Warwick ASEAN Conference

Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asian Pop Music

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.


The rapid urbanization of Southeast Asia amidst accelerating cultural flows can sometimes be quite disorienting for its youth who becoming increasingly plugged in to global cultural trends through the internet and social media. Today, we frequently encounter interesting situations where you hear an incredible piece of music on the radio or the internet, only to realize upon further research that the singer is from Singapore or Indonesia, for example. In the circles of pop music production, it is common to have a pop song written in Malaysia to be recorded in LA and produced in Sweden. The result is a pop tune that is almost indistinguishable from Anglo-American pop music on the surface – until perhaps the pleasant discovery that these musicians come from where we live in Southeast Asia.

The discourse of pop cultural production in Southeast Asia in the past has frequently revolved around constructions of the “local” or “regional” to be in opposition with the “West” (Chun, Rossiter, and Shoesmith 2004). The “local” is constructed in reference to local municipal or State depictions of ethnic or indigenous forms, while the “West” is seen as a kind of corrupting or erosive cultural force. The result is a skewed and awkward reading of “localization” only as resistance against the hegemonic forces of transnational capitalism; where it is only through hybridization and everyday practices that we can barely retain a semblance of who we are. Those who buy into such false binary oppositions frequently accuse the musicians of “selling out” and losing their roots or identities, whether by choice or by necessity. What then does it mean to make pop music as a Southeast Asian person? Evidently, singing in the local Singlish vernacular cannot be the only way to make Singaporean pop music, and Indonesians certainly do not have to weave gamelan and angklung influences into their pop tunes to be Indonesian.

The term aesthetic cosmopolitanism was adopted by Regev (2013) to understand and explain the tendency for local and regional music scenes to be extremely open to the experiences and musics of diverse cultures, and that cultural uniqueness in late modernity is much more fluid due to the ease of technological manipulation of musical elements. The result is that musicians frequently appropriate ideas and techniques from global cultural flows for their own compositions, inject their own subjectivities, and eagerly circulate them back to the rest of the world.

Indie pop bands from Bandung (Luvaas 2009) and Singapore, along with the youths that support them, frequently make use of these cosmopolitan aesthetics to provide new constructions “locality” – one which liberates them from the feelings of being trapped in a colonial and young national past, supplanted by the goals and aspirations of an increasingly well-educated middle class. Meanwhile, the recent explosion in the interest for Southeast Asian rap and hip-hop led by rappers Rich Brian (formerly known as Rich Chigga) and Suboi introduce musically and lyrically fresh ideas to a global hip-hop scene, resonating amongst people from diverse cultures but sharing the same urban experiences. In pop music, acts like Yuna, The Sam Willows, and Gentle Bones, are rapidly gaining strong regional and international fans, putting Southeast Asia on the global pop music map.

By grounding our understanding of pop culture in local histories and contexts, the production and consumption pop music of Southeast Asia should not be perceived as a source of moral panic nor an invasion “Western cultural values”. Conversely, a closer look at the music scenes of this region has found robust evidence of an outward and forward-looking nationalism that is eager to popularize and project constructions of local and regional identity. This is especially the case in Thailand’s culture industry in the 2000s where the Thai monarchy and government syncretised aspects of Thai culture to facilitate greater cultural exchange with outsiders (Chun et al. 2004), and in Singapore through a series of targeted open grants for musicians by the National Arts Council.

As urban populations are increasingly subjected to the pressures of transnational capital and state apparatus, popular culture becomes a crucial site for people to learn, experiment, and express identities or social relations that may not be readily accessible or permissible (Lipsitz 1994). These unfulfilled identities and social relations are the embodiment of the aspirations and fantasies of our people who, like these musicians, are eager to participate in global cultural flows and make sense of who we are.


Chun, Allen John Uck Lun, Ned Rossiter, and Brian Shoesmith, eds. 2004. Refashioning Pop Music in Asia: Cosmopolitan Flows, Political Tempos, and Aesthetic Industries. New York, NY: RoutledgeCurzon.

Lipsitz, George. 1994. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. Verso.

Luvaas, Brent. 2009. “DISLOCATING SOUNDS: The Deterritorialization of Indonesian Indie Pop.” Cultural Anthropology 24(2):246–79.

The writer holds an honours degree in Communications and New Media, and is currently pursuing a Masters of Social Science in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. Peng Sing is also a musician in the Singapore-based band M1LDL1FE.

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