I love (some of) the works of Bjork, George Gershwin, John Coolidge Adams, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Kurzgesagt, Jacksepticeye, Enya, Jostein Gaarder, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Phil Collins, just to name a few.
You probably haven’t heard many of them, let alone knowing what their jobs are. The ones you have, there’s a chance you aren’t familiar with their works. That gives me mixed feelings.
On one hand, it is isolating. I am very conscious about how my distinct taste is from other people’s. If I am a more social and talkative person offline, the isolation would be more intense as I would probably tell more people about my idols and hence stressing the differences between me and the others.
But, on the other hand, I feel like I am possessing an exclusive knowledge that not everyone knows about! I mean, even the most popular creators in history are not beloved by or familiar to every person in existence! Just imagine being a fan of creators of significantly more niche audience.
Call me pretentious. But, I feel special because I am intimate with the bohemian and unrivalled beauty of Bjork’s alien-sounding music, Andrei Tarkovsky’s incredibly unearthly films, John Coolidge Adams’ simultaneously surrealist and realist music, Ingmar Bergman’s unabashedly psychological films and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s politically cynical literary works.
I should mention that Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a critically acclaimed Indonesian novelist whose works had been translated into dozens of foreign languages; This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) is one of my favourite books ever. While he was infamous back then for being an alleged Communist, a result of the then-regime’s slander who was too fragile to deal with his criticisms, I doubt most Indonesians nowadays know who he is.
Oh, and speaking about Indonesians…
I also have the same feeling about mainstream Indonesian entertainment which I find insufferable with its shameless lack of originality and veneration of mediocrity. But, there are occasions where I still love it (and hence why the word ‘heritage’ in the title has quotation marks on it).
At one point, there were two Indonesian TV shows I used to love: Opera van Java (or OVJ for short) and Kick Andy. I no longer love watching them because of the repetitiveness and the realisation of their poor quality. But, admittedly, I have some fond memories watching them.
The premise of OVJ was comedians making sketches which were chronologically linear and interconnected with each other. From that description alone, the show did not sound special. But, it still had its charm.
For one, while being told to enact or reenact certain scenes, the performers were not given any scripts. They had to improvise. As they were humans with their own minds (and they were Indonesians who love to take advantage of the slightest laxing of rules), the end results were always chaotic!
The last time I watched, there was a large amount slapstick (and sometimes, the performers slapped each other) which was encouraged by the mostly styrofoam-based props, a heavy use of drag (even though last time I heard, cross-dressing was no longer legal on TV broadcasting), extremely politically incorrect jokes that would not go well in the west, the performers’ rebellious tendency who had no interest in enacting the desired stories and the absurd, nonsensical nature of the humour. Even though OVJ was not funny all the time and some of the performers weren’t just that funny, I often found myself laughing out loud while watching the show.
Kick Andy was a talk show who often invited guests for their guilt-tripping inspirational and/or sob stories; to think that I used to love such monstrosity. But, what I love the most about the show was its occasional bouts of humour.
The host himself was one cheeky fellow. From time to time, he loved to make fun of Central Javanese accents. When interviewing the oldest Indonesian to ever get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate (yes, really), he asked if her typewriter was older than her. When interviewing a man whose job to eradicate corruption, he cheekily said many people would love to see him dead; in this particular context, it sounds like the host jokingly wish for his interviewee’s death. I love this kind of cheekiness. It feels like a slap to the face of double-dealing politeness which one is expected to conform to when living in Java.
I haven’t mentioned about the guests themselves. Some loved to troll the hosts by intentionally giving ridiculous answers. They also loved to make fun of his curly hair; after he shaved his head, the bald jokes were easily born.
Okay, I have lingered too much on just two TV shows. I should transition to two of my favourite Indonesian pop musicians before I state the point of this article.
Even though I love many Indonesian pop songs, there are two Indonesians musicians of such genre that I admire the most: Chrisye and Guruh Soekarno Putra.
Obviously, both have their own flaws. Guruh can be quite pretentious every time he expresses his nationalistic pride. Whether knowingly or not, Chrisye occasionally let some of his collaborators to plagiarise Western pop songs. But, from my perspective, their strengths stick out more.
Chrisye was a pop singer who did a relatively good job balancing his idealism and his realistic need of money. He occasionally composed songs for other musicians as well. Despite what I said in the previous paragraphs, he was very particular about choosing his collaborators. For some reasons, every time he did covers, they ended up as good as or even better than the originals.
Guruh Soekarno Putra is a songwriter notable for the traditional influences in his melodies and some of his most well-known works were originally sung by Chrisye. He sincerely appreciates both traditional Indonesian cultures and western ones equally and that’s a rarity considering many snobby Indonesians often choose one over the other.
