Musicians forge ahead with experimental works

By Linh Do   June 5, 2020 | 01:00 pm GMT+7
Musicians forge ahead with experimental works
Screenshot from "De Mi Noi Cho Ma Nghe" music video by Vietnamese singer Hoang Thuy Linh. Photo courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Vietnamese pop singers are broaching traditional topics in a brave new way, sparking off lively debates.

The two most notable recent songs are by Hoa Minzy and Bich Phuong. Hoa Minzy’s ambitious nine-minute ballad musical video titled "Khong The Cung Nhau Suot Kiep" (Can’t Be Together Forever) provides a glimpse into the historical, gender-charged love story between Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, and his wife, Empress Nam Phuong.

Nam Phuong was wedded to Bao Dai in an unprecedented marriage which required but didn’t receive permission from the Roman Catholic Church because she was a Catholic and he was not.

She was consecrated as empress or the emperor’s first wife right away, a patriarchal honor rarely bestowed on the concubines of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Nam Phuong went on to have five children with her husband. Bao Dai, however, had other wives as well as extramarital affairs.

It is Nam Phuong’s reaction upon discovering her husband’s change of heart that is artistically treated in Hoa Minzy’s MV.

Released on YouTube on May 13, "Khong The Cung Nhau Suot Kiep" has been widely lauded for its meticulous directing and scripting.

Within three days the MV went on to become the No.1 clip on YouTube Vietnam’s Top Trending after attracting over 10 million views. It has now garnered over 22 million views, many more likes than dislikes, and a great deal of positive comments.

Viewers have also offered insightful criticism. YouTuber, songwriter and singer ViruSs for instance points out Hoa Minzy’s weak voice in this song and suggests she should focus on singing rather than storytelling in her future works.

While weak voices with unclear pronunciation are a common failing in Vietnamese pop music with many MVs even providing Vietnamese subtitles, finding inspiration in Vietnamese history, literature and folk culture has become a clever strategy.

Hoang Thuy Linh has a bunch of EDM songs that make creative use of Vietnamese culture such as her 2019 hit "De Mi Noi Cho Ma Nghe" (Let Mi Tell You), which was inspired by 20th century writer To Hoai’s short story "Vo Chong A Phu" (A Phu and His Wife) about a couple living in the northwestern mountains during the French resistance.

Yet, the viral clip that quickly replaced "Khong The Cung Nhau Suot Kiep" as the No.1 trending song on YouTube has nothing to do with serious Vietnamese historical or cultural materials.

Released on May 17 by the quirky singer Bich Phuong, the chill-out MV "Em Bo Hut Thuoc Chua" (Have You Quit Smoking Yet?), which has English subtitles, had amassed almost 14 million views when it hit the No.1 post on YouTube.

Just two days after its release songwriter Tien Cookie’s well-written work with catchy one-liners also became the most played song in Vietnam on other popular platforms like iTunes, Apple Music and Spotify.

Unlike Hoa Minzy’s expensive and time-consuming MV that required lots of costumes and props as well as shooting at real historical sites such as the Imperial City of Hue, Bich Phuong’s clip does not feature sets or cast; it just has an Instagram chat screen in which the conversation between a woman smoker and her ex-lover is the lyric.

The video raises questions about its possible implied advocacy of smoking, a controversial issue at the best of times. For instance, one YouTube viewer asks if such a work is not bad for young listeners.

"Have You Quit Smoking Yet?" however ostentatiously displays a warning that says "smoking is harmful to your health" at the beginning of the clip. A part of the lyrics also suggests that her ex-lover is bothered by the woman’s smoking and urges her to quit.

This switching of gender stereotypes associated with smoking hearkens back to another relatively feminist song by Bich Phuong: the 2017 MV "Bao Gio Lay Chong" (When Will You Get Married?).

In the song, a young woman who enjoys her single life visits her parents in the countryside during the Lunar New Year and is pestered by everybody with the question.

Questioning traditional gender roles and doing so with humor has characterized a number of popular songs in recent years.

Singer Truc Nhan portrays a gay man who threatens to destroy his ex-lover’s wedding to a woman in the exuberant 2019 clip "Sang Mat Chua" (Serve You Right).

Male homosexuality is again sketched, albeit as an alternative identity to complement a 30-year-old man’s slow growth into his socially expected role as a responsible husband and father of a family in singer and songwriter HuyR’s hit this year, "Anh Thanh Nien" (The Young Man).

Propagating gender issues through popular music may sound counterintuitive, but tell that to the singers! They are having a blast.

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