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  • The 12 Girls Band:Traditions, Gender, Globalization, and (Inter)national Identity1
  • Hon-Lun Yang (bio) and Michael Saffle (bio)

Chinese music has gone through dramatic changes in the past century in connection with modernization. Not only has the West influenced the nation's overall art-music soundscape, but traditional Chinese music has also undergone significant transformations. Yet, although westernization and professionalization proved themselves especially important during much of the 20th century, it has been commercialization, commodification, and globalization that have exerted increasing influence since 2001. One example of the stylistic hybridity inspired by these last forces is a group known as the 12 Girls Band—a techno/rock/ethnic fusion Chinese instrumental music ensemble. With 12 Girls the People's Republic of China (hereafter PRC) has entered the global music scene of the 21st century.

Consider these facts: the Band's album Eastern Energy, released on August 17, 2004, in the United States, was ranked 62nd on Billboard's 200 chart 2 weeks later (on September 3), the highest debut ranking achieved by an Asian artist or ensemble in the history of that poll.2 On the World Music chart, the album lingered for more than 15 weeks, during which it ranked No. 1 most of the time.3 Released in June 2007, Shanghai ranked 50th on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart; on the World Music chart it stayed for 10 weeks, ranking 7th at the highest and 15th at the lowest.4 It is in Japan, however, that the group has claimed its greatest successes to date. Beautiful Energy, released in that country in July 2003, remained at the top of the Nipponese chart for 30 weeks and sold more than 2 million copies; on August 18, 2004, it also reached first place on the Japanese Oricon music chart and stayed there for more than 10 weeks (Momphard 2004). As a consequence the 12 Girls Band was named "International Artist of the Year" at Japan's 2004 Golden Disc Award ceremonies; past recipients of this last honor include Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Madonna (Lam 2004).

At the same time, the group's reception in the PRC has been mixed (Chen 2004; Zhang 2005). Recognizing its commercial success, some Mainland critics have proclaimed the Band the messiah of Chinese instrumental ensembles (e.g., Cheng 2004; Yao 2004), whereas others have questioned its authenticity, condemning the ensemble for damaging China's complex and often explicitly politicized musical traditions (e.g., Li 2005; Sun 2004; Yu 2005).5 [End Page 88]

The 12 Girls Band's earnings, the music it plays, and its mixed reception at home (and, to a lesser extent, abroad) exemplify important aspects of the globalization of popular music as well as the commercialization and popularization of ethnic music in Western and non-Western societies alike. Above all, the Band's reception within the PRC illuminates what is—or is not—perceived to be Chinese about the ensemble itself and others like it. Why has the 12 Girls Band been perceived so differently at home and abroad in terms of authenticity? What roles have nationality (which, in this case, is often linked with tradition as well as politics) and gender played in the reception to date of the Band's local and global identities? Finally, how has globalization acted both as a homogenous and as a heterogeneous force in the marketization and commodification of an ethnic/national ensemble?

The present article attempts to provide a reading of an ethnic ensemble's emergence into the international pop-music scene,6 evaluating its origin, com-modifi cation, and performance style as well as examining the influence and reception of national musical traditions and innovations insofar as they involve the globalization of Chineseness within today's increasingly internationalized pop-music marketplace. In our opinion, the 12 Girls Band successfully projects an image of gendered otherness that panders particularly to the global audience's cravings for exotic entertainment, even as it creates controversial new and interactive forms of traditional, national, and popular Chinese music within the PRC. As an international commodity, the Band represents an alternative form of manufactured musical colonialism within a global late-capitalist economy. As a musical ensemble...


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