Critical Hit!!

pop culture (and everything else) explored

Reflections on my first Teaching Assistant

Last semester, I worked as a teaching assistant for an introductory film course. I am done teaching for now, and I thought it was appropriate to reflect on my experiences to better improve my pedagogy.

Things that I did well:

  • I think I did well in teaching the basics of film form and style. Specific activities focused on assessing cinematography, mise-en-scène, and other elements of film form were relatively successful.
  • The class activity recommended by a friend of mine worked very well. You start by having students work individually on a few questions, then have them pair up and compare answers. Then have pairs link up with other pairs to make groups of four, which will then report back to the class.

Things that could have gone better:

  • I’ve been relatively well in terms of accommodating students, but in a few instances, it would have been beneficial to have been stricter, or most specifically, be willing to correct them. Thinking more about how to better assess these issues, I believe using more leading questions will allow students to figure out the correct answers.
  • I was very generous to students – giving them candy after halloween – but this also was stressful.
  • I always felt I was teaching somewhat by the grit of my teeth, even when I prepared for tutorials.

I am taking various teaching workshops to improve my teaching, and I look forward to teaching again

My first published academic paper

I am pleased to announce my paper “Recreating Reality: Waltz With Bashir, Persepolis, and the Documentary Genre” has been published by the Animation Studies Online Journal. Read it here.

Pervasive Melancholy in Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy”

I never grew up knowing who Andrew Gold was. All I ever knew was one song, 1976’s “Lonely Boy”. I found myself humming the song today, and was struck by the lyrics. Take a listen, and read along to the lyrics below:

He was born on a summer day, 1951
And with the slap of a hand
He had landed as an only son
His mother and father said “what a lovely boy”
We’ll teach him what we learned
Ah yes, just what we learned
We’ll dress him up warmly and
We’ll send him to school
It’ll teach him how to fight
To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

In the summer of ’53 his mother
Brought him a sister
But she told him “we must attend to her needs”
“She’s so much younger than you”
Well, he ran down the hall and he cried
Oh, how could his parents have lied
When they said he was an only son
He thought he was the only one

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

[Instrumental Interlude]

Goodbye Mama
Goodbye to you
Goodbye Papa
I’m pushin’ on through

He left home on a winter day, 1969
And he hoped to find all the love
He had lost in that earlier time
Well, his sister grew up
And she married a man
He gave her a son
Ah yes, a lovely son
They dressed him up warmly
They sent him to school
It taught him how to fight
To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

There are appealing aesthetic qualities to the piece. The play on words between “lovely” and “lonely” is clever, and the attention to detail in the lyrics draws us in to a specific setting and melancholic mood. The phrase “pushin’ on through” alludes to pushing through pain, but also perhaps birth imagery, if we take the psychoanalytic route. The hooks are catchy, if not repetitious. The piano sets up the main riff, and propels us throughout the story. I still puzzle a bit with the lyrics. The first “lonely boy” ends up leaving at 18 due a lack of love. But is this accurate, or merely his perception as a jealous child? Moreover, is this a story that laments the fragile masculinity of the protagonist – his need for attention as an only child – or is it merely a reflection of such masculinity, lamenting the boys loneliness? Of course, in the story itself, the boy gets a sibling, so ideally he shouldn’t be lonely at all! I think perhaps that is the grand irony of the piece, that a boy gains a sister, but feels that he’s lost something precious to him. And why does he feel this way? His nephew goes to school just like him, and the lyrics confirm it “taught him how to fight to be nobody’s fool.” There is no such confirmation for the original lonely boy. Why this is remains a bit of a mystery, as the song alludes to a lack of attention and love – but is this real, or merely perceived by a jealous child who was no longer the only child? This is a central point of mystery to the song that eludes an easy answer.

There’s an underlying, persistent melancholy to the piece, despite the piano hooks, and perhaps it’s that combination that proves alluring. I’m glad to remember this piece so long after hearing it. Perhaps that illustrates it’s long-lasting appeal.

 

 

Anime Analysis Resources

While I have studied anime for a few years now, I am taken aback in finding fantastic online writers and commentators only now. Here is a list of sites and creators that I find valuable moving forward. I’ll likely edit this list as a find more!

