Agnez Mo and Timbaland in the Coke Bottle music video. Photo: Navjosh
Given pop music’s less culturally sensitive tendencies, it’s quite remarkable to see a woman in traditional dress - in this case, an Indonesian woman in kebaya - in a music video who hasn’t been employed to provide an “exotic” touch of colour and movement. But that’s the way it is in Agnez Mo’s Coke Bottle, and the Indonesian superstar’s international debut could see her crack the US charts.
The song, produced by Timbaland (who is also working with Mo - Agnes Monica Muljoto - on her international debut album), was given a soft release on hip hop radio last year, and the video dropped on MTV in late-April. Since then it’s racked up over 4-million views.
This goal - US pop chart supremacy and a Grammy - has been in her sights for some time, as this feature illustrates; “When I said I want to win my first Grammy, I want to go international, they started thinking how arrogant I was to even say that,” she said, “I wanted to show them that yes, I'm from Indonesia. I never said that it's going to be easy but once you set your goal, you kind of just have to believe and try to make it happen.”
Agnez Mo in the film clip for Coke Bottle. The music video has received over 4 million views on Youtube.
Breaking through in the US would be the cherry on top of the cake for Mo, who has spent the past decade working her way to a position of total domination in the Indonesian industry; she has won so many awards that her paperweight collection has its own Wikipedia entry. Hitting the charts wouldn’t simply be a career highlight, there’s a broader implication to the possibility of her US success; as LaCount’s piece on Mo puts it, “If Mo does pull it off, she'll be one of the few Asian women to truly make it in American pop music. For decades now, ‘Asian culture’ has been conflated and appropriated”.
When it comes to visibility within pop, Asian women typically either serve as decoration (Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne’s troupes of Harajuku girls, or Iggy Azealia’s mind-bogglingly ill-advised “Bollywood” video, Bounce) or are, worse, invisible save for their “exotic” voices (witness Just Blaze’s regrettable sampling of Hindi playback singer Meena Kapoor in Erick Sermon’s React; Sermon responds “Whatever she said, then I’m that” to the sample, which, unfortunately for him, translates as “If someone wants to commit suicide, so what can you do?”).
The Asian artists, female or male, who do break through tend to be treated as curiosities; South Korean superstar Psy’s Gangnam Style is destined to be misremembered as a novelty song, not the cracking piece of pop wizardry it truly is, because the Western market didn’t know what to do with him.
Indeed, while plenty of J-Pop and K-Pop artists enjoy massive success internationally (shout out to Lee Hyori’s Get Ya and Bonnie Pink’s cover of Ordinary Angels), you’d never know it from watching the charts or MTV.
(It’s a different story in the alternative scene, where artists like British-Sri Lankan Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., thrive.)
There is, of course, more than a shake of colonialism inherent in even discussing whether or not Asian artists have or could “crack the US charts”, as though selling millions of records means nothing unless it’s processed by SoundScan. Yet even if we acknowledge that, the fact remains that were an Asian artist to conquer the US charts, it would be a milestone.
And Coke Bottle could do it; the song is brilliant. Timbaland’s production seems to be a wink and a nod (I can dream) to the work of another super-producer, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, employing similarly half robotic, half liquid beats to the ones that Jerkins did when he made Brandy’s 2002 masterpiece What About Us as compelling as those ‘running through waist-deep water’ anxiety dreams. It’s that musical dichotomy that buoys Mo’s own multifaceted performance, suiting both her sneering rhymes and cutie-pie singing.
In this interview with GlobalGrind, Mo says, of her dreams of international success, “I compiled this huge, pink folder of all the names I wanted to work with. The first page was ‘Timbaland’.” Tim was so dazzled by Mo’s talent that what was originally planned as a fly-in, fly-out session turned into the makings of an album. Which of her dreams will come true next?