I am Vietnamese. I am the son of "boat people," Vietnamese refugees who escaped Vietnam by boat. Growing up as a Vietnamese American in the US, I was never into Vietnamese music. I just didn't like it. It didn't appeal to me. Like most Vietnamese kids growing up in America, my only exposure to Vietnamese music was through the popular video series Paris By Night that my parents would watch. In all honesty, I thought that shit was corny and lame. Now as an adult, I somehow found myself listening to Vietnamese music and loving it. So, what changed? How did it happen?
The History of Vietnamese Music
Historically, the most popular type of music in Vietnam has been nhạc buồn, or sad songs. Vietnamese people love their slow jams. Love songs, breakup songs, and songs about the rain make up the majority of the music being produced and played in Vietnam. Personally, I like to listen to music that is more upbeat like pop, hip-hop, and dance music. I don't like listening to songs that make me FeelsBadMan.1
Culturally, Vietnam has been heavily influenced by it's surrounding nations throughout it's history. More specifically, Chinese pop culture has been the dominant cultural import in the past with their historical, martial-arts-filled dramas and soothing ballads.2 So, it's no surprise that ballads are also extremely popular in Vietnam. Furthermore, I feel that Vietnamese people as a whole have suffered many hardships. Nhạc buồn is representative of that fact. It's basically the Vietnamese version of the blues.
In my opinion, the themes found in popular music are a reflection of the feelings and experiences of a nation. While many US pop songs are about living large (obtaining the American Dream), songs about the rain make more sense for the Vietnamese people. Vietnam has a tropical climate. During the summer in Vietnam, it's either going to be hot as heck -- making you not want to do anything -- or, you guessed it, raining. Thus, I can understand why chill songs and songs about the rain are more popular in Vietnam. Those are the types of songs that make life for your average Vietnamese citizen a little more bearable.
Imagine having to push a motorbike through knee-deep water during the rainy season. That would suck! Being a privileged American, I like to ride around in my car with the AC cranked up, bumping songs about living life in the fast lane. This is probably one of the reasons why Vietnamese music never appealed to me. I just couldn't relate to it.
I'm riding round I'm gettin it, it's mine I spend it. -- 2 Chainz
Most people still view Vietnam as a poor third world country with picturesque scenery. Because they are only familiar with Vietnam through movies about the Vietnam War or through popular Vietnamese cuisines like phở and bánh mì, not many people realize how much Vietnam has developed throughout the years. Vietnam is starting to globalize and modernize rapidly with a burgeoning start-up culture, international investments, and a young, educated workforce.
As a result of improving economical and living conditions, Vietnam now has the fastest growing middle class in Southeast Asia. These new middle class families with more disposable income have given rise to a whole new consumer market. In the the last few years, companies have started to target the youth of Vietnam. This is something that, I believe, never existed before. In general, youth culture in Vietnam is blowing up. Kids these days are going around spending money like it's nobody's business. What happened to saving that money to go to school?
For the most part, the youth of Vietnam have been overlooked. There has always been nhạc trẻ, or music for young people, but "pop music" as a Western-style musical genre targeting youth culture has never really been a thing in Vietnam until now. In the past, the only nhạc trẻ that you would get would be popular Vietnamese ballads remixed to the same old techno beats. These days, more music is being created by the youth of Vietnam for the youth.
Modern Vietnamese Music
Vpop, or Vietnamese pop music, is something that was born out of interesting circumstances. With approximately 43% of the population having internet access, global and foreign trends are having a greater impact on the society of Vietnam today.3 For one, Korean pop culture has taken root in Vietnam just like it has in many other countries. Kpop is extremely popular in Vietnam. Kpop idols are worshipped like gods by many teenage fans. A lot of Kpop idols are even more popular than Vietnamese idols.
