Anthropologists often read the localization or hybridization of cultural forms as a kind of default mode of resistance against the forces of global capitalism, a means through which marginalized ethnic groups maintain regional distinctiveness in the face of an emergent transnational order. But then what are we to make of musical acts like Mocca and The Upstairs, Indonesian “indie” groups who consciously delocalize their music, who go out of their way, in fact, to avoid any references to who they are or where they come from? In this essay, I argue that Indonesian “indie pop,” a self-consciously antimainstream genre drawing from a diverse range of international influences, constitutes a set of strategic practices of aesthetic deterritorialization for middle-class Indonesian youth. Such bands, I demonstrate, assemble sounds from a variety of international genres, creating linkages with international youth cultures in other places and times, while distancing themselves from those expressions associated with colonial and nationalist conceptions of ethnicity, working-class and rural sensibilities, and the hegemonic categorical schema of the international music industry. They are part of a new wave of Indonesian musicians stepping onto the global stage “on their own terms” and insisting on being taken seriously as international, not just Indonesian, artists, and in the process, they have made indie music into a powerful tool of reflexive place making, a means of redefining the very meaning of locality vis-à-vis the international youth cultural movements they witness from afar.
In the February, 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Brent Luvaas follows the Indonesian indie band “Mocca” as they struggle to shed traditional conceptualizations of placehood, replacing them with a reconstituted version of the local reconstituted from global pop culture. Assembling sounds and images from an international array of styles and genres, Indonesian artists such as Mocca gain popularity by aligning themselves with global music trends and distancing themselves from traditional hegemonies. Luvaas argues that while these artists have escaped the “imposition of locality,” they have become implicated in larger, transnational regimes of power.
Luvaas frames the reconstitution of the local as a form of tactical media use, contributing to a process of aesthetic deterritorialization, as originally conceptualized by Deleuze and Guattari. In the cultural logic of indie bands such as Mocca and The Upstairs, novelty and difference take precedence over the familiar and traditional. Luvaas details how global musical trends are localized in complex ways, and demonstrates that in the discourses of the Indonesian indie music scene, “local” always implies a relationship with the global. This relationship, Luvaas argues, seeks to replace the concepts of region and nation, instead placing the “local” on a global map which supplants older models of distinction and isolation. In the process, Indonesian youth become caught between a transnationalized field of cultural production, in which they are not yet recognized as significant players, and the local markers of ethnic, cultural and national identity, which they are no longer willing to uphold.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on music. These essays include, Jonathan Shannon's “Emotion, Performance, and Temporality in Arab Music: Reflections on Tarab” (2003); René Lysloff's “Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography” (2003); and Amanda Weidman's “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India” (2003).
Cultural Anthropology has also published additional essays on Indonesia. See, for example, Tom Boellstorff's “Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Transvestites” (2004); Celia Lowe's “Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology” (2004); and Webb Keane's “Knowing One's Place: National Language and the Idea of the Local in Eastern Indonesia” (1997).
About the Author
Brent Luvaas is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Culture and Communication at Drexel University, where he teaches courses on digital subjectivity, visual anthropology, youth culture, and Indonesian pop culture. A graduate of UCLA’s PhD program in Socio-Cultural Anthropology, he has received several prominent fellowships including the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant, the University of California Pacific Rim Research Program grant, two Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships, and a Quality of Graduate Education Data Analysis fellowship. His work focuses on the forms of Do-It-Yourself, amateur, and user-generated media animating contemporary youth culture in the United States, Indonesia, and an increasingly broad section of the industrial and industrializing world. He is the author of several articles on independent music and fashion, including publications in Cultural Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, Inside Indonesia, and The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and is currently finishing a book on DIY culture in Indonesia and beyond for Berg Publishers.
Interview with Brent Luvaas
Amanda Snellinger: What drew you to the topic of youth?
Brent Luvaas: I was in my late twenties when I started studying youth, right at that age where youth starts to seem like an increasingly elusive and fleeting thing, and as the post-modern critique of anthropology in the 1980s taught us, we all are ultimately studying ourselves anyway. The real question is whether or not I can effectively keep my analytic focus on youth culture as I age well beyond that demographic.
AS: What are some theoretical contributions your research has made to the anthropology of youth?
BL: The anthropological study of youth, as with similar studies in sociology, cultural studies, and other related disciplines, has tended to oscillate between two extreme positions. On one end of the spectrum are the youth culture enthusiasts, deeply influenced by the British cultural studies model as well as the work of James Scott and Michel De Certeau, who read a wide (probably too wide) array of youth practices, from listening to music to shopping at thrift stores, as potentially “resistant,” whether towards global capitalism, state authoritarianism, or colonial rule. On the other extreme end of the spectrum are the youth culture fatalists, the Foucauldians and Neo-Marxist critics of neoliberalism, who read youth practice as inextricably embedded in the logic of the market and the state. For them, not only does youth culture pose no threat to the established order, it actively reinforces the very conventions it appears to subvert.
