- Lukthung:Authenticity and Modernity in Thai Country Music
Lukthung, often referred to in English as "Thai country music," has long been associated with the Thai village environment and the lives of its inhabitants, whose concerns have comprised the subject matter of lukthung songs since the music's inception during the 1960s. This rural subject matter includes attention to the social, cultural, and economic disjunctures that result when the rural confronts the urban, especially under conditions of migration to the city. In addition, a number of musical features of lukthung have served to reinforce its status as a uniquely Thai, as opposed to Western, form of music, a music that evokes nostalgia for a simple and pure, rural Thai way of life. Contemporary lukthung, however, also incorporates many Western and global musical trends, such as salsa, funk, rap, and techno, into its music, as well as incorporating many English loan words into its lyrics. Lukthung singers adopt the modern look of Thai pop singers. In recent years, soap opera actresses, pop singers, and movie stars have started to sing lukthung. Urban audiences, youths or adults, who once looked down upon lukthung as music fitting only for country bumpkins and laborers, have now begun to listen to lukthung songs.
This is not to suggest that changes never occurred in the past. Lukthung has been shaped and reshaped by larger socio-economic conditions since its earliest period. My interest in lukthung's development of the 1990s, however, lies in two fronts: firstly, its association with the notion of authenticity, which is closely linked with the notion of Thai-ness. Secondly, I am interested in the change in taste distinction regarding lukthung from "lowbrow" to "middle-brow." In my following analysis, I will trace the history of taste stratification of Thai popular music in order to understand the shift in taste distinction of lukthung.
It is, however, crucial to define here what I mean by "authenticity." Peterson suggests that the definitions of authenticity in country music are relational and variable, and partly derived from institutional arbitration (Peterson 1997). To understand the notion of authenticity, I suggest, we have to understand the [End Page 24] dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic, not to make a clear distinction but to recognize that both of these are socially constructed. In music, authenticity appears in differentiations between genres and in highly ideologically charged discourse around aesthetic values. Hence, to some, folk music is classified as authentic, as opposed to mass-produced popular music; popular music is conceived as more genuine than upper-class elite art music; and rock is seen by some as the "real thing" in opposition to pop and disco. These distinctions are socially constructed (Fornas 1994, 156).
In the Thai musicscape, lukthung is perceived as more authentic than string, a genre of Thai pop/rock with Thai lyrics appealing particularly to urban, middle-class youths. While string is seen as largely influenced by Western music, lukthung's perceived authenticity obtains from its connections with a range of traditional symbols: its roots in folk music, its use of simple language, and its portrayals of common and working-class folk. The majority of Thai commentators have assumed that the authenticity identity markers of lukthung include the rural origins of its artists, and its use of accented voices signifying rural origins, earthy lyrics, and a more realistic view of life, in contrast to "string," which emphasizes a sugary, over-idealization of love and life (see Anake 1978, Pasuk and Baker 1995, Kobkul 1998). These markers of authenticity are said to reflect the notion of sincerity and straightforwardness that has long been thought by urbanites to be a part of rural culture (Anake 1978, 71–72). Here, the definition of what is authentic and what is not is closely associated with the dichotomies of "rural vs. urban," "tradition vs. modernity," and "Thai vs. Western."
As suggested above, contemporary lukthung music seems to have lost some of these authentic markers. Lukthung artists now need not have rural origins, thus accented voices are no longer a necessary qualification to become a lukthung star. Today's lukthung songs incorporate rap, techno, and salsa styles. Lukthung's dancers adopt a style...