Their first collaboration was Guruh Gipsy, an influential and ambitious one-time project where traditional Balinese music is fused together with prog rock and Western classical. Their experiences with fusion music make them stand out among Indonesian pop musicians. Not only they exude humble sophistication, their subsequent works also end up feeling distinctively Indonesia in spite of the western influences and the lack of traditional instruments in the arrangements.
Every time I listen to their songs, I always feel a strange sense of nostalgia, even though many of them were released years before I was born. On rarer occasions, the feeling is a weird concoction of nostalgia and contentment; maybe, the fact that a shithole country like Indonesia can still create beautiful melodies make living here significantly more bearable (and makes me realise Indonesia has strengths that other countries lack and it is not as bad as it seems).
Now, to why I write this article in the first place…
I tried my best to describe why I love certain features of Indonesian pop culture. Even if I try to be more descriptive, I doubt any foreigners reading this would relate to what I am saying. Why? Because it is Indonesian.
Even though Indonesian traditional performance arts are being taught all over the world, Indonesian culture in general is still poorly promoted abroad. Our national language is still not a popular language for foreigners to study. Our sensibility is still a mostly undisclosed entity on the world’s stage (no wonder some people think the we are entirely governed by Sharia!). The popularity of Indonesian pop culture only extends to our neighbours, whose national languages are intelligible to ours and members of the diaspora who are still Indonesian citizens.
When interacting with foreigners, I often feel isolated because I cannot share them some of the things I am passionate about. I did share them some Indonesian songs which they considered catchy or artistic. But, they (understandably) don’t get why those songs are culturally significant to Indonesians.
But, because of the isolation, I also feel special.
Yes, I know I am talking about Indonesian pop culture, which is mainstream in one of the most populous countries on earth. But, I have to remind you that its popularity is still geographically limited…
… And because of that geographical limitation, it feels like I am enjoying very exclusive cultural entities that not everyone will appreciate! I feel like I belong to an exclusive club which membership is notoriously difficult to acquire!
This begs the questions: do citizens of countries with globally influential cultures possess such sense of exclusivity?
When it comes to countries like Japan, South Korea and India, I am not sure whether their citizens possess such feeling or not.
Japan and South Korea obviously use Japanese and Korean respectively to convey their cultures. While English is widely spoken prestige language in India, the (bountiful) native languages like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu and Tamil are still the preferred choices for songs and films.
But, at the same time, Japanese and Korean are widely taught as foreign languages overseas. Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil and many other Indian languages are still widely spoken by members of the diaspora who are no longer citizens of India. So, I have to assume the sense of exclusivity does exist, albeit less intense than the one I am personally experiencing.
So, how about the Americans and Brits?
Their entertainment is still distinctively theirs. But, not only it has a very strong global marketability, it also expresses itself using English which, while not the most spoken language in the world, is arguably the most widely taught foreign tongue.
With those facts in mind, it is extremely easy for British and American pop cultures, especially the latter, to penetrate (I am so sorry) every present-day cultural sphere. While American and British sensibilities are not universally embraced, there is no doubt many citizens all over the world are heavily exposed to at least either one!
There is no doubt some citizens of the US and the UK develop pride (and arrogance) seeing the muscularity of their ‘heritages’ on the world stage… and for that reason alone, they surely believe their cultures can be enjoyed and understood by everyone! Surely they don’t experience that sense of exclusivity!
Did I just use conjectures to assume what other people are thinking and feeling? Yes, I just did.
Obviously, I am projecting my own bias. I judge the exclusivity (or the seclusion) of pop cultures based on the territorial span of their popularity, NOT on how distinctive they are.
There are probably Indonesians who don’t see anything exclusive (even I get tired of this word) about our pop culture. They may cite its popularity in our neighbours, they may cite its inherently pop nature or they may cite reasons that I don’t have the mental faculty to anticipate.
Citizens of culturally powerful countries like the US probably see their pop cultures as exclusive entities. They may assess the exclusivity based on peculiarity, NOT on geographical limitation. From their perspectives, my shamelessly unoriginal pop ‘heritage’ may not be deserving of such characterisation!
Objectively, I also agree with said frame of mind. I believe unfeigned and harmless uniqueness is something we should celebrate or, at least, should not be judgemental about (easier said than done, I know).
But, even though I can be uncompromising and odd in social settings, loneliness and solitude are the more conspicuous parts of my social life and, for reasons I have yet to grasp, I let it affects how I perceive pop cultures.
As bizarre as it is, I am glad that is the case. It gives me a perspective that I didn’t know I could have… or need.
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