Friday, March 30, 2007

The Country That Taste Forgot (Where in the world am I? [41])

This country was for many years almost completely cut off from the outside world. Even when contact with foreign cultures did become more common, the effects of this were slow to disseminate, and were still closely monitored and restricted by the central government. Only the most unobjectionable, middle-of-the-road musical performers could get any significant airplay here in the '70s, and even today the level of exposure to Western popular music is minuscule. Most people haven't even heard of the classic performers of yesteryear like Sinatra or Presley.

Really. It beggars belief, but there it is.

No, The 3 Greatest Songs In The History Of Popular Music (if you are a citizen of The Unnameable Country) are:

Yesterday Once More - by Karen Carpenter

Country Roads - by John Denver

Hotel California - by The Eagles (undoubtedly the most daring and surprising of the three; basically, people here recognise the word 'California' and they like the twiddly guitar bits; they have no inkling that it's about drug-induced fever dreams and hallucinations)

I have tried to explain to students in my University classes that I like Yesterday Once More, I really do, it's a pretty song, I really enjoy it when I hear it on the radio back home - because I only hear it 2 or 3 times a year, at most; but, you know, anything can get a bit boring, a bit irritating, a bit SANITY-CHALLENGING when you hear it every f***ing day for 4 years. It's a bit of an ordeal for the foreign teacher here, honestly: students always expect to do a 'skit show' for the last class of the semester, and most of them want to do some karaoke as their 'skit', and at least a third of them will want to do Yesterday Once More. I explain to them that this is a lovely choice, and I am sure their classmates will very much enjoy their performance, but I hope they won't mind if I miss it because I really have to step outside just now and bang my head against a wall for a few minutes.

It used to be really difficult to avoid The Carpenters in this town. You'd have to avoid CD shops that would always be blaring muzak at enormous volume out into the street, you'd have to avoid restaurants that you knew always played that ONE incredibly popular foreign 'rock music' compilation tape that included Karen as the highlight near the end (and Celine f***ing Dion, My Heart Will Go On, and on and on and on....), you'd have to ask taxi drivers to turn their radios off, you'd have to always take the stairs instead of using elevators.... and you'd still be lucky to get through 72 hours without hearing the bitch once somewhere.

Then, a funny thing happened. She got bumped off the playlists by an infinitely more annoying song. There was a dreadfully cheesy European soft-rock outfit (Danish, I think) called Michael Learns To Rock (the name should be enough of a warning: most of us expats who had to suffer their 6 months of ubiquity here came to know them as Michael Kinda Sucks) who came out with an insipid, plodding love ballad called Take Me To Your Heart. It was just atrocious: syrupy, repetitive, grating; one of those songs where, just when you think it can't get any worse, they have another key change. Aaaaarrgghh, aaaaarrgghh, aaaaarrgghh! I'm sure nobody's ever heard of them outside of this country - not even in Denmark; they are so obviously a third-rate band who have cynically decided to target the Asian market by sinking a few notches even lower in quality. Anyway, for several months this was a huge hit, and was played everywhere in music shops, restaurants, elevators. Then, mercifully, it disappeared (although equally dire local cover versions have started to come out). The strange thing was that Karen Carpenter never really came back. You still hear her once in a while, but there's nothing like the overkill we suffered a few years back. A very curious cultural phenomenon, that.

Ah, and The Eagles. Every kid in this town who wants to play guitar learns Hotel California. Often, it seems, that is the only song they learn, and they don't learn it all that well. You don't hear The Eagles' recording of it being played all that often here, but you're quite likely to hear some local picker murdering it in any number of bars and music shops.

One of my more difficult moments in the recording studio came when I was asked to read a ridiculously fulsome account of The Eagles' career that went something like this:

"The Eagles were the greatest rock band in recording history. [Oh, not the Beatles, then? Or Queen? Or Pink Floyd? Or Led Zeppelin? Or The Rolling Stones? Even amongst American bands, you'd think The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skyrnyrd, even bleedin' Aerosmith would have a rival claim...] Their classic song Hotel California was followed by dozens of other hits. [Dozens? They've got quite an impressive catalogue, but dozens??] Many of their fans wept openly in the streets at the news that they had broken up [They broke up? News to me! Somehow passed me by; I must have been too busy having a life.], but great was the rejoicing when they re-formed 8 years later. [No - must have missed the memo on that as well.]" And there was more in the same vein. I felt dirtied by having to read that garbage. Luckily it hasn't come up again (most of the scripts we do are endlessly recycled - another strain on my fragile sanity!).

