Jakarta. Dangdut – Indonesia's energetic, percussion-driven, most popular form of pop music – is synonymous with images of scantily clad female singers gyrating their hips on stage, attracting equal parts fandom and opprobrium from the Indonesian public. But has this always been the case?
In the beginning, the genre was a close cousin of Malay and Indian music. Dangdut is said to be pioneered by Muhammad Mashabi and his traditional Malay orchestra Kelana Ria in the 1950s.
According to BBC Indonesia, after Mashabi came the first wave of proto-dangdut artists: Husein Bawafie, Adi Karso, Lutfi Mashabi and Ellya Khadam.
Ellya, one of Indonesia's most famous singers in the 1950s and 1960s, sang songs that were heavily influenced by Indian music, including her biggest hit, "Boneka dari India" (A Doll from India).
She also used to dress up like an Indian woman on stage and performed Indian-style dances to match her songs.
The King of Dangdut and the Smiling General
In the early 1970s, the rise of the "Smiling General" Suharto's New Order military dictatorship was soundtracked by the youthful Rhoma Irama, later known as the "King of Dangdut" or "Satria Bergitar" (Guitar Warrior), and his band Soneta (Sonnets).
Andrew Weintraub, Indonesianist and professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in his "Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia’s Most Popular Music," published in 2010, that Rhoma and the other Soneta members deliberately dressed up like Western hard rock musicians, with "long hair, facial hair, tight pants, open shirt collar and platform shoes."
But then the band members went on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and they (and their image) came back transformed.
Rhoma’s songs became repetitive lectures on living upright rather than living the good life. The best examples would be the mega hits "Begadang" (Stay Up All Night) and "Mirasantika" (slang for "alcohol and drugs").
In the former, the King of Dangdut berates youngsters for pulling all nighters that make them "anemic" and "sickly." The latter is Rhoma's oath never to touch alcohol ("miras") and drugs ("tika") again.
Rhoma also became a major film star in the 1970s and 1980s and, yes, he was always depicted as the good guy.
"In concerts, he showed himself as a leader, calming rancorous crowd, preaching to them. In films, he played hard working, successful characters. When his screen alter ego rebelled, it was always against the village bully or a sleazy music producer," Weintraub said.
It was in politics that the Guitar Warrior retained a little of his real rebellious streak. He chose to support the United Development Party (PPP) instead of Suharto’s Golkar Party.
Within the context of the New Order's "shadow play" politics, this move was seen as a definite symbol of rebellion.
In the post-98 "Reformasi" era, Rhoma became even more conservative. He condemned Inul Daratista’s erotic "goyang ngebor" ("the drill dance") in 2003, joining the chorus of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) clerics and radical Islamic groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
He even formed his own Islam-minded political party called Peaceful and Safe Islamic Party (Idaman) in 2015.
New Wave of Dangdut Warriors
The new wave of male dangdut superstars don't really share Rhoma’s "heroic" and nurturing masculinity.
Thomas Djorghi, whose Bollywood-influenced "Sembako Cinta" (Love's Staple) became an overnight hit, is known for his seductive love songs, energetic dances and flamboyant style, often appearing with his shirts unbuttoned showing a cleanly shaven chest, as if to suggest that sensuality isn’t just for female singers.
Thomas' successor is Saipul Jamil, who rose to fame with dangdut boyband G4UL ("Cool") in 2003.
Both Thomas and Saipul are a far cry from older, more restrained singers like Mansyur S. and Meggy Z., whose songs – mostly mellow, syrupy dangdut ballads – take precedent over their public image.
For some others, image is everything. Alam, the brother of female dangdut star Vety Vera, blatantly appropriated Michael Jackson's outfits and dance moves.
Luckily, his dangdut-rock fusion ("rockdut") and his throaty rockstar roar set him apart from his peers.
Alam only produced a handful of hits, the most famous being "Embah Dukun" (Shaman), "Sabu" (a pun on crystal meth and breakfast porridge) and "Tuyul" (a supernatural being in the shape of a small boy).
He also had a rebellious side, often employing his gothic-lite lyrics to diss corrupt politicians.
