By Emma Baulch
On 5 July, 2014, 100,000 Indonesians thronged to the Bung Karno stadium in central Jakarta to attend a concert in support of Presidential hopeful, Djokowi. It was the eve of the quiet period at the end of the campaign, four days before the ballot. The event, dubbed the ‘Two-fingered salute’, an allusion to Djokowi’s number of the ballot, was a cathartic one for supporters of the humble hopeful, whose preferred on-the-job attire is an open-necked checkered shirt. In the nail-biting months leading up to the concert, they had seen his lead of around 25 points over main rival, Prabowo Subianto, drop away dramatically.
By July, strong-man Subianto was within several polling points. But commentators say that in the week leading up to the concert Prabowo made crucial errors of judgment that put Djokowi more comfortably in the lead. Finally, the sheer numbers of people that attended the concert and the number of artists who put their hand up to perform free of charge, as well as the exuberant mood offered the first indication that Djokowi’s destiny was secure.
Much has been said of the Djokowi campaign team’s wondrous ability to draw an audience that packed the venue to capacity, as well as two hundred celebrities ranging from movie makers to movie stars to pop performers. One celebrity, the renowned film maker Mira Lesmana, said the artists had thrown their support behind Djokowi in the belief his administration was likely to support development of the arts.
Less has been said, though, about what the concert means for pop performers’ new roles in political life. Most academic commentators on the concert, and indeed the campaign in general, presume that pop celebrities are mere tools in a much larger project designed by political elites who occupy true loci of power outside of popular culture. Pop celebrities can warm up crowds in readiness for rousing speeches by candidates; their performances can make rallies more spectacular and enhance media coverage; and they can possibly even deliver pop fans as sympathetic voters to electoral candidates. But according to most academic commentators they do not covet political power.
Yet, a closer look at the concert, in particular the histories of some of the key artists that performed on that night, highlights the inaccuracy of these presumptions It shows how, in reality, formally recognized political elites very much share the seat of power with pop performers.
Placid populism and soft power
In an interview, Indonesian cultural and political analyst Ariel Heryanto notes an important point of difference between the movement in support of Djokowi and past pro-democracy movements, which have been rather macho and plagued with violence. Heryanto uses the term soft power, usually associated with Joseph Nye, but applies it in a much different sense, more akin to ‘people power’. The movement for change that coalesced around Djokowi’s campaign foregrounded a greater role for the kind of soft power held by pop music celebrities and their fans.
Indeed, two months out of the ballot, members of Indonesia’s renowned and widely loved blues/rock band Slank, which has been producing chart-toppers for near on a quarter century, announced they would be campaigning in support of Djokowi; they led a large coalition of pop artists, dubbed the ‘Coalition for the Harmony Revolution’, in a series of televisual performances of the rambling reggae tune penned especially to accompany the campaign: ‘Salam Dua Jari… Jangan Lupa Pilih Djokowi!’ (Two-fingered Salute… Vote for Djokowi!).
Their emergence on the political stage was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it cemented the link between artists and the considerable spirit of voluntarism emerging around the Djokowi campaign. It constituted a break with the norm of the past decade by which artists used electoral rallies as an opportunity to generate income for themselves. All the artists who threw their support behind Djokowi did so voluntarily.
Second, the song they sung was far from a rousing anthem. It presented, rather, as a quiet plea and gentle reminder, rather brilliantly amplifying Djokowi’s trade-mark laid back personal style, in contrast to rival Prabowo’s ‘chauvinistic nationalism, superficial pomp, and brutal machismo’. Perfectly pitched in this way, the song enhanced the sensuous and affective dimensions of the campaign, and it did so while drawing people back from violence through its steady reggae beat. The song was emotional, but not explosive; it resounded cheerfully around the globe when members of the Indonesian diaspora gathered to vote in cities across the world (much of the diasporic vote went in Djokowi’s favour). When interviewed by A(ustralian)BC’s Del Irani on the day of the ballot, Indonesian voters in Melbourne jammed their grinning faces into the camera frame, and spontaneously burst into the song: ‘Salam Dua Jari… Jangan Lupa Pilih Djokowi!’
The song was penned by veteran artist Oppie Andaresta who was mentored by Slank in the early 1990s. But it was widely understood to be a Slank tune, despite the fact that Slank’s drummer and master composer, Bimbim, repeatedly qualified in interviews that it was Oppie, not he, who had written the song. The misconception of ‘Salam Dua Jari’ as a Slank song can be understood, however, because the brand of placid populism to which it gave voice very much resembles Slank’s own brand, or moral philosophy.
Indeed, at several points throughout the campaign it seemed that Djokowi was leaning on Slank’s well-established image as straight up, simple, honest, unmediated, and, most importantly, utterly available to their fans. He made three much publicized visits to Slank’s headquarters in Potlot (Pencil) Street, Jakarta. One in April, a week after the legislative elections, another in May to attend an event at which Slank announced they had officially thrown their support behind Djokowi. This visit was perhaps the most telling of Djokowi’s reliance on Slank for getting his campaign message across, for it was at this ramshackle gathering, at which Djokowi appeared completely at ease, that the candidate qualified that Slank epitomized the so-called ‘mental revolution’ at the core of his campaign pitch, the meaning of which, according to some observers, remained rather elusive. ‘Slank’, (the candidate seemed to suggest, but refrained from clearly stating), ‘embodies exactly the kind of thing I have in mind’.
