Andrew Weintraub and Bart Barendregt (eds.), Vamping the Stage: Female Voices of Asian Modernities, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017, xii + 363 pp., ISBN 9780824869861, price: USD 65.00 (hardcover).
The twentieth century ushered female voices into the Asian public sphere. For the first time large numbers of women achieved independent employment, fame, and wealth in the popular music industry. How did this happen, and what in particular distinguishes the twentieth century as a period when women across Asia gained wealth, status, influence, and greater self-determination? Andrew Weintraub and Bart Barendregt explore these questions in their edited book, Vamping the Stage: Female Voices of Asian Modernities, arguing that modernity ‘marks the emergence of stardom and celebrity, new kinds of technologies, new forms of circulation, new kinds of aesthetics, new opportunities for women, and forms of gender relations in Asia’ (p. 3). Despite these multiple mutually supporting factors, female singers were far from fully empowered to perform and succeed on their own terms. Their voices were mediated by technologies that framed how they were heard. (In this respect, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries differ very little in the treatment of and opportunities afforded to women in Asia.)
Contributors to Vamping the Stage situate their work within the debates on women in the colonial and post-imperial cultural landscape punctuated by revolution, Islamization, and capitalist development, paying careful attention to the role of agency in a public terrain keen to co-opt and exploit the power of the female voice. The chapters do not just shine a light on women’s roles as performers, they demonstrate how their voices cannot be separated from their political and religious articulation, particularly contributions on ‘post-Islamist’ pop star Siti Nurhaliza and the post-revolutionary Iranian icon Googoosh. Several chapters stand out for their fascinating and sophisticated insights into conditions where women negotiated their status as performers-with-agency and commodified personas for public consumption. Of note are Yiman Wang’s complex portraits of silent and early talkie stars of Chinese descent, figures like Anna May Wong (1905–1961), the Asian-American Hollywood and pan-European film actor. Wang’s essay demonstrates how early twentieth century cosmopolitanism created opportunities for Asian women to evade the straitjacket of white supremacist imperialism. Wong, who acted and sang in multiple languages during her long and remarkable career, consolidated her status as a truly cosmopolitan media star while at the same time confounding the Eurocentric underpinnings of cosmopolitanism itself.
Film and sound technology helped construct what Mary Ann Doane calls ‘the phantasmatic body’, which she explains is a body split from its voice then reconstituted by another’s voice with the effect of interrupting the coherence of the female object of the male gaze. The disconnect between body and voice becomes necessary in the case of the Indian playback singer, L.R. Eswari, who provides the singing voice to South Indian cinema’s young and sensuous female characters of moral disrepute. Amanda Weidman’s chapter on L.R. Eswari shows the ways in which playback singing is far from a one-dimensional medium in Indian cinema but exceeds and ‘spills over’ the limits of sound. Beginning in the 1950s, playback singers became stars in their own right, and their separation from the eroticized dancing of the women they ventriloquize protected them from damaging their respectability. Popular playback singers have a long and successful career making it not unusual for elderly women to be the vocal stand-in for much younger, nubile women onscreen. L.R. Eswari managed her celebrity persona and notoriety for singing racy songs through an assertive voice in media interviews and by establishing an impressive reputation as a vocalist of sacred devotional music.
The book ends on a rather unsettling note. As foreshadowed in Weidman’s chapter on Indian playback singers, the separation of female voice from body reached its apotheosis with the world’s truly post-human celebrity, Hatsune Miku, in a chapter by Jennifer Milioto Matsue. Miku is not a real woman. She is a Japanese animated character created via a synthesizer software whose purpose is to sing any song requested by her user. Her immense popularity is attributed to the non-existence of her inner, private life. There would be no human complexity associated with a woman’s private life to interfere with her fan’s fantasy. Thus Miku is simply a cipher, made and remade purely for consumption. That only a female iteration of singing characters like Miku is popular is an indication of the imbalanced power relations at work in the construction and reception of female voices. The rise of purely disembodied female voices may at first seem like a liberation from the preoccupation with femaleness as an embodied experience, and from impossible beauty and moral double standards. But at what cost?
Vamping the Stage provides much food for thought for scholars. However, Weintraub and Barendregt’s introduction might have benefitted from further attention to the gendered articulation of modernity and the public sphere as a way of mapping the future of music and women’s voice in Asia. Only with a thoroughly interrogated gender perspective can we ask whether women’s voices in the music industry are distinct from, or uneasily complimentary to, the limits imposed on women in the public sphere, especially in political, religious, and economic domains throughout Asia.