Indonesia's Independent Music Renaissance: "Globalization Goes DIY"

Brent Luvaas, a recent PhD from UCLA, spoke today on a topic close to my own research, and one that is also clearly related to our interests here at Penn Globalization Studies. His work focuses on "the politics of place in Indonesia" broadly, and on Javanese youth's engagement with Indie rock and do-it-yourself (DIY) production specifically.

Luvaas' doctoral research, which spanned a year, found him conducting ethnographic research in two cities: Yogyakarta (central Java) and Bandung (western Java). Bandung, it seems, is the center for "Indo Indie"--the heart of Indonesia's burgeoning independent music scene.


After studying abroad for a year in Indonesia during his college career, Luvaas was interested for his doctoral research in studying the processes by which Indonesia's youthful middle class was constructing an identity for itself.* Entering the field, he expected to study consumption patterns-- that is, what this new middle class' youth were buying and, essentially, what was "cool." However, after discovering the sheer ubiquity of the Indie rock scene in these centers, Luvaas discovered that the seemingly clear cut line between "consumption" and "production" was being blurred. Nearly everyone, he reported, are in a band.

What we're seeing, Luvaas argues, is a transnationalizatin of a particular lifestyle movement.  The DIY scene, in the US and Europe, praises locality--buying local, supporting your local artists and musicians--insofar as it challenges the hegemony of transnational corporations and the exploitative practices associated with them. Yet, as Luvaas aptly notes, the notion of "locality" has a very distinct history in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, as several authors have pointed out, the colonial Dutch emphasized the insurmountable cultural differences between the various cultures (and there are several hundred languages traditionally spoken in Indonesia!).  Indonesian nationalists, after gaining independence, thus sought to counter this seemingly adversarial diversity by promoting with all their might a unified and integrated national culture.  The "local" is thus a loaded concept, loaded with three hundred years of colonial and post-colonial history.

What is striking about the Indonesian Indie rock is a conspicuous absence of locality or a (nationalistic) transgression of it.  In other words, these artists and musicians are incorporating nothing traditional and nothing Indonesian into their aesthetic.  They sing in English. They take after American, British, and Scandinavian rock bands. And this begs the question, why should they incorporate anything "Indonesian" into their aesthetic? 

Well, Luvaas argues, this is a complicated issue. Middle class Indonesian youth, it seems, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. While they reject the State's daily dosage of nationalistic pride as well as localizing forms, such as gamelan (a Javanese folk style), it is equally difficult to engage in the global cultural economy, which is inherently US- and Euro-centric.

As a result, he argues, bands like Mocca produce music that is loaded with a definitely nostalgic feel.  However, due to the New Order's harsh restrictions on media imports, this nostalgia harks back to an aesthetic past that was never available to them. For instance, while a retrospective sound that mimics '70s and 80s new wave might have one referent for Westerners, Indonesians lack that same referent; for them, this is a new form, and a novel one at that. 

In the end, it seems, the DIY scene in Indonesia is complicated. While it subversively challenges the State's hegemonic hold over cultural production, it simultaneously engages with a transnational power field that has at its center mimicked subversion, one that is easily adopted and incorporated into capital's complex schematics.


for now, adieux.



*For a great ethnographic perspective on the construction of a new middle class in Kathmandu, see Mark Liechty's book, Suitably Modern.