A third and no less significant visit was made on the afternoon of polling day, well before the polls had closed, as if to reiterate his core campaign message to undecided voters who were yet to cast their crucial ballots.
Of Slank (and Slankers)
The attention Djokowi paid to Slank throughout the campaign suggests that Slank’s political stance prefigured his emergence on the Indonesian political scene, and the widespread support for the particular brand of populism that he represented.
Slank burst onto the Indonesian pop scene in the early 1990s, with the enormous success of their songs ‘Memang’ (It’s True) (1990) and ‘Mawar Merah’ (Red Rose) (1991), both of which rendered, for the first time ever, rock (in this case a Stones-inspired jangly blues/rock) into a decidedly rock and roll version of the national lingua franca – Jakarta slang. By employing Jakarta slang terms of address in rock songs that derided flashy shows of material wealth, Slank localized the genre, kicking off a cultural turn that became mainstream around the turn of the century, entailing the widespread embracing of rock and roll bands as a source of national pride.
In 1994, upon breaking with their record label and going independent, Slank maintained their success as an independent but commercially successful outfit by attracting avidly loyal bands of followers in ever greater numbers to the moral philosophy they were beginning to espouse. These fans became known as Slankers.
At this point Slank started to become more than just about singing rock in Jakarta slang. It also came to be about coveting an unkempt dress style that stressed the value of the simple things in life, such as true love and friendship, and about rejecting material wealth as a sign of self-worth. These values offered politically disenfranchised fans a recipe by which to live, by which to relate to peers, and enabled them to see and realize new possibilities for their life trajectories.
Slowly Slank added other values to their simple philosophy meant to define the ideal national character, such as peace, love, unity and respect. In 1998, the year the Suharto regime fell, Slank organized their fans into an official fan group, with numerous branches across the archipelago, and centralized at the Slank headquarters in Jakarta.
By the turn of the century, Slank was communicating directly with their fans by way of a dedicated Slank newspaper, aimed to raise fans political awareness and intellectual caliber. As the democratic reform agenda wore on in the first decade of the twenty first century, and Indonesia became plagued with endless high profile corruption cases, Slank adopted an increasingly activist stance, calling on their fans to mobilise, and running political campaigns and public actions in urban centres aimed at denouncing corruption among the political elite.
A new relationship?
Not all pop music celebrities have followed the same political trajectory as Slank, but it is increasingly common for pop musicians to adopt identities as civic leaders and run political campaigns around various high profile issues. It is also increasingly commonplace for pop performers to pay ever greater attention to communicating with their fans, just as it is more commonplace for pop music consumers to allow their identities as fans to take a position of primacy in their lives.
The new and intensified relationship between pop performers and pop consumers has, of course, important economic consequences. It allows pop performers to sell more merchandise, an increasingly important source of profit for pop music acts in an age of file sharing. But it also has political consequences. With the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of mobile media in the country, pop music consumers are being addressed by their idols around the clock and across various fields of social life. Pop fandom is less likely to be an occasional identification, and more likely to be enduring and life-changing for greater numbers of people. And when pop idols behave as civic leaders with activist agenda, fans are more available than ever for political mobilization.
The Slank fan group is a case in point. At the Two Finger Salute concert, Slank fans amassed at the forefront of the stage, where they held the trademark towering banners that typically stake Slankers’ presence at concerts. In the public imagination, these tall banners are a most potent sign of Slankers’ renowned fervent fandom. Slankers are widely considered the most loyal of the many fan groups with which the Indonesian mediascape is now honeycombed.
As one seasoned Indonesianist political analyst related to me, Slank fan groups were actively targeted by campaigners eager to mobilise votes for candidates in the legislative elections. That the campaigners took this course of action, suggested the analyst, probably just reflects their opportunistic strategies rather than any particular regard for Slank.
But in my view, the fact that they did so is significant and it causes me to wonder: under what conditions do pop fan groups such as the Slankers come within the purview of campaigners? The answer, I suspect, is one in which pop music consumers are no longer regarded as inconsequential fluff atop the substance of society, but are considered instead as playing a legitimate role in modern political life.
About the author
Emma Baulch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology. She has been researching Indonesian media and popular culture for the past twenty years. Her PhD thesis was a study of three music subcultures in Bali in the period 1996-9, which spanned the downfall of the 32-year old authoritarian regime, in 1998. It was published as Making Scenes: reggae, punk and death metal in 1990s Bali by Duke University Press in 2007. Since graduating from her doctorate in 2004, Emma has undertaken two post-doctoral appointments at Leiden University in the Netherlands and at The Australian National University. Her post-doctoral work examinesd the role of popular music in shaping important social formations within Indonesian capitalism, dating back to the late 1960s. Currently, she is mapping the Indonesian digital cultural economy by examining the ways in which people use mobile telephones. Broadly, Emma is interested in how people form their political identities through their engagements with popular media. Some of her writings are available here.
The article springs from a project being undertaken by the author and Jerry Watkins (Jerry.Watkins@canberra.edu.au) to map the Indonesian digital cultural economy by examining how people use mobile phones. Pop music fans constitute a case study within the project, which is funded by the Australia Research Council.