- Luk Thung:The Culture and Politics of Thailand’s Most Popular Music
Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2015, 208 pp. ISBN 978-616-215-106-4
As a hybridized genre of local popular music in Thailand that draws the majority of its listeners from farmers and the urban working class, analyses of luk thung in English-language academic literature have been few and far between, appearing only as isolated journal articles (Jirattikorn, 2006; Siriyuvasak, 1990) or as segments within books that deal with Thai popular music in general (see Jaiser, 2012). Therefore, James Leonard Mitchell’s book, which focuses entirely on luk thung, is indeed a valuable contribution to scholarship on Thai popular music written in English.
The central argument in Mitchell’s book is that the high proportion of Isan artistes and musicians in the luk thung industry has enabled greater visibility and acceptance of Isan cultural forms and identity in Thai society. Therefore the author tends to place much more emphasis on the mixed genre derived from the cross-fertilization of luk thung and molam (originating from Isan folk music in the northeastern provinces of Thailand and performed in Lao/Isan language), referred to by various terms such as luk thung Isan, luk thung prayuk and luk thung molam. To substantiate his main thesis, the author has consulted sources of information in both Thai and English, and draws upon a rich body of fieldwork data, including interviews with luk thung songwriters, singers, and record company executives, as well as participant observation at luk thung concerts. Mitchell’s interviews with veteran songwriter Soraphet Phinyo (Chapter 3) reveal the inner workings of the luk thung recording and production industry, while the case study of luk thung singer Mangpor Chontika (Chapter 4) provides thick descriptions of star–fan relationships in the world of luk thung fandom. The final chapter in this book explores how luk thung has been appropriated by the two main opposing political factions in Thailand—the ‘Red Shirts’ (largely represented by the rural masses and urban working class) and the ‘Yellow Shirts’ (associated with the urban elite)—to rally for support.
Although most of the fieldwork research was conducted in the late 2000s (some of which was published in earlier journal papers), the author makes an effort to provide updated examples of popular luk thung hits, such as Yingli Sichumphon’s ‘Kho chai toe laek boe tho’ (Your Heart for My Phone Number). Released in 2013, the song became a national sensation embraced even by the middle-class audience, and its music video garnered more than 100 million views on Youtube. Unfortunately, Mitchell fails to discuss the various factors that led to the success of this particular luk thung song. While the book is very comprehensive in detailing the popularity of luk thung from the 1960s to 1980s, I wish the author had [End Page 171] devoted more space in the epilogue to the future outlook of luk thung, especially the reception and sustainability of this genre among the younger generations of working-class and middle-class Thai youth, many of whom are ardent fans of K-pop.
Many scholars tend to judge the value of popular music based on whether a particular genre may challenge or resist the powers-that-be, but I admire and concur with Mitchell’s position that commercial music—that is not necessarily overt in political commentary—is still worthy of analysis. Overall, the book offers a well-rounded overview of various aspects of luk thung in terms of its history, significant players in its commercial production, fan practices, and how luk thung has been adapted for political criticism. However, it appears to target a niche group of readers who are proficient in English and already have a specialist knowledge of Thai popular music as well as local forms of popular music across various Asian economies. In the first chapter, the author plunges into describing the historical developments of the luk thung industry and major singers at the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. He mentions therein the influence of molam on luk thung, without adequately explaining what molam is and how it sounds...