Youtube Channels:

Pause and Select: A new channel I just found, exploring anime through video essays and book clubs.

Mother’s Basement: Most famous for dissection of OPs, this channel excels at analyzing the specific film aspects of anime.

Anime Everyday: Similar to Pause and Select, this channel creates thoughtful video essays on anime.

The Canipa Effect: The Canipa Effect excels in analyzing the anime industry itself, including   identifying key players in the industry and their stylistic flair.

Anime Editorial: A tentative recommendation here, as his material is generally good.

Sites and Writers:

Anime News Network: The classic source for news on anime for North Americans. Some staff writers are particularly excellent at textual analysis.

Wave Motion Cannon: Another great site with analysis, part sakuga, part textual, all great.

Sakuga Blog: Sakugabooru finally has a blog, dedicated to the art and craft of Japanese animation, including industry analysis.

Anime Feminist: A new site, Anime feminist hosts wonderful writers analyzing anime through a feminist lens.

Music Appreciation in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

Anyone following me on Tumblr knows how much I love JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 JoJo no Kimyō na Bōken). I started watching the anime this year, and quickly fell in love. JoJo’s such a significant and interesting franchise. One of Shueisha’s longest running manga properties, it’s been in continuous publishing since 1987. It’s had various game adaptations and OVAs, and starting in 2012, it finally got a full anime adaptation treatment. It’s a best-selling property in Japan, and has had significant traction in Europe and other Asian countries, but had never really made it to North America until now. This is usually blamed on two things: America’s strict copyright protection, and JoJo’s, well, bizarreness.

The names of many characters of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure are references to famous bands and musicians, primarily in the West. The names of the main villains of the second arc of the series, for instance, are Santana (a reference to the famous guitarist), Wamuu (a reference to the pop duo WHAM!), Esidisi (a reference to the band ACDC), and Kars (a reference to the band The Cars). Japan has much looser laws in terms of parody, but such audacious character names does not fly in America. For the English broadcast of the anime, internet streaming site Crunchyroll changed the names of various characters in the subtitles to avoid copyright strikes.

Oingo Boingo Zenyatta Mondatta

Of course, audiences can hear the voice actors say “Oingo Boingo” in the anime, and can also presumably read.

While the copyright issues are the main reason the show didn’t make it over to North America, compounding that issue is the fact that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is weird. The series has audacious character designs, strange powers, horror elements, and more to make it a unique mashup of genres. It can also be just plain weird.

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JoJo is difficult to adapt not only for copyright reasons, but for its foreignness to Western audiences as well. I mention all this to illustrate how JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure reflects the media ecologies of Japan, and how the series contributes to them. I want to focus in particular on JoJo’s use of music, the primary reason for its difficulty in adaptation, and explore its powerful effect as a best-selling franchise in promoting music.

The anime adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has reflected mangaka Hirohiko Araki’s love of music. Each ending theme of each season is a significant song int he pop culture lexicon, and perfectly reflects what is happening in the story arc. Yes’ “Roundabout” serves as the ending theme to the firs tow story arcs, signifying the cyclical nature of the Jouster lineage in fight evil. The next story arc deals with a journey to Egypt, so the ending theme changes to The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”. After they arrive in Egypt, the ending theme changes to the more melancholic “Last Train Home” by the Pat Metheny Group, representing the end of the journey, and that some comrades aren’t catching the last train home. Part 4’s ending these is “I Want You” by Savage Garden, a sumptuous song to perfectly reflect the personality of protagonist Josuke Higashikata.

When acquiring the soundtracks to the anime, I was surprised to find that singles collections of the Pat Metheny Group and Savage Garden, with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure artwork on their covers, are available in Japan.

Josuke on the cover of Savage garden the singles cd.

“A limited edition of Savage Garden’s second greatest hits album, “The Singles” was released in Japan on May 25th 2016 to promote the anime, featuring a picture of Josuke on the cover.” –– jojo.wikia.com

The cover of Pat Metheny Groups' Essential Collection ,Last Train Home, with JoJO's Bizarre Adventure artwork.

