The Nostalgia Series, vol. 6: Early to Mid 2000s Pop Melayu Phenomenon in Indonesia

By: Claudia Siregar |

Talking about Indonesian music, it’s only fair that we remember Indonesia as one of the biggest band ecosystems in Asia other than Japan with their J-rock. Rock music in Indonesia has always been evolving, from Malay pop-influenced pop rock in early to mid 2000s to harder units such as Deadsquad and Burger Kill, pop punk/emo units, and indie rock units such as Barasuara and Efek Rumah Kaca. The Malay pop-influenced pop rock phenomenon grabbed my interest as a long period of Indonesian rock music was dominated by it and the listeners of this genre were considered a part of a subculture called the “alays” – not to mention all the “sad boi hours” playlists populated by famous, iconic songs from the era and the fact that this phenomenon successfully propelled a couple of Indonesian bands to the international market.

The Malay pop phenomenon in Indonesia originated with the popularity of Malaysian pop rock hits in the country, one of the most iconic ones being “Suci Dalam Debu” by Malaysian band Iklim in 1997, which has now become a heartbreak karaoke anthem for those who were in their late teens in the 90’s. But it wasn’t until 2004 that ST12, who is considered the pioneer of the genre, came into the scene and made the genre popular among the middle to lower class youth in Indonesia. With mellow hits such as “Isabella” and “Jangan Marah Marah”, the band became one of the first local Malay pop bands to re-package their album for a Malaysian release.

Little did everyone knew, this was just the beginning of a new era for Indonesian pop bands. Soon enough, bands such as Armada, Kangen Band (famous for the vocalist’s “emo hair”, Hijau Daun, and Wali started populating the charts, with these bands somehow making it to Malaysian charts. This was also supported by the trend at that time – Asian rock music in general taking on similar melancholic/orchestral pop rock styles, including Korean “idol” rock band FTISLAND’s orchestral rock ballad “Love Sick”, released in 2007. Armada’s single “Asal Kau Bahagia” in particular became a hit in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore and was even covered by a Korean Youtuber at one point. The song received praise for its universal lyrics about an unrequited love, along with its melancholic melody. In most cases, this is what drew the Indonesian public to local Malay pop other than the Malay traditional music-influenced rhythm and the simplicity of the song production – the feeling of being able to relate to another desperate hopeless romantic.

Universal, somewhat passive aggressive lyrics about heartbreak, simple, mellow-sounding melody, everything sounds like the perfect soundtrack for their lonely Saturday nights. A perfect heartbreak companion for a group of listeners so deeply obsessed with relationships. Hijau Daun’s single “Suara” is one of the most iconic local Malay pop hits of its era that depicted such a hopeless romantic state of mind, alongside Kangen Band’s famous lyrics “Kamu dimana? / Dengan siapa? Sekarang berbuat apa?” (“Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing?”). These lyrics are not just common – they are one of the prerequisites to success in local Malay pop.

It may be argued that local Malay pop bands dominated the mainstream Indonesian music scene longer than bands from other genres, and I may agree with that argument. Though branded as “too whiny” and “too simple” by audiophiles and the general public, local Malay pop bands were famous and internationally marketable for a reason – exactly because they executed their “whiny hopeless romantic” marketing campaign successfully, and because they’re simple and easy to listen and sing along to. Overall, for those who lived in the era where local Malay pop bands thrived, local Malay pop was more than just internationally marketable local music – it represented an identity based on a state of mind considered to be popular nationwide in the strangest way possible.

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