for providing the opportunity to test his resolve in the face of sensual temptation.”

Wallach also makes the argument that for the female performers, dangdut is liberating in the sense that it provides them with an independent source of income and escape from the stranglehold of the patriarchy.

Most dangdut songs talk about divorce, broken hearts, unrequited love and other tales of love-gone-wrong. That’s not a gimmick, because that’s actually what happens in the life of those female dangdut singers who are mostly single mothers, divorced or widowed, who have to work to support their families within a patriarchal system. Citing economic motivations is the only argument they can use to make being a dangdut singer acceptable.

“Although dangdut concert stages can easily be viewed as places that objectify and exploit women, dangdut appeals to both genders…the appeal to women is that listening to and performing dangdut songs may in fact provide one way for Indonesian women to ‘relieve stress’ in their own lives.” Wallach writes.

Of course, such complexities are always lost in the eyes of the popular media, which prefers a simplified story arc for every controversy. Predictably, the emancipation of closeted gays, bullied teens and average-looking youths that Gaga has campaigned for can easily catch on, given the massive PR machine that the mainstream music industry controls. It is this emancipation theme that has been championed by the Gaga cheerleaders and fans who wanted to see her perform in the country.

The tragedy is not simply that the middle class-controlled news media sneer at the life-style and career choices of thousands of hardworking women in the country who struggle to emancipate themselves through dangdut, they dismiss their endeavors as “immoral”. We should have known that dangdut would be the new Lady Gaga.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.

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