“Pat Metheny Group’s first greatest hits album titled “Essential Collection Last Train Home” was released in Japan on March 4, 2015, featuring artwork from the ending credits of the anime on the cover.” — jojo.wikia.com

What is happening here is that the anime is introducing audiences to fantastic songs they may have not known. When audiences want the songs themselves, because of their connection to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, singles and best of collections were (re)released in Japan with artwork from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Which is an upgrade in my opinion, in comparison to their previous artwork. This is just one example of the power of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It’s a fascinating series, and I look forward to being surprised and delighted more by it in the future.

Where have I been? Curating pieces at Animation Studies 2.0

I haven’t blogged recently, and much of this comes from managing a lot on my plate at once. I look forward to productive work in December, when many of my commitments will end. Meanwhile, much of my efforts that would have gone to my blog have instead gone to curatorial efforts at Animation Studies 2.0, the Society for Animation Studies blog. I have been one of the interim editors since August, and I have enjoyed the work, including managing the Facebook and Twitter feeds (Like, Share, and Subscribe, y’all). I recommend checking the blog out, particular my piece from last year that I am particularly proud of. Take care, and I’ll see you soon.

HOT TAKE: That “Distraction Sickness” Article is Garbage

This article is making the rounds in my Facebook circles right now. It’s a self-serving, loathsome piece of writing that enraged me to write a critique. The main problem is that this piece comes from a narrow, individualistic point of view, a self-serving narrative that, while holds valid points of sadness from the author’s personal life, such emotions are twisted to serve an anti-technology red herring. He relies on a binary of “old methods are better, new methods are worse” that ignores the vast wonders of communication today. Dismantling this piece chronologically will be best to untangle the mess of straw men, inaccurate perceptions, and more.

While, the author describes his demanding former job as a professional blogger, and its demand on his health, the incendiary language truly begins for me as he sarcastically insults the langauge of the internet. The author scoffs that we call articles and videos “content”, even though that’s an appropriate descriptive word. He dismisses the audience out of hand, claiming that we are all mindless minnows following the clickbait. The message is clear: you are like me, drowning in a sea of media that must endanger us all. This is an insulting thing to say to an audience (“wake up, sheeple!”), a gambit that pays off if people relate to his woes. I do not, and prefer to address this article’s toxicity with a clear, critical eye.

When searching for a place where people aren’t distracted by technology, the author sarcastically comments that “perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower.” This comment highlights the sheltered point of view, co-opting the langauge of survivors and activists for his own self-serving gratification. Tell that venomous line to survivors of sexual assault, I’m sure they’d find it a hoot.

The author then goes to describe the growing pervasiveness of communication technologies bringing the world together as a tragedy of the human mind. There are numerous errors at play here, but I’d like to focus on the fact that phones are no longer phones, but small computers that people work and play with. Furthermore, cell phones are a necessity now in the job market. Not having a phone is like a death knell for anyone looking for employment, particularly those that have precarious work such as part-time or temporary positions that require immense flexibility. Adding to the pervasive use of smart phones is the fact that, according to a 2015 Pew Research Centre report, “19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone.” Smart phones can be the only digital connection working class people have to online resources. As one Australian study put it:

Ironically, in a society where access to a range of goods, services and societal benefits is achieved by using these [digital] technologies, those with restricted digital access because of their existing socio-economic disadvantage are further disadvantaged by virtue of being excluded from the various benefits of access.

For much of the world, and particularly the working class, cell phones are not only a key tool for communication, but they are a lifeline to access numerous critical resources. While this article argues cell phones just facilitate an addiction to distraction, the reality is most cell phone is used to connect with others, gain information about the world, work on projects, and more.

It’s time to tackle the author’s assumptions about distracting digital media. While digital media is designed to keep people clicking, the assumption act is all vaporous surely insults the good work artists, activists, journalists, and more contribute and archive on the web. People engaging with media isn’t new. People read books and newspapers on the trains, cars, and subways for decades. They listen(ed) to the radio in their cars or at home.The author claims that “We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down,” but we’ve always looked down at books or magazines as we travel, relax, and more. If anything, an actual, concrete concern is the neck and eye strains emerging from the kinds of postures used with cell phones, something certainly to work on in the future.

