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Vietnamese Sorrow: A Study of Literary Discourse in Popular Music Life


Since 1975, subjects from Vietnam have been resettling around the world in mass numbers, re-positing Vietnamese subjectivities, histories, language, and rituals beyond the nation state. Even outside of Vietnam, many Vietnamese in the diaspora have been affected by Vietnam’s postwar and economic reforms. After 1975, the new socialist government deemed the Vietnamese in exile to be the false Vietnamese who betrayed the country (phản bội). Their culture was dismissed as being yellow and sickly (ủy mị), and their historical presence was erased for reasons of being associated with colonialism and western imperialism. Even today, the Vietnamese refugees are still shunned from Vietnam and cannot be repatriated as Vietnamese citizens.

Without a government, the Vietnamese in exile lost their political identity. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese refugees are conflated with American imperialism, whereas in the United States, they are conflated as communist “gooks.” Consequently, Vietnamese popular music became instrumental for many Vietnamese to record and retell alternative histories about the Vietnam War and the old southern Republic of Vietnam. Due to its cultural capital, Vietnamese popular music offer a platform for expressing and fashioning shared memories and subjectivities. Contrary to the perspective that Vietnamese popular songs point to the Vietnamese as being brainwashed by colonialization and imperialism or refugees trapped in their own trauma and nostalgia, I argue that these songs show advantageous and strategic modes of negotiation in contemporary Vietnamese global cultural politics.

Likewise, as Vietnamese popular music became more politically acceptable in Vietnam, many queer and transgendered performers began using popular music to raise more awareness about queer rights. Ultimately, Vietnamese popular music has been a cultural instrument of expressing social power and critique for subjects bereft of institutional leverage. The soundscape of Vietnamese popular music is an invaluable framework for understanding the interconnected sites and levels of cultural exchange in Vietnam and the diaspora. Not only does it show that Vietnamese subjects and culture are transnational and global, but it also maps them topographically with slopes of power-relations.

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