The invasion of Kpop idols into Vietnam is often seen as a negative and threatening force to Vietnam's own music scene. In my view, however, I believe Kpop has had a net positive effect on Vpop because the popularity of Kpop has forced the Vietnamese music industry to evolve out of necessity. In the past, a lot of Vietnamese songs were just remakes of popular Chinese ballads. Now with the proliferation of information in an internet era, copying Chinese or Korean songs just doesn't cut it anymore. The days of ripping off popular Korean songs are over. I'm looking at you, Bảo Thy.4 It just doesn't work when Kpop idols are more popular than their Vietnamese counterparts. Why not just listen to the superior, original version of a song instead of listening to a half-ass cover? This is something that turned me off of Vpop in the past.
A lot of young Vietnamese artists and producers are starting to come up through the underground scene to make their mark in Vietnam's pop music scene. The infusion of young and more forward-thinking individuals has pushed Vpop away from just copying to actually creating new and interesting content. Instead of just looking to cash in, these young artists have a real passion for music.
Additionally, globalization has given rise to a greater influx of musical styles in Vietnamese music. Modern Vpop contains various elements of popular types of music genres like rap, EDM, pop, and of course, Kpop.
From Non-Believer to Vpop Fan
Three months ago, I was a complete Vpop noob. From time to time, I would dabble in Vpop, but it never was my thing. For over 10 years, I was all about that Kpop, Jpop, and Cpop.
Then, one day I randomly clicked on a video on YouTube. Why did I click on it? I'll admit it. There was a picture of a hot Asian chick on the thumbnail. So, I was like....okay, let me check this out. What's a guy suppose to do? Hot girls can be very convincing. It was one of those Vietnamese house, or Vinahouse, mixtapes.5 I can't say that I am a fan of Vinahouse; however, I liked the vocalist on the tracks. I didn't know who Sơn Tùng M-TP was at the time, but I liked his style. That's when I decided to give Vpop another look.
Being out of the Viet music game, I was quite unfamiliar with the scene. I mainly only knew the old school Vietnamese American and Vietnamese Canadian singers -- your Trish Thuy Trang, your Thai Viet G, and your Chuckie Akenz.
It was quite the challenge for me when I first started listening to Vpop. First of all, it was hard to find good Vpop music. Amongst my family and friends, I did't know a single person who listened to Vpop so I couldn't just ask for recommendations. And unlike Kpop, there still is a lack of English websites dedicated to covering the Vietnamese pop music. Therefore, I had to put in a lot of effort to do all the research myself. But as an experienced obscure music connoisseur, I know how to find stuff on the internet. Secondly, I had to overcome my own negative bias towards Vietnamese music. Years of hearing bad Vpop music from Paris By Night videos will do that to you. I hate to sound like a hater, but the main problem that I have with Paris By Night is that it was created for an older Vietnamese audience. Get with the times, yo! That's why it was so uncool.
At first, I wasn't a believer in Vpop. But as I digged deeper into the world of Vpop, I eventually became a Vpop fan and true believer. I believe Vpop has the potential to become the next big cultural export from Asia behind Kpop and Jpop.
Why Vpop Is The Next Big Thing
Let's take a look at some of the reasons preventing Vpop from being just as popular as Kpop that I have either heard people say or I have once believed myself.
1. Vietnam doesn't have the money or the resources to produce good Vpop.
I believe this is very quickly being proven false. Yes, Vietnam is still a "developing country," but it's developing at a rapid pace with a lot of international investors pouring money into the economy. Music videos are becoming more and more elaborate, and artists are being better trained. As the country's economy continues to grow, more and more resources will go into the music industry as well as other businesses. Yes, Vpop is still years behind Kpop's idol producing factories where teenagers train for 7-8 years to become pop stars. 365DaBand is considered to be Vietnam's best trained boy band, and they trained for only 6 months before they debuted. Imagine if they had trained for 6 years. Vpop will only get bigger and better as time goes by.
