Inul's Rules

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Trying to get into an Inul Daratista show is like trying to storm the ramparts of Helm's Deep—it's musty, dark, smoky, crowded and the mob seems possessed by a demonic, or at least lascivious, force. The young men have traveled many kilometers to the one-mosque town of Pelaihari in Indonesia's South Kalimantan province to see the country's hottest and most controversial dangdut singer. They're rowdy, they're eager and, in clear defiance of the laws of physics, all 10,000 of them want in, now, through the soccer stadium's single narrow entrance. The snarling soldiers posted as security are helpless against this crush of sweating humanity. Somehow we all push through safely, and for a moment we pause inside the stadium, the open space disorienting after such close quarters. Then Inul swaggers on stage, packed in tight red jeans and a glittering crimson tank top. She turns her back to the audience. The guitars crunch, Inul's hips swing low and hard, and I realize why we labored to breech this gate.

Like her spiritual kin Eminem, Inul Daratista is whatever you say she is. Her singing would make Simon Cowell cringe, but she regularly packs concerts and performs on national television. She hasn't released a single recording, but one critic estimates that some 3 million pirated VCDs of her performances have been sold in Indonesia. Muslim clerics denounce her bump-and-grind dancing, attempt to ban her concerts, even pray for rain to keep impressionable fans away from her shows, yet politicians are lining up to recruit her support for the 2004 elections. She's become the live wire connecting Indonesia's still nascent freedom of expression with the country's entrenched—and often hypocritical—moral majority, yet her popularity just keeps surging. "She's the one and only one who can survive [in the country's cutthroat music scene]," says maverick TV and music producer Arswendo Atmowiloto. "She's what the people want."

And the people have placed phenomenal demands on the country's one-and-only pop sensation. "I'm very tired, very happy and a bit depressed," she says over lunch in Pelaihari. Last night she finished a late perfomrance in the city of Melak, took a three-hour motorboat trip, a 1 1/2-hour flight and then an hour-long drive to make it to Pelaihari. It's her 11th show in 11 cities in 11 days, the heart of a brutal if-this-is-Monday-it-must-be-Balikpapan tour of the Kalimantan region. With reddened eyes and leftover makeup—not to mention the diamonds embedded in her teeth—she looks older than her 24 years but acts younger, clutching a pillow to her chest and resting her head on a TIME reporter's shoulder. In 10 hours she'll be doing her heavy-duty Fly Girl routine on a Pelaihari stage; 12 hours after that, she'll be in Jakarta running through a version of her moves for SCTV. She hasn't seen her family in more than three months. No one said the life of an itinerant dangdut singer was easy.

But then few dangdut performers have reached Inul's level of national popularity, and none so quickly. Inul (her real name is Ainul Rokhimah; Inul Daratista means "the girl with the breasts") was born poor in the East Java village of Kejapanan, Gempol. She started her performing career as a rock singer at age 12 but soon switched to dangdut, the beat-happy folk-pop blend of Indian, Arab and Malay music that has long been the sound of rural Indonesia. Originally the music of the lower class, complete with bawdy lyrics and sexually suggestive dancing, dangdut was cleaned up in the late 1970s and '80s when it was popularized by singers like Rhoma Irama, who diversified the music and turned the lyrics safely sweet. Cynical politicians began using dangdut musicians, including Suharto favorite Rhoma, to court the lower classes. "Dangdut has been corrupted for the political campaigns," says Kompas music critic Bre Redana. In a familiar Indonesian story, the music of the people became a tool of the powerful.

Inul wants to take it back. "The real Inul is the people's singer," she says. Her roots run deep in dangdut's heartland. Though she initially earned a mere 40¢ per gig, Inul built a strong following in East Java, where her slam-dancing style was hardly unique. "A singer like Inul is quite familiar there," says Bre, who's been following Inul for two years. "You could find so many Inuls in any small town in East or Central Java."

East Java may have seen enough of Inul, but Jakarta was about to feel her heat. In January, Inul came to Jakarta and performed on Warung Tojedo, a national television program. Virtually overnight, Inulmania swept Indonesia, and within weeks, Inul was bumping and grinding on the cover of major national magazines and appearing on television more often than the country's President. Inul's concert fees rose dramatically, to anywhere from $1,100 to $1,700 per show. TV programs in which she appeared consistently drew 14 share points, well above the norm for music shows. Indonesians snapped up copies of illegally recorded VCDs of Inul's old East Java performances—making her perhaps the first musician to owe much of her fame to piracy.

Such sudden and vertiginous popularity was bound to provoke a backlash, and in Indonesia it came not from teens who discovered a newer, hotter idol but from Muslim clerics condemning a false one. In a country obsessed with thy neighbor's morality, Inul's dancing was deemed pornographic. In early February, the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), concerned that Inul's performances encouraged lustful acts, declared that her dancing and costume were circumscribed by its July 2002 fatwa against pornography. Authorities in devout Yogyakarta banned Inul from performing, fearing that she would "degrade the morality of the highly civilized and educated residents" of the city. Tabloids had a field day when Taufik Kiemas, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's husband, was photographed shaking his considerable booty behind Inul after a TV performance. Even the television stations profiting from her appearances paid unintentional homage to Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show by cutting away from Inul's hips when gyrations commenced. Many middle-class and upper-class Indonesians read their papers and shook their heads at the controversy—then told their drivers to pick up a copy of Inul's VCD.

On the way to meet a glad-handing official for lunch in Pelaihari, Inul appears spent after a night of "drilling," as her dance has been termed by the Indonesian media. Yet one mention of her detractors is enough to energize her. "Write this down," she commands. "The MUI should realize that Indonesia is not a Muslim country, it's a democratic country." Inul, who says she prays daily, insists that her art doesn't clash with her Islamic beliefs and suspects the religious hierarchy castigates her because the real threats to Indonesia's fragile morality, particularly corrupt officials, are too dangerous to attack. "Why should they care about me when there are pornographic VCDs and prostitutes in the street? They choose me because I am an easy target."

It's difficult to understand why the authorities need to save Indonesians from the dangers of Inul. True, her wardrobe seems to consist entirely of Lycra, but her sartorial style and stage manner are tame compared with the scantily clad Indian stars who can be found shimmying away on any TV in the country. And as for the forbidden dance itself, it's less erotic than pneumatic. As Inul bends her knees and swings her butt—in what, after careful and repeated observations, I'd estimate to be a 120° arc—she resembles a glittering piston. Betraying her rock roots, Inul doesn't so much twist in time with the music as arrhythmically hurl herself around the stage like a dangdut Joan Jett. If her performance is inspiring Indonesians to lustful acts, I just hope they limber up first.