As the author talks more about meditation, he acts like mediation is a lost art, something unsullied by the tentacles of technology But meditation? There’s an app for that. He also claims that texts, emojis, and other forms of digital communication are less emotional, less real that a phone call. While there are emotional nuances in faces that are lost in text, emojis and texts are fun and have utility. Lord knows my sister and I relate ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and using the expression is an enjoyable and generative experience.

One paragraph is worthy quoting if only to completely dissect it:

Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak to someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs. Remember when you left voice-mail messages — or actually listened to one? Emojis now suffice. Or take the difference between trying to seduce someone at a bar and flipping through Tinder profiles to find a better match. One is deeply inefficient and requires spending (possibly wasting) considerable time; the other turns dozens and dozens of humans into clothes on an endlessly extending rack.

Texts are more efficient in that they communicate information without seriously disrupting someone, such as if they are in class or at work. The author claims that people don’t use phones to make calls now, but that is simply not the case. Phones are still a central way of communication both at work and at home, and as mentioned before, they are considered an essential for those searching on the job market.

Throughout this article the author defends older, admittedly “inefficient” methods of communication over more efficient technology tools because of claims of emotionless connections. It’s actually kind of gross that the author indicates a preference for bar seductions, as if the preferred tactics of the pick up artist are better than the safe distance of communication technologies.

The author then laments that we don’t make things by hand anymore, presenting a binary of “old was better, new is worse” that just isn’t true. Artists at least would disagree than we don’t make things with our hands, rather, we still use tools to make art and commodities. The author argues we don’t have the skills of artisans anymore, presenting a nostalgic view of the world when craftsmanship (I’m using this gendered phrase intentionally) was prevalent. The author argues that humankind’s self worth was tethered to that outdated mode of production, when the reality is people contribute so much to this world in different ways that he completely disregards. He laments we’ve lost skill building, when people scramble to higher education to gain numerous skills to try and grasp some form of work to survive. He argues we are no longer proud of our work, as modern life’s efficiently removes the soul of work:

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

The author demonstrates a palpable orthodoxy, asserting the archaic forms of identity tethered to labour as superior to contemporary forms of identity tethered to individuals as human beings. This is a harmful reduction that the author makes, that our identities are solely tethered to our jobs, as if our sense of self-worthy is solely tethered to the physical work we do, or that everyone has the desire and capabilities of physical handicrafts. It’s as if I had a job as a woodcutter, I’d gain self satisfaction in being “Jacqueline the woodcutter”, rather than “Jacqueline”. This idea that people were happier with less advanced technology because they’d work with outdated (though certainly useful) skills is merely an symptom of orthodox thinking, rejecting the changes in society that erode the old hegemonic institutions of Christianity in lieu of recognizing the actually effects of these changes in of themselves.

The fact is that the working class struggle with manual labour every day in their low paying, exploitative jobs. Do you think their struggles are somehow noble because they cut their hands with the daily toil of their lives? But the article comes from a man of privilege, who prefers to discuss his own lack of spiritual fulfillment in terms of a plague of technology upon society.

The author then brings up an example of someone from Maine remarking that:

No one is where they are. They’re talking to someone miles away. I miss them.

Again, I would emphasize that the people this individual misses are engaging with someone, and through the tools of technology, they are able to connect with them in ways they couldn’t before. The author then brings up the comedian Louie C.K., who often speaks against the pervasiveness of digital technologies. What C.K. is essentially proposes is that boredom is a necessity, and erasing boredom through the communicative tools is not preferably since we instead feel alienated. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, where no matter what, humans are destined it seems to be alienated. And indeed, they are alienated by the jaws of capitalism. But dismissing those who seek to fill the copious void of alienation in their lives with brief interactions of text and pictures just seem selfish.

If anything, C.K., and but extension, the author, promote an idea of self perpetuating, isolated misery. As the author explains a moment when C.K. desired to share the sudden emotions he just experienced, sad emotions from a Springsteen song, he decided against the natural inclination to share these emotions, and instead weep alone. The author describes his own experiences of facing childhood trauma while wondering the woods. In what universe is self induced alienation preferable to reaching out to loved ones to share such an outburst of emotion? It’s just another example of white men languishing in their own self pity. Sufjan Stevens does it all the time.

