Against all odds, Burma’s first girl band, The Tiger Girls, hope to get their claws into the local pop music scene—but they face stiff regional competition from Asia’s K-Pop and J-Pop aficionados
Isolated Myanmar can seem like the land that time forgot. Forget digital baubles and the trappings of modern life. As the controversial Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) relates, visiting the “time-warped country” is to “turn back the clock … with creaking buses, potholed roads … and not a 7-Eleven in sight.” In other words, just about the last place on earth you would expect to find a gyrating girl band.
But, 15 years after The Spice Girls stormed the world, “Girl Power” has landed in crumbling Yangon. Tricky, Chilli, Electro, Missy and Baby hope to emulate what Posh, Scary, Sporty, Ginger and Baby foisted upon the world almost a generation ago.
The band is the brainchild of Australian dancer Nicole May. “There is so much natural music flowing through people’s veins here, but the music industry is undeveloped,” she told The Guardian.
At their first gigs in February 2010, audiences were apparently stunned into silence. “On the first day, people were quiet, they did not know what to think about us, they hadn’t seen anything like us before,” said Htike Htike (Electro Tiger). “But by the second day, they really liked us, they were clapping and cheering and calling for more.”
Giving “more” may not be so straightforward in a country ruled by a military junta resistant to Western influence; where all song lyrics must be approved by a capricious military censorship board.
“The country is hungry for something new, but whether it is ready for the Tiger Girls, I don’t know,” May told The Guardian.
ASIA’S ‘PRETTY’ SYNDROME
Asia loves its pretty-girl presenters and dancing “coyote girls” as much as karaoke, so Western-style girl groups are big business. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Asia was swept up in the “Korean Wave”—a seismic, multimedia cultural surge with bubblegum pop as its Technicolor undertow.
Fashionable youths from Phnom Penh to Taipei via Bangkok and back are sporting gelled, layered mullets and dancing to a “K-Pop” beat. However, like much of Korean culture, “K-Pop” absorbed tropes from neighboring Japan, home of the world’s second-largest music market and the loosely defined “J-Pop” genre, rooted in The Beatles and the Swinging Sixties.
“The local pop scene is sizzling with an array of girl groups, both old and new, and the competition is expected to heat up,” frothed Han Sang-hee of The Korea Times in 2009 (conveniently ignoring the Korean entertainment industry’s well-publicized backdrop of backroom sleaze and suicides).
Girls’ Generation is a nine-member troupe of professionally trained showbiz babes, often referred to outside Korea as SNSD, an acronym of the group’s Korean name “So Nyeo Shi Dae”. The group sold over 100,000 copies each of their first three albums, a first for female groups in South Korea.
Their main rivals are The Wonder Girls, whose English version of their 2009 single “Nobody” was the first Korean song to enter the US Billboard Chart—it also topped playlists in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The five-piece unit announced a 20-show tour of the US and Canada in 2010—“The Wonder World Tour”(natch)—after supporting hot-to-trot virgins, the Jonas Brothers.
Eight-piece Morning Musume is Japan’s biggest-selling girl group. They formed in 1997 via reality TV series Asayan, which tasked them with selling 50,000 copies of demo single “Ai no Tane” in five days. The girls managed it in four.
Peering beyond the shiny surface offers a glimpse of a baffling subculture, somewhat echoing hierarchical Japanese society. Morning Musume is the lead group of The Hello! Project—a monopolistic network of dozens of bands populated by members whose average age is 15. These performers are interchangeable, so routinely form new bands.
Unsurprisingly, Morning Musume has an ever-fluctuating lineup, forever staging “auditions” and “graduations” (read: retirements, complete with farewell ceremonies). There are already 17 former members. Perhaps the current crop can take hope from the fact that the group’s line-up remained unchanged in 2008. Or maybe not.
In Thailand, a quintet called Girly Berry often enrage traditionalists and moral conservatives with their skimpy attire and provocative choreography. Therefore, it came as a surprise when the Thai government selected the girls to front a national campaign calling for women to dress modestly during the Songkran water-throwing fight festival.
Girly Berry gladly accepted—only to appear plastered over tabloid front pages on the first day of the festival soaking wet and scantily clad. The band posed in pink polo shirts wai-ing their apology to the country’s Ministry of Culture. “We want to say that we have more than one role,” said Piay “Giftza” Pongkullapa. “As everybody knows, Girly Berry s a girl group whose image, singing and dancing are influenced by Western culture. That day we were Girly Berry.”
“Play with matches, you get burned,” would seem to be the moral of this story.“]
The star-maker behind the Spice Girls, FarWest Entertainment, is now setting out to form an Asian counterpart. The pan-Asian girl band launched an initiative called Project Lotus, to find, train, and groom the five “Asian Spice Girls” from China, Japan, Korea, Philippines and India. Online auditions have closed—so listen out for the “Asian Spice Girls” bothering the airwaves soon. Their management team is also responsible for the likes of Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, S Club 7, Five, Ronan Keating, and Blue, by the way. Be afraid. Be very afraid…