Music to whose ears?

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 A performance of singer Dam Vinh Hung (C), who attracted widespread criticism last week for his disrespectful attitude towards veteran composer Nguyen Anh 9, after the latter criticized his singing skills /PHOTO: DOC LAP

The scene of rapprochement was as melodramatic as the tiff was controversial there were tears, hug, kisses and flowers as singer Dam Vinh Hung called on veteran composer Nguyen Dinh Anh, better known as Nguyen Anh 9, during a piano performance by the latter at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City last Thursday night.

Both singer and composer seemed determined to settle amicably their spat that had drawn great deal of public and media attention.

However, the controversy has served an important purpose, some people say. It has highlighted the absence of professional music critics in the media, allowing several not-so-talented artists to reap handsome public recognition rewards.

On August 24, in an interview with VTC News website, Anh, whose songs have been popular on local stages since the 1970s, passed critical comments about the abilities of currently popular singers in Vietnam, including Hung.

Anh said Hung, frequently referred to as the "King of V-pop," was not a "true singer." He said the pop star did not have a distinct style of singing, had an unclear accent, and was a superficial talent.

When Hung performed famous songs of yesteryear, including Anh's, it was a total failure, Anh said.

The 73-year-old musician also said that if Hung was a singer in the old times when there were many capable artists, he would only be "a C-list singer."

Hung's initial response to the stinging criticism came in a Facebook message to his fans, calling for them to "stay calm and behave politely."

The next day, he posted a long letter on his Facebook page, in which he called the musician a "hypocrite" who was using his influence in the Vietnamese music industry to oppress Hung.

Hung said millions of people listen to his music, and that his talent has been proven by awards he has received from "prestigious" art councils.

The 42-year-old singer's response caused a public uproar. People questioned both his disrespectful attitude towards a senior artist even as they debated whether Anh's comments were warranted.

The debate that raged in the media as well as on websites got more heated when Anh, in an interview with the press, said he was willing to apologize if his comments were "misunderstood" as being slanderous.

Media hype

Many people said there was no need for Anh to be apologetic about what he said.

They said the case was a reminder that in the absence of professional music critics, both audience and singers are being misled about the local music industry's quality by journalists who tend to lavish praise on artists regardless of their true merit and talent.

Tran Hieu, a veteran musician, said in the Kham Pha (Discovery) magazine that Vietnam needs people like Anh to "awaken" everybody, because many people who are called "stars" think they are great singers when they are actually mediocre talents.

Besides the "King of V-pop" title bestowed on Hung, best known for his flamboyance, outspokenness and many scandals, there are many epithets freely handed out in the media, especially online publications, to singers.

Critics say these titles are often based on the singer's public image or the kind of music they perform, and not on how good or popular the artists' really are.

There is a balloon princess, a nightingale prince, a prince of love ballads, a prince of sad songs, a queen of dance music, and even a prince of scandals.

Van Thi Minh Huong, director of the HCMC Conservatory of Music, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper singers need to be highly talented to become stars.

But many singers who have not even received fundamental training are "polished" and "praised to the skies" by their fans and the media, so they have mistaken ideas about their talent, she said.

Speaking to the The thao & Van hoa (Sport & Culture) newspaper, The Bao, former head of the Vietnam Musician Association's musical argument and criticism department, said Vietnam is yet to have an "atmosphere of really professional criticism."

Local artists get used to over-the-top praise and react strongly when someone says they are not good, Bao said.

Vu Duy Giang, former chairman of the HCMC Journalists' Association's club of art and entertainment reporters, also told Tuoi Tre music criticism in the media seems to be underdeveloped, although there are many issues in the industry that need to be debated.  

Once "the culture of criticism" is established, artists will be able to receive constructive comments "normally," Giang added.

Music director Pham Hoang Nam wrote in an op-ed published in Tuoi Tre that in Vietnam, professional critics are almost nowhere to be found, so the job has been totally taken over by the press and the public.

Very few journalism students major in writing art reviews, and the rest are "amateurish," doing nothing but interviewing people around, asking for their opinions, he said.

The public, meanwhile, tends to criticize everything, Nam said.

So, it is not hard to understand why Vietnamese showbiz is like a "messy market" where different kinds of values are mixed up, he said.

Although it is often said that people should not argue about taste, it is "necessary" to have professional critics who act as a guide for the public in enjoying the arts, as well as help artists improve themselves, he said.

"In theory, a healthy society needs criticism and self-criticism, and so do the arts," he said.

Informed criticism

Huong with the HCMC Conservatory of Music said she finds the Vietnamese audience "easygoing," allowing other things to interfere in defining their tastes like dances and visual effects, instead of focusing on the music or singers' voice.

This easy acceptance, combined with singers' misconceptions about their talent and the influence of many different "forces" has led to the domination of "commercial music" over "art music" in Vietnam.

To regain the balance between commercial and art music, as well as to help the audience recognize true values in the local music industry, Vietnamese people need to be educated, taught to enjoy "art music" from childhood, Huong said.

"I believe it is good that various tastes exist in a society, but there are tastes that need to be guided."

In an op-ed carried by online newspaper Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Laws), musician Nguyen Bach also stressed the importance of teaching the public how to appreciate music in defining the values of Vietnam's music industry.

He said "music appreciation," which is taught as an official subject at music schools around the world, is something that should be taught to everyone who loves music, not just those wanting to be critics.

The subject should be taught, through short-term training, so that people learn how to listen and appreciate different kinds of music even without the ability to read musical notes, Bach said.

Once the public's knowledge and appreciation of music improves, they will be more discerning and choose what suits them instead of "following the crowd like they do now," he said.

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