There’s a reason why white boys listen to gansta rap. As people with privileges in life, listening to the oppressed gives them a sense of soul, a glimpse into the lives of intensity and emotions outside the suburbs of white bread.

While the author describes the decline of the hegemony of Western Christianity, what the author actually alludes to is the history of white supremacy and colonialism. He describes American as the “crowning achievement” of civilization. Sure, the rape and pillage of Native American lands by white settle-colonialists, constructing a vampiric nation state that then rapes and pillages other nations for its own gain is the peak of civilization. In the end, the author argues that Christianity’s hegemony position was taken down by smart phone technology all along. While the author is accurate in the increase of noise of modern life from the engines of city life (Walter Benjamin brilliantly analyzed these changes to city life long ago), he never addresses why these changes have occurred, failing to take a proper historical analysis to the creators and crafters of digital technology. He fails to recognize that, for instance, people keep swiping because apps are designed to maximum use value from users. Websites and apps are designed to have people use them for as long as possible in order to generate a profit. It doesn’t indicate a weakening of human individuality, but rather the variable insidiousness of technological design, designs created to survive in a capitalism market of information and attention.

And here comes the author’s final point: that Christianity is the answer to the noise of everyday life. That Christianity is the only religion, or tradition in general, that holds the key to salient reflection is laughable. I would like to point out that the author achieved some form of enlightenment from mediation, an act of silent reflection originating from Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

The author quotes Thoreau of course, in elevating reclusiveness from communicative technologies as some higher calling. While the standard myth about Thoreau is that he lived through his own means in solitude in some cabin in the woods, the reality is he lived quite close to his family, and would eat with them weekly. The icon of solitary living was, in fact, quite social.

The author begins to wrap up his argument with various examples, claiming without any sort of scientific evidence that the increase in use of weed amount young people due to growing anxieties created by digital technologies. This is inaccurate, as weed is not a form of self-medication from smart phones, but rather, from capitalism. Young people today live in a tremendously precarious environment. People decry the lack of independence or maturity as more young people move in with their relatives, when in reality people live with family or friends just to survive. The grinding gears of neoliberalism offset the growing income inequality as the responsibilities of the poor. In short, as a friend of mine once identified, weed is so prevalent amount the youth because it’s how they cope with the intense stress of living in precarity.

The author also claims that Christianity is the answer to the digital distractions of everyday life, as if contemplation is only the realm of the holy. He also posits that such distractions are also the biggest thing threatening the church, but that’s also false, as what’s actually threatening churches is the declining birth rate and the rise in secular consciousness.

The author then alludes, in another indication of his immense, disgusting privilege, the decay of modern cities like Detroit:

If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

Former hubs of industry like Detroit aren’t hurting because the working classes there no longer have meaningful interactions through they labour, but rather they are dying because of globalizing forces sucking the industry into other countries where corporations can exploit precarious workers for immense profit. If there is something to lament with the rise of digital technologies, it would be the recognition of the adverse exploitation enabled by globalization. But, while the article pays lip service to “economic indices”, he fails to engage in any kind of proper economic analysis to actually buoy his poor argument.

While the article ends with more holier-than-thou langauge, it’s worth noting some notable absences from his article, and some arguments of my own. Notably absent are video messaging services like Skype, FaceTime, and other means of face to face communication that enable people from around the world to get together and connect. Personally, I have chatted with friends and family in other countries, while another friend of mine practices her Japanese by skyping someone in Japan while she lives in Australia.

As the author writes using examples from his own experience, I will note some of mine as well. The article has this technological deterministic approach to technology, that smartphones enslave us to the point of distraction, when really we are in control of what apps we have, what notifications we have on, etc. I curtail my Facebook feed with extensions like social fixer, and I tailor the notifications of certain apps on my phone to my own preference. I enjoy the privileges my smart phone. It allows me to get a lot of work done, connect with friends, and allows me to access information instantaneously to create a greater flexibility in my own life.

