The Politics of Remembering, the Economics of Forgetting (Article Review)

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This book was one of the first books I found about contemporary popular music in Viet Nam. While I haven’t been able to read the book yet, I was able to find some reviews by other scholars. Here is the description of Popular Music of Vietnam on Amazon:

Based on the author’s research in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other urban areas in Vietnam, this study of contemporary Vietnamese popular music explores the ways globalization and free market economics have influenced the music and subcultures of Vietnamese youth, focusing on the conflict between the politics of remembering, nurtured by the Vietnamese Communist government, and the politics of forgetting driven by the capitalist interests of the music industry.

Vietnamese youth at the end of the second and beginning of the third millennium are influenced by the challenges generated by a number of seemingly opposite ideologies and realities, such as “the past” versus “the present,” socialism versus capitalism, and cultural traditionalism versus globalization. Vietnam has undergone a radical demographic shift with a very pronounced youth movement, and consequently, Vietnamese popular culture has been radically reshaped by a young population coming of age in the twenty-first century. As Olsen reveals, the way Vietnamese young people cope with these opposing and contrasting forces is often expressed in their active and passive music making.

Olsen explores the unknown territory of popular music in Vietnam through the lens of ethnomusicology in the first full-length book on the subject. While I do think that I will eventually read this book to form my own opinion, several critiques made by other scholars pointed out some problematic issues in Olsen’s book. In order to prepare myself better for this assignment and future projects, I will be dissecting some of those critiques.

I’ll start with the only customer review on Amazon.com. While comments on a website are not always reliable, they do give us insight into how the book may be received by others:

“book is way too expensive: it’s is pretty much a compiling of singers. his engagement of the music and vietnam is limited and done so through translators and translation. i think he should have invested more time in learning the language, cultural immersion, and establishing a better relationship with the community before he pursue his research, because it reflects in his superficial presentation of the pop music life in HCMC. his project is overly invested in tourist sites such as over-pricde night clubs in the 1st district. moreover, if the bulk of his project is to compile singers background info, then Dam Vinh Hung should have in it. –Also need to include more stuff dealing with transnational, gender, and race politics.”

“that being said, Olson is brave and attempting to do what that many people has no done. he’s dealing with the music that more contemporary. Jason Gibbs publish an article on VN rock music not to long ago, but mostly the scholarship on VN pop music in English needs to be updated. in the diaporic community, only a few have published stuff on VN music or music related…Reyes, Phong Nguyen, Deborah Wong… it’s a shame that Valverde never turned her dissertation into a book. wish there was more action.”

-USN: Avatar Aang (June 8, 2010)

I also found one scholarly review of this book from the JSTOR research database. Feel free to read it here. The main issues brought up in both the comment from Amazon.com and the article include Olsen’s heavy reliance on translators and translation into English, his use of the term “Americanization” and how it under-emphasizes the impact of French and Chinese presence, and the exclusion of direct testimonies from young Vietnamese consumers of popular music. This results in a misrepresentation of the people subjects in Olsen’s research.

“Reviewed Works: Popular Music of Vietnam: The Politics of Remembering, the Economics of Forgetting by Dale A. Olsen”

In order to avoid these blunders, I’ve developed a list for myself to reference in my future research:

  1. Spend time learning the Vietnamese language before interviewing so I can collect data in its natural form.
  2. Utilize Vietnamese sources such as books, magazines, newspapers from both the diaspora and the home-country.
  3. Investigate the history of foreign occupation in Vietnam, in order to better understand how music changed and evolved over time.
  4. Include the younger generations in my research in order to better represent the perspectives of the majority of VPop listeners.
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