I hope my own work succeeds in navigating a different path, enabling us to recast youth cultural practice as both producer and outcome of these larger relationships of power. I hold a cautiously optimistic view of youth culture, emphasizing the significant - though still limited - discursive reflexivity of youth at the same time as acknowledging youth’s complicity in larger projects of nation and market-building. My work on DIY (Do-It-Yourself) media and fashion in particular, emphasizes that youth are not simply cogs in the machine of late capitalism; they are among its wheels, helping push it forward and steer its direction.
AS: It is interesting to understand the process by which people come to do the research that they do, to understand what inspired them to pursue certain issues over others. Can you please explain how you came to focus on this topic? What sparked your interest? What compelled you to ask the research questions that you chose to ask? Did you go into the field knowing what direction your research would take or did this focus emerge in response to parameters dictated by field situation that you found yourself in?
BL: My interest in Indonesian indie culture stems back to 1996, when I was an exchange student in Yogyakarta, Java. Some friends of mine and I went to a show put on by a bunch of art students at the Kridosono Stadium. It was called “Twenty-Something, Twenty-Nothing” and, in keeping with the name, featured twenty punk, metal, and alternative rock acts from all around Java. It was the first time I’d ever seen an Indonesian with a Mohawk and there were several of them present, bobbing and weaving their way through a crowd of moshing teenagers. Kids were stage-diving, pogoing, and posing provocatively in their tight jeans and leather boots, while a row of older men and women (Bapak and Ibu) sat in the dilapidated bleachers in Muslim fezzes, headscarves, and sarongs and looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination. I was intrigued too. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a whole new conception of what it means to be young, modern, and Indonesian.
When I went to graduate school at UCLA in the early aughts, this interest in the Indonesian punk and metal scene was gradually funneled into a larger interest in youth taste, consumer habits, and class dynamics, and this is what I set out to study when I went into the field in 2006. I thought I would be doing a kind of younger, hipper version of Bourdieu’s Distinction, reformulated for a post-authoritarian Indonesia. But when I got there, it was the transformation of the early Indonesian punk and metal underground into an extensive, widespread, and highly influential scene that really caught my attention. “Twenty-Something, Twenty-Nothing” reasserted itself into my new project, and gradually my study of youth taste, consumer culture, and class dynamics - far too broad in its conception in the first place - became focused on one particular category of middle-class producer-consumers, “the indie kids” (anak indie). I hung out with budding rock stars, DIY clothing designers, and zine writers and became convinced that any study of youth culture in Indonesia has to acknowledge the profound contributions of youth themselves to its very composition and form. This was not the grossly consumeristic youth culture I had expected to find. It was a culture of producers, a new configuration of class dynamics oriented around one’s conspicuous contributions to creative production.
AS: Mark Liechty described the prevalence of youth as a cultural category that is “always already” a problem. He proposed that we consider “the social constitution of youth as a category that in a way signals the presence of a ‘problem population.’” Once that category is entrenched, there is the societal task to contend with those within it (Liechty’s comments as discussant on the panel entitled, “An Exploration into Nepali Cultural Conceptions of the Category of Youth,” South Asian Conference, Madison WI, 18 October, 2008). But your approach to the category of youth in this article is different. You demonstrate how Indonesian indie pop musicians are reinventing and reimagining what the local is, dissociated from the nation-state and embedded within their amalgamation of popular culture. Can you discuss how you see approaching the category of youth as a creative source as opposed to a population problem affect’s your argument? Do you think choosing one approach over another depends on the empirical situation that one is analyzing or is it a matter of the analyst’s preference? Do you think these approaches to youth are mutually exclusive?
BL: I think the difference is more cosmetic than structural. Both Liechty and I read youth as a dynamic category, constituted through practice, and we both view it through the interpretive lens of class. That said, I do think that approaching youth as a problem versus a space of creative possibility changes the tone and tenor of one’s argument. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive approaches, however. They reflect the multidimensional nature of the subject at hand. In fact, in other parts of my work I attend much more closely to the casting of youth as a problem, as well as the ways in which youth become deeply implicated in governmental nation-building efforts and transnational market dynamics well beyond their control. I simply place more emphasis on their creative potential than their structured liminality. Doing so portrays youth in a much more positive light than they are often granted in academic research and popular journalism, and this, of course, is a choice on my part, a conscious effort to participate in young peoples’ own project of self-redefinition. I still attend to the contradictions implicit in their practice, but I don’t reduce what they do to these contradictions. To emphasize the agency of youth in my work, I believe, is to contribute to the production of a discursive field that, in turn, enables them to become even more agentive.