Also, having to turn off your cell phone to be productive totally makes sense. If I’m writing a paper, I’ll shut down email notifications and other distractions to focus on my work. So much of this narrative assumes that people using their cell phones means they are distracted or wasting time, when that is not the case. And even if people are playing a game, why shame that?

I do not believe in automatic technological progress, the idea that any advance in tech is automatically good. Obviously, there are deep problems with current technology in how it is used to invade the privacy of individuals, particularly by the state. While the author argues that as a society we are more distracted than ever, wouldn’t it also be fair to say we are more connected to each other than ever?

A few weeks ago, my friend commented that as she was able to call our mutual friend on a moving bus in Turkey from Canada through the power of apps and wifi, she took a moment to reflect the wonders of technology today. I too am grateful that technology is an ever expanding tool that can be used for good or for ill. This article comes from someone who was in the thick of social media, a former professional blogger who sounds like he’s justifiably jaded from his experiences. But instead of addressing the problems actually represented by cell phones and other aspects of digital media, such as the adverse effects of globalization, capitalism, and the ever eroding invasion of our privacy, instead the author provides a self-satisfied narrative of enlightenment through the red herring of communication technologies.

Or, as one perceptive commentator said:

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Orientalism in ‘One Night in Bangkok’

“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” — Edward Said

Leaning about 80s music in college, one of my favourite songs to play on YouTube was “One Night in Bangkok”, a song from the musical Chess. Composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice, the musical is about chess grandmasters from the U.S. and the Soviet Union playing against each other at the height of the cold war. Singer and actor Murray Head plays “the American” Freddie Trumper, and got a hit on the charts in 1985 with his rendition one of his songs form Chess: “One Night  in Bangkok”.

The song, along with the music video, is a classic case of orientalism, representations that serves to make Other the Middle East and Asia. Through racist, colonialist, and other patronizing depictions, the ‘Orient’ is often amalgamated by Western powers to support the West’s self-perception of rationality and progressivism. This is clearly on display in “One Night in Bangkok,” whose orientalism is so egregious it deserves a detailed analysis.

The song begins with Middle Eastern riffs and strings that are clearly indicated of the amalgamation at play. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, a long ways away from the Middle East, but through the politics of representation of orientalism, such geographical distinctions are ignored.

Around the :25 mark in the music video, we see our protagonist bursting from a room. The smoke adds a ‘mystical’ quality to the air, as if he is entering a mysterious place. Such mystification is also common in orientalist depictions.

Murray Head in the One Night in Bangkok Music Video

The first lyric of the song says it all:

Bangkok, Oriental city

By terming Bangkok as part of the orient, the song is pinning the city amidst a tradition of oriental representation, of mystification and difference.

And the city don’t know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world in a
Show with everything but Yul Brynner

The American (it only feels right to call him this) posits that the city is unprepared for the cold war battle about to begin, positing the city (and nation of Thailand) as less developed that Western powers. The tongue-in-cheek line about Yul Brynner references Brynner’s performance as the King of Siam in The King and I, which, incidentally, is banned in Thailand. So, in a way, yes, Thailand does get everything except Yul Brynner. While the American mentions that “All change, don’t you know that when you/Play at this level there’s no ordinary venue”, indicating that Bangkok isn’t ordinary. While his lines are largely sarcastic, his exclamation right afterwards referring to Bangkok as “or, or this place!” indicates his disgust. The chorus then plays thusly:

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she
I can feel an angel slidin up to me

Much of the song is dedicated to orientalist stereotypes of Bangkok and the ‘orient’ in general as a nation of harems and sex workers, and this chorus is no exception. The line that “And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she” refers to kathoey, a thai term referring to a transgender woman or effeminate male. Trans panic is not new to orientalist discourse, and its active here. The meaning with this chorus is thus: Thailand is full of sex workers who will assail you, many of them duplicitous about their “true” gender. It’s vile stereotyping at its worst.

During this first chorus, the music video also shows an image of various people of colour, dressed in various garments of oriental nature, looking up and praying as they sing the chorus.