2. Vietnamese is a harsh sounding language.
I once held this belief myself. Then I started listening to Vpop, and I realized that Vietnamese can be a very beautiful language when spoken properly. Korean was once considered a harsh sounding language. Have you ever heard angry Koreans yelling at each other? Just ask Ken Jeong.6 In fact, any language can sound ugly or pretty. Your average English conversation in a bar, for example, can be very unpleasant to the ears. It's strange that Vietnamese has gotten a rep as an ugly sounding language. Maybe, it's because we usually hear it shouted at us. Well, that's what I have experienced -- my mom constantly yelling at me for getting in fights with my brother.
3. Vpop lacks originality.
This was true in years past when Vpop artists would straight copy other people's songs, but I believe this is no longer true. In fact, I would argue that Vpop is more original than Kpop now. I feel that since Vpop is still in it's infancy, Vpop artists are experimenting with newer and more interesting things than Kpop artists. Kpop has an established sound that has become very formulaic. Maybe, I have been listening to Kpop for too long, but I find Kpop to be boring and all the same now. Yet, I find Vpop more refreshing.
4. Vietnamese people aren't as attractive as Koreans.
Do I find Korean women attractive? Yes. Do I find Vietnamese women attractive? Yes. Are Koreans more attractive? I would have to say no. I think it's more of a marketing thing. Asian countries worship white people for their beauty because of how Hollywood portrays Americans in movies. The average American, however, is obese. If you take the top 1% of the people in both Vietnam and Korea in terms of looks and compare them, I'm not so sure who would win. It's a fact that plastic surgery is extremely popular in Korea. Should Vietnamese idols get plastic surgery too? I don't think this is really the issue or necessary. Hair and makeup does wonders for a person's image. For example, have you ever seen CL of 2NE1 without makeup? Trust me. You don't want to. There are plenty of attractive women and men in Vietnam. It's just a matter of finding them and giving them more exposure.
5. There aren't enough fans. Vietnam doesn't care about Vpop.
Pop music historically has never been popular in Vietnam. Ballads dominate the Vietnamese music charts. I don't believe that this means that pop music can't succeed in Vietnam. Look at Kpop for example. It's pretty darn popular in Vietnam. In my opinion, Kpop was able to succeed in VN because it's appealing to an overlooked audience -- the youth of Vietnam. Kpop's popularity proves that there is an audience for pop music. But, is it too late for Vpop? It's true that many Vietnamese Kpop fans aren't that interested in Vpop. In the short term, this is kind of a problem. In the long term, I believe most Kpop fans will be won over because there's an inherent overlap between Kpop and Vpop. Vpop has a lot of Kpop ingredients -- colorful MV's, the usage of English lyrics, simple choreographed dances, etc. Just because you're a fan of Kpop that doesn't mean that you can't be a fan of Vpop too. To quote Field of Dreams....if you build it, they will come.
Vpop is still in it's infancy but is growing rapidly. There are numerous challenges and biases to overcome; however, Vpop has great growth and untapped potential. In order to the take the next step, it must first win over it's core Vietnamese audience in Vietnam and overseas.
As a fan of Vpop, I have taken upon myself to help other realize just how awesome Vpop can be. As a Vietnamese person, I hope to show younger generations of Vietnamese youth that Vietnamese culture is cool and should be embraced.
Although I usually don't like listening to sad songs, I do enjoy a good Chinese ballad. ↩
Bảo Thy is a Vietnamese idol. IMO, she is the biggest copycat offender in recent memory. ↩
Vinahouse is a genre of house music that is popular in Vietnam with a tempo ranging from 132-142 bpm. ↩
Not cool Ken Jeong. Marrying a Vietnamese woman doesn't mean you can make fun of Vietnamese people haphazardly. I have been emasculated enough by American media. I don't need a fellow Asian man doing it too. Kind of hypocritical to say Vietnamese are "faggy" when Korean pretty boys are the ones wearing skinny jeans, makeup, and eyeliner. ↩