Even today, those three artists, those three songs are pretty much it as far as most people's knowledge of Western music goes. The only more recent performer to force his way into the canon is....... Michael Jackson! Yup, this country is still in a time-warp in many ways. Nearly every high school or University student you ask will insist that Wacko Jacko is still the undisputed King of Pop. If pressed for evidence, they will cite Thriller.... and maybe Bad. They seem blithely unaware of the fact that he hasn't really released much music in the past decade or so and that his career is, how shall we say, under a cloud.

Contemporary artists? Hmmm, let's see. Norah Jones is safe enough (although I suspect a lot of people are playing her music without having the slightest idea who she is). Eminem seems to have only a very small and somewhat 'avant garde' following. Marilyn Manson? No, this country isn't ready for Marilyn Manson yet.

It is a very strange place, to be sure. Don't even get me started on the local pop music......


tulsa said...

Did you serious meet someone who does not know Sinatra and Presley are Westerm Musicians?

Even I have heard of Sinatra and Presley - and I'm arguably the least Western-Musically-cultured individual amongst all the people in the world I know.

"I explain to them that this is a lovely choice, and I am sure their classmates will very much enjoy their performance, but I hope they won't mind if I miss it because I really have to step outside just now and bang my head against a wall for a few minutes."

LOL - I love how you are so polite about it.

Michael Kinda Sucks - indeed, never heard of him - but then again, I may not be the best person to ask about Western music (see comment above).

Your recording script on the Eagles with commentary - you should redo your records with your commentary and sell that. millions to be made my friend, millions (we expats need our amusement!)

I like Norah - though you don't say much about her - shall I assume you have no Norah-related rant? (More surprisingly, I know of Norah - a Western Musician - see my comments above on my Western music knowledge) Or is it just that you haven't yet heard her song played 10 times every hour for the last month and so haven't developed a rant, yet.

Froog said...

No, check it out - Sinatra and Presley are almost COMPLETELY UNKNOWN here in China. I thought at first it might just be that my students didn't recognise their real names (you know how far off the mark most of these Chinese 'phonetic equivalents' they use for Western names are?!), but I've even tried playing some of the classic tracks - All Shook Up, I've Got You Under My Skin - no recognition at all!

I don't think I could ever rant against Norah - although I may rant against the places that overplay her (and can't make a decent cappuccino to save their lives! See - I'm starting already?). No, she's way too cute. And I like her music too. Heck, since she covered songs by Tom Waits and Bon Scott, I won't have a word said against her!!

Froog said...

Do you know Norah Jones only because she isn't entirely 'Western'??

I mean, you do know she's a love child of Ravi Shankar, right?

tulsa said...

Hmm, perhaps... wasn't thinking of the Ravi Shankar aspect yesterday. Too bad, I was kinda proud of knowing at least one Western artist... will need to think of another one now. And I am probably guilty of playing her stuff too often, myself, so I don't mind the bar/coffee shops with a happy trigger for the "repeat" button.

ying said...

Hi, I run into your post by chance, and wanted to add my two cents, since this is something which has always puzzled me. Presley they know - play them Love Me Tender and you'll find that everyone knows Presley. It's just that they only know the Las Vegas Presley, not the rocker presley. So no one knows those songs that you played. However, Presley is known in the local language as Cat King. I have never figured out why. Is is some sort of confusion with Nat King Cole? But even then it's Nat, not Cat. beats me.

Froog said...

Hi Ying.

No, I have no idea where that Mao Wang nickname came from. It was a long time before I realised who they meant by this! I suppose it's based on his sleek appearance.

It may be that some Chinese know some Sinatra as well. But as with Presley, they don't really "know" him, if they only know a few songs, if they don't know anything about the man's life and career, and if they can't even recognise his English name. (And there's little possibility of conversing with foreigners about these singers because the 'Chinese names' they use for them are often unrecognisable, unintelligible - even to people who know Chinese quite well.) I have found Chinese students also to be extremely poor at recognising descriptions of people. They don't study much foreign history or culture here; and the handful of famous people they do know about, they only seem to study a thumbnail account of, from which they remember (if anything) just two or three key facts - key facts which rarely seem to include things like historical era, nationality, or creative genre/field of expertise.

ying said...

very interesting. I'm from Beijing, moved to a "western country" at 13 in early 90's. I always cringe when watching a non-westernised chinese person conversing with a westerner, not just about famous people, but on all kinds of issues. Hell it's so predicable I usually know what they are going to say before they say it. I blame it on years of propaganda, where for years information is fed to the person in a certain way, and the person has had no opportunity to see anything different. This takes away independent thinking.

But having said that, most people have this problem - we all have information fed to us a certain way, and it's easy to stop thinking and start repeating what you are told. In my case - its interesting to know two cultures equally well and see it done in different ways.

P.s. some people know "my way", but still have no idea who sinatra is.

p.p.s when you find out why Mao Wang, let me know!