Orientalism in One Night in Bangkok

They then disperse as we see, presumably, the ‘God’ who just much the a she.

and if you're lucky then the God's a she

The next verse illustrates some of the American’s narrow-mindedness:

One town’s very like another
When your head’s down over your pieces, brother
(It’s a drag, it’s a bore, it’s really such a pity)
(to be lookin at the board, not lookin at the city)
Whadda you mean?
You see one crowded, polluted, stinking town…

As the chorus singers berate the American for failing to appreciate Bangkok, the singers in the video do point to him accusingly. But the American’s continue to rebuke them, and the song taps into again the myth of the orient as one giant harem of the East.

Chorus Singers point accusingly in One Night in Bangkok

(Tea, girls, warm, sweet)
(Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite)

These lyrics are notably sung very high pitched, I suspect stereotypically of Asian music. As these lyrics play, images of the orient continue, as the music video continually sells an image of Bangkok as one giant steam room.

Steam in One Night in Bangkok

Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks ABOVE the waistline, sunshine

The final verse is particularly egregious, and combined with the sexist images in the music video, present a classic binary between the West and the East. By rebuking sex workers (apparently), the American upholds his send rationality and stoicism, in comparison to the East’s embodied exoticism.

rebuking sex workers? in One Night in Bangkok

The next chorus isn’t as notable, though it does draw a God/angel/Devil comparison between someone who is nearing the American:

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walkin next to me

There isn’t much notable else in this section, save for the music video presenting some Thai fighters, because Thailand amirite?

Thai fighters in One Night in Bangkok

The American has the privilege of watching, of course.

The rest of the chorus is accompanied by more tokens of the Orient: strange masks, people performing manual labour is plain garb, etc.

Masks in One Night iN bangkok

chopsticks in One Night in bangkok

It also has a short shot of the fakest eating with chopsticks I’ve ever seen.The individuals aren’t even eating rice, but are just quickly shoving imaginary food into their mouths, hoping that the audience won’t notice.

The final verses begin thus:

Siam’s, gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness

Siam is the former name of Thailand. it is an archaic term that further mystifies the nation as something other, something from the past.

This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha

The American is blithely referring to the Chao Phraya River, a significant land formation, and Wat Pho, a giant reclining buddha statue. Both are notable landmarks, illustrating the American’s callous and inward nature.

I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens WE use would not excite you
So you’d better go back to your bars, your temples
Your massage parlors

With these final verses, The American again asserts his cerebral nature, branding Thailand as some orientalist fantasia of sex workers. The American asserts the superiority of his “queens”, i.e. intelligence, as something the people of Thailand would not be interested in, who are positing instead to be more invested in the “body”, i.e. sex. It’s a classic binary to support the West as purveyors of reason and intellect, and the East as mystical and bodily.

Murray Head looking down into the camera

His utter contempt for “massage parlors”, i.e. a place for sex workers, is illustrated as he literally looks down onto the camera while uttering these words.

The chorus repeats, with slightly new lyrics:

You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history

Again, the idea is that the Orient is a place of fleshly transactions, nothing more. There is nothing much else to say in term son lyrics for the rest of the song, it merely repeats on the choruses again, while the music video has dances dance on a chessboard. But it’s time to discuss the final shot of the music video.

Woman in One Nigh tin Bangkok with a chess piece

The final shot is of an asian woman slamming a chess piece into the camera. Presumably, the way it is edited, with a shot of the American looking upwards, it is the woman crushing the American at his own game. However, such a symbolic gesture is undercut by her relatively passive presence throughout the music video. She is the object of pursuit at the beginning of the video, passively stares at the camera, and quietly plays chess against the American throughout the video. Any attempts with the final shot to redress the American’s rampant orientalism is largely undercut by the orientalism present throughout the video.

Passive female in One Night iN bangkok

As this song comes from a musical about the cold war, there may be larger narratives at play in the song that inform its orientalist depictions. But this one was also released as a pop single internationally, reaching #3 in Canada and #12 in the U.K. Even if the musical itself addresses the orientalism at play, such context is lost in radio and MTV play. The vision of Bangkok “One Night in Bangkok” offers is a textbook orientalist fantasy, and as such also serves as Orientalism 101.

 

Workplace Awkwardness in The Office

I’ve been rewatching The Office (US) with my partner recently. I have a certain attachment to it and other certain NBC shows that I grew up with. When I got to high school, I felt the need to watch shows regularly like the other students, and NBC’s Thursday comedy line-up was my main slate of shows. I always felt affection for the network, and never really held any interest for other networks (except USA).

