Miles Critiques V-POP’s plagarising tendencies.

The pop music machine in Vietnam is broken. It always has been. In between poor service infrastructure and shady dealings among executives, a culture of plagiarism has emerged and embedded itself into the fabric of the art. A cursory search of “Vietnamese music” + “plagiarism” will turn up hundreds of articles, forum posts, and Facebook callouts – just from the Anglosphere. Reactions from Vietnamese ‘netizens’ are even more intense and divided: “I am ashamed of my country [..] this is our current pop industry, just full of wannabes.” So what’s the deal? Why does this phenomenon exist? What’s the future of V-Pop?

The History

After the war ended in 1975, the musical landscape was in disrepair. The reunified state banned pre-war music, dubbed “yellow music”, and replaced it with government-approved “red music” that squandered any semblance of fun, unabashedly *POP* tunes. That is until 1986 when “Đổi Mới” was launched, a series of reformations to establish Vietnam on the international stage economically, socially, and culturally. These changes were so effective that by the 1990s, Western music had become ubiquitous. Somehow everyone had “My Love” by Westlife pre-installed on their MP3 player – nobody had any idea how it got there, but we loved it regardless.

As more global hits trickled in and their catchy hooks seeped into the public consciousness, Vietnamese music producers saw an opportunity. The thought process was simple: if the public already liked a song, they’ll like it even more if it’s in a language they understand. So began the epidemic. Early offenders were blatant, often releasing one-to-one translation covers advertised as original compositions. A few examples include: Lam Trường’s “Mãi Mãi” (orig. “Forever” by Ahn Jae Wook); and Minh Tuyết’s “Nụ Hôn Biệt Ly” (orig. “Kiss Goodbye” by Nu Flavor). Perhaps the most egregious of all was Đan Trường’s “The Mi Ya Hee Song” which steals the iconic hook from O-Zone’s smash Europop hit “Dragostea Din Tei” almost exactly.

The situation spiralled to the point where the Ministry of Culture published a list of 70 songs suspected of plagiarism to publicly denounce the practice in 2005. This proved futile when it wasn’t followed up with any real consequences. No lawsuits, no fines, no bans; just a mere symbolic condemnation as effective as a modern Twitter callout. Outside of a niche circle of online pop obsessives, the V-audience’s affinity for copycat music was unperturbed, continuing to consume illegal CD rips peddled by street vendors. All the while industry music producers pressed forward undeterred.

In the crosshairs are the artists being plagiarised. In 2009, V-Pop sensation Bảo Thy released “Thiên Thần Trong Truyện Tranh” which immediately drew comparisons to Lenka’s “The Show”. The similarities were undeniable between the identical melodies, and piano chords, down to the cloying vocal delivery. When Lenka herself visited Hanoi in 2009, she was greeted by the clamour surrounding her musical doppelgänger. She shot back: “I had no idea what [Bảo Thy] has done to my song. If she used it and profited from it, then I’m not okay with that.” Lenka never visited Vietnam again.

The Present

Today V-Pop’s market is still plagued by foreign pop imitation, extending its grip into the skin of K-Pop and J-Pop. The crown ‘prince of V-Pop’, Sơn Tùng M-TP, has battled copycat controversies in his entire career. In 2016, his hit “Chúng Ta Không Thuộc Về Nhau” drew comparisons to Charlie Puth’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore” while its music video was eerily similar to G-Dragon’s videography. Beyond sonic plagiarism, visual aesthetics are commonly lifted. Last year, Vietnamese girl group DREAMeR faced backlash for their debut posters striking unmistakable resemblance to BLACKPINK’s ‘Born Pink’ promotional material. Side by side, the similarities are unmistakable from the shattered glass effect down to the demure expression on their faces.

BLACKPINK (left) vs DREAMer (right)

From this, a culture of hypervigilance among V-Pop fans playing pop detective has emerged, often treading into irrational territory. In 2020, Vietnamese Swifties flooded the comments of AMEE’s music video “Sao Anh Chưa Về Nhà“, decrying similarities to Swift’s “Blank Space”. These accusations were flimsy. Outside of depicting a scorned female protagonist exacting revenge on her cheating spouse, everything else was notably different. It seems a Pavlovian response has conditioned V-Pop fans into analysing every new release to find the exact moodboard that’s been pulled from.

The Roots

Underlying these symptoms are a complex web of political history and cultural dispositions. Logistically, the dearth of care and funding, worsened by years of illicit distribution and negligible copyright enforcement, has created an environment where plagiarism is a logical choice. Music industry executives had to navigate a landscape where failure wasn’t an option, so emulating tried-and-true formulas was an easy way to mass produce smash hits. On a cultural basis, a shadow of colonisation still hangs over Vietnam’s creative psyche. The illusion of foreign pop music being superior and the creativity of foreigners more intrinsic is deeply ingrained. Without proper support, original composers struggle to thrive in a cultural environment so hostile to Vietnamese creativity. This inferiority complex also explains the national underdog narrative where Viet people assume that Vietnam is so insignificant on the world stage that no foreign artists will bother if we intrude upon their copyright.

The Future

The V-Pop machine is at a crossroads. As the government embraces foreign copyright processes, the arrival of Billboard, Spotify, and Apple Music is chasing out Vietnamese-owned streaming services. Though such formalisation finally offers well-due credit to cheated artists, is the destruction of cultural habits worth it? A significant chunk of the country’s musical landscape relies on the subterranean contraband CD rips passed clandestinely from street vendor to listener. The evolving trajectory threatens to eclipse the very essence of music consumption that has been so integral to how Vietnamese people live. Even then, the Western standard for music copyright is fraught with its own issues regarding proper artistic compensation. Both potential at this turning point seems unideal. It seems V-Pop has become a new, flashier frontier hosting Vietnam’s everlasting battle with colonisation.

Broken as it is, I still believe in V-Pop. Vietnamese musicians are pulling through with some of the most interesting music anywhere in the world, spanning genres from experimental (Rắn Cạp Đuôi), indie rock (7UPPERCUTS), to unabashed dance-pop (Hoàng Thùy Linh). Any plan to formalise the industry must contend with the fact that consumption of music in Vietnam will always be dictated by a sense of community. Look at how widely V-Pop has spread on Tiktok against such stacked odds; it is clear that the Viet people are here for it. Think about that the next time you see a ‘See Tình (Cucak Remix [Speed Up Version])’ dance challenge.

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