The Queens of Dangdut
Ellya Khadam's direct successors were Elvy Sukaesih and Camelia Malik. Elvy began her career in 1964 as a singer in several dangdut bands before going solo in the 1970s.
Weintraub said Elvy's star power was her ability to relate with female fans through sappy love songs – and her sexy live performances.
Elvy's "bewitching" voice and erotic sways on stage often caused near riots in the crowd, contributing to the image of female dangdut singers as "dangerous and in need of control," according to Weintraub.
He said Elvy’s stage performances became even more sexualized in the late 1980s, as can be seen in her "Gula-Gula" (a pun on "sweets" and "mistress") music video, though Weintraub called this "a song that celebrates female agency and sexuality."
Not all female dangdut singers rely on sexualized images to make their names. Camelia Malik, for example, chose to incorporate sedate traditional elements in her music and on stage.
"In live performances during the late 1970s, [Camelia] popularized a modernized Sundanese dance style called jaipongan.... Her 'learned' dances actually signified 'class,'" Weintraub said.
Camelia's successors in the 1980s and 1990s – technical singers like Ikke Nurjanah, Iis Dahlia and Cici Piramida – also put vocals before provocative personal images.
According to Weintraub, their more upmarket, glamorous personas – and more frequent appearances on TV – represent "an upgraded form of dangdut" to "attract middle- and upper-class audiences."
In 2003, Inul Daratista released her debut album "Goyang Inul" (Inul's Twerk) featuring a single of the same name, and introduced a new provocative dance move – all gyrating hips and bottoms – called "goyang ngebor" (the drill dance).
Inul soon became the undisputed queen of modern dangdut, but at the same time she received a lot of backlash from conservative Muslims who regarded goyang ngebor as pornographic.
The fading king of dangdut Rhoma Irama put out his own "fatwa" banning Inul from Indonesian TV screens and was personally involved in the drafting of a new anti-pornography and "porno-action" bill to prevent lewd images from being shown on TV or anywhere in the public eye.
The Indonesian Ulema Council followed on, issuing a real fatwa declaring Inul's dance move as "obscene."
But the embattled singer fought back and won a lot support from fellow artists and women’s groups for her courage in standing up for freedom of expression.
"Unlike the coy, purring, glamorous persona of dangdut singers of the 1990s, Inul presented herself as a strong, determined and, yes, sexual woman," Weintraub said.
Inul’s success in fighting off her detractors inspired more female dangdut singers to come up with their signature "goyang," including Uut Permatasari’s "goyang ngecor" ("concrete casting dance"), Dewi Perssik’s "goyang gergaji" ("saw dance") and Zaskia Shinta’s "goyang itik" ("duckling dance.").
The judges are still out on whether these singers merely reaffirm dangdut's reliance on a sexualized image of itself or if they help carry the torch for women's liberation in Indonesia.
Julia Perez, the "Belah Duren" ("cracking open a durian," a metaphor for losing one's virginity) singer who passed away last year, caused a sensation in 2008 when she gave away condoms for each copy of her first album, "Kamasutra."
As reported by Okezone, Julia said she gave away at least 150,000 condoms to "help the government fight AIDS."
Contemporary Dangdut: More Kawaii Than Sexy
Julia could be one of the last of Indonesia's classic dangdut bombshells, at least in the mainstream, judging by how the latest wave of dangdut stars have piggy-backed the more coy, restrained outfits and styling of K-Pop girlbands.
One of them is Ayu Ting Ting, who made her breakthrough in 2011 with "Alamat Palsu" (Fake Address) and a cute, innocent public image that she confessed was heavily influenced by K-Pop singers.
In the last couple of years, the two biggest stars in dangdut, Nella Kharisma and Via Vallen, have also swapped the barely there costumes of Inul Daratista, Dewi Perssik and Julia Perez for demure, school-girlish outfits that are more kawaii than sexy.
Dangdut stars go back and forth from sexy to cutesy, from pious Bang Haji (one of Rhoma Irama’s nicknames after he had done the pilgrimage to Mecca) to flashy Thomas Djorghi.
Restrained outfits and dances may be the trend now for female dangdut singers, and there may not be a male singer as out there now as Alam, but who knows what the future holds?
The one thing we’ve learned is that dangdut is an unpredictable industry that never ceases to evolve, or surprise us.