I remember certain Office episodes shockingly well, and while the drama and romance is often more annoying than endearing (the growing impatience with Jim and Pam is more frustrating than anything else), the comedy is still pretty good, though it also dates the show. As the series went on, The Office had a stronger penchant for pop culture references (songs like “Umbrella”, dance fads, etc.) It also exhibits a workplace culture that largely feels alien in today’s context: the awkwardness around inappropriate behaviour.  While awkwardness has never gone away, the call out culture that exists today leads me to believe the kind of  sexist/racist/etc things that arise out of Michael Scott’s ignorance would be confronted on rather than making reaction faces at a camera. In short, it’s a kind of humour that isn’t really active today.

There are also jokes that have just aged well, sexist/racist actions that aren’t Michael being ignorant so much as the joke being straight up racist or sexist. For instance, in season five, when Kelly is confronted in forging poor customer surveys for Dwight and Jim, she shouts that she’s been raped, only for Michael to dismiss her saying she can’t call rape all the time. In this case, the joke doesn’t work because a) it’s terrible, and b) borderline jokes like that only work coming from the perennial fool of the office, Michael.

Speaking of Kelly, season five is also where her toxic relationship restarts with Ryan, an incredibly disappointing turn, as Kelly previously told the camera multiple times how she’s over the jerk, only for his toxicity to sweep her away again. Meanwhile, Pam goes to art school, only to fail miserable and settle. In short, The Office‘s character growth is achingly slow, and often painful and regressive, though the workplace comedy is still quite funny. But as it goes on, The Office becomes less and less relatable as a realistic workplace, becoming a parody of workplaces once were. While there is still plenty of awkwardness in the workplace today, I suspect more young people would be alarmed at the kind of tolerance for inappropriate behaviour throughout the show (and yes, that’s the joke, but it’s noticeable nonetheless.) I know I certainly was.

The Evolution of The Police

The Police’s Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings has been a go-to music collection to turn to when I’m out and about this year. Listening to the entire Police discography leads me to finds particular trends and changes to their music over time. Some of the insights I’ve found include:

  • A shift from personal to universal narratives: The first two Police albums are most representative for the former. Songs address personal issues and conflicts, such as relationships and their fallout, from a first person perspective (See “So Lonely” or “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”.) By Synchronicity, however, we have many songs dealing with universal breakdown, though these too can also be seen though a first person perspective. “Synchronicity II” is great example of this, as we hear of the different tensions in a mans life, and in the world (his work, his home), and the mysterious being in a dark Scottish lake. Other songs such as “One World (Not Three)” tackle a universal theme with a stronger sermonizing edge, though thankfully The Police never fully lost their brash nature to devolve into Kumbayahs. While The Police’s perspective widened a bit, Sting still wrote killer first person POV songs throughout the band’s career (“Wrapper Around Your Finger” is lit.)
  • As you progress through the discography, you find hints here and there of Sting’s eventual depoliticization and rise in spirituality. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” is not just a lovey-dovey pop song, but also refers to the healing power of chants. Sting’s lyric that “De do do do, de da da da/ They’re meaningless and all that’s true” refer to not just being speechless in love, overcome with emotion, but also the power of meaningless words to focus one’s mind. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86” is the clearest example of what Sting’s career would become: adult alternative sometimes eerily close to easy listening. The ’86 version is mesmerizing in its own way, with wonderful harmonizing throughout, but takes a slower tempo reminiscent of Sting’s ease into a calmer mode of songwriting.
  • If there is at least one theme present throughout The Police’s discography, it would be alienation. Such alienation takes form both through personal narratives (“So Lonely”, “Driven To Tears”), and the general malaise of an unjust world (“Rehumanize Yourself”, “Spirits in the Material World”). This is part of what makes The Police so interesting. There were a massive success, but they didn’t actually make a lot of happy music. And there wasn’t that much to begin with: The Police only had five albums, all solid, plus some odds and ends. For an all-time great rock band, that’s unusually low. But it makes for some great listening.
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