AS: Even though you focus on these indie pop musicians’ creative projects in which their image and music end up redefining locality and its relationship to a globalized youth culture movement, your interlocutors still contend with ambivalence. As you argue, they see themselves as “in the middle,” not yet having created a coherent place for themselves on the world stage. Can you address their “destabilized sense of locality.” What does it entail? Are their aspirations more for making a mark on a global scale or local scale or both? Because what it seems to me, is that their redefinition of the local is an unexpected outcome from their attempts to position themselves in the globalized youth culture movement. Can you please speak more to this?
BL: I think a destabilized sense of locality is a lived ambivalence and ambiguity, a kind of perpetual inability to be fully one thing or another. It means to no longer be “traditional,” but not yet feel “modern,” to be immersed in the products of global capitalism without entering into the global community. It is a position of stuckness, of imposed marginality, which music and fashion, at least in the realm of the symbolic, can help work to undo. As for whether indie musicians seek to make a mark on the global or local scale, I would argue that for them the two goals are inextricably linked. To matter at home means to at least potentially matter abroad. Local evaluation depends on perceived international evaluation. At the same time, one enters the international space by means of the local, by becoming an active member of a local satellite of a larger, (perhaps only imagined) global scene. The global is always enacted in local space. Their redefined local, then, is not merely an unexpected outcome of their attempts to position themselves globally. The processes of constructing local and global are already mutually constitutive. What they seek to do is redefine the terms of the relationship between the global and the local, from one that is fundamentally isolating to one that is connective and inclusive.
AS: Can you give us a better sense of the parameters of the globalized youth culture movement in which your interlocutors are attempting to position themselves? Is it a discreet movement that people are actively trying to shape or is it a loose product of cultural production in the cyber age? How do Indonesian indie pop musicians conceive of it? How would they envision being successfully positioned within it? In other words, how does their understanding of this globalized youth cultural movement shape their creative project?
BL: There’s little question that Indonesian indie scenesters see themselves as part of a global movement, an international DIY underground, empowered by new media technologies and dedicated to collapsing the conceptual boundaries between producer and consumer, commercial and conscientious, social and individual, and global and local. The very form their music, their fashion, and their other diverse cultural products take presumes the existence of such a body. They compose in English to reach this imagined international base. They forge their sound out of internationally recognizable rhythms and melodies. Their output is always structured by their outreach. But that doesn’t mean there is a coherent international body comprising such a movement. There are, rather, dispersed and diverse associations of interconnected social actors employing a similar rhetoric of DIY and a similar set of practices of cultural production. Some of these associations are explicitly linked with one another. Many more are actively seeking to forge a more concrete network out of these diverse associations, and that is certainly a project Indonesian indie bands are engaged in. What has prompted all of this activity is impossible to reduce to a single causative source, but I think the most likely culprits are also the most obvious: the globalization of media and commerce, the post-industrial push towards immaterial and creative modes of production, and the advent of new media technologies that enable, and encourage young people to play a more active role in cultural production. Exactly what it would mean to successfully position oneself in relationship to the global is something I’m not sure even Indonesian indie musicians themselves have fully conceptualized. They only know they haven’t done so yet.
Multimedia and Links
Indonesian indie music webzines and websites:
Other Notable India Acts from Indonesia:
Efek Rumah Kaca: http://www.myspace.com/efekrumahkaca/videos
Zeke Khaseli: http://www.myspace.com/efekrumahkaca/videos
The Trees and the Wild: http://www.myspace.com/thetreesandthewild
Polyester Embassy: http://www.myspace.com/thepolyesterembassy
Tika & the Dissidents: http://www.myspace.com/tikamusic
Links to music and videos by bands mentioned in the article:
Rock N Roll Mafia:
White Shoes and the Couples Company:
Orgasm Club: http://www.myspace.com/70sorgasmclub/videos
Southern Beach Terror: http://www.myspace.com/thesouthernbeachterror
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. Why do anthropologists often interpret localization, i.e., the infusion of global cultural products or practices with local sensibility, style, or form, as an act of resistance? What is localization imagined to be resistant to?
2. Under what circumstances might localization be interpreted differently? In what ways can it be understood to be complicit with less liberating projects of colonization or state-building?'
3. What is the relationship between the global and the local? How do they mutually constitute one another?
4. What potential does music have for redefining both localization and globalization?
5. What is deterritorialization? Is it an act of liberation, or a loss of one’s traditional bearings? What happens when a person, a cultural object, or a process becomes deterritorialized?
6. Is it possible to stay deterritorialized forever? Or is reterritorialization into some other regime of power a necessary consequence of deterritorialization?
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