Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Places I Want To See That Might Be Wholly Imaginary

Pale marble ruins, afternoon shadows lengthening in the sunlight. The smell of ancient stone cloisters, sad-eyed statues, feathered wings taking flight outside. Black and white squares, walked on for a hundred years and more. Cracked, yellowing plaster and wavy glass: an old man behind the counter hawking Catholic dogma.

Shocking blue aquarium pools and green waxed leaves, cool rainforest and warm sand. Two gardenias for you, sings a dolorous trumpet playing late into the night. Coconut-white petals unfold, ice cubes clink in a sweating cocktail glass, an open-air bar somewhere in South America. A stray dog saunters past, tending to its own business. Insects call to their mates in the dark.

A clean glass bubble in the snowy barrens, centrally heated. Fur covers, rustic Scandinavian blankets, a snowdrift of pillows. The green-red-pink aurora shifting, playing in the otherworld above: a message from God if you're feeling religious, or just a cosmic disco. Turn the lights off, huddle in bed and watch the stars glitter in black space, as distant and familiar as the ice frosting the earth beyond.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Playlist

It's that time of the year again, one that I don't actually celebrate. But I do like Valentine's Day. Outside of the overpriced dinners, slave-labour flowers and capitalist cashing-in (you can tell I'm a real romantic) it's a fun occasion without too much pressure, and it takes my mind off the Chinese New Year festivities.

This February I've been listening to some new(ish) music - fine, mostly old music. First up:

1. Pulp - Do You Remember The First Time

Pulp's superiority lies in its lyrics, which somehow manage to tell wonderfully evocative stories within three and a half minutes while being sly, sexy and even humorous at the same time.

Their charm of course emanates from Jarvis Cocker, who is a true original: a lanky, myopic bug of a man thrusting elegantly on stage, affecting surprise and hauteur behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His interview with Stephen Merchant is incredibly funny - he tells stories about falling off a balcony to impress a girl, and stopping a gig half-way to search for his missing specs; the joke always lands gently on him, somehow.

I was initially taken by this particular track off their His 'n' Hers album (1994) because of the candid follow-up line to the title in the chorus: "Do you remember the first time?/I can't remember a worse time" - so unexpected, but so true! The narrative, true to Cocker-form, is about sleeping with a woman who's already got a boyfriend, one that naturally seems very dull in comparison to Jarvis Cocker's languid seduction: "Now I don't care what you're doing/No I don't care if you screw him, just as long as you save a piece for me".

Towards the end, the frustrated desire swells into a crescendo of contempt and disbelief: "Well at least there's someone there that you can talk to/and you never have to face up to the night on your own/Jesus it must be great, to be straight". (This is a track just begging to be covered by a lesbian with a great big growly voice - sorry, Sophie Monk, but your BBC cover is decidedly a lightweight).

The music video may give you nausea, but I generally don't look at the screen and instead sing along at top volume, scaring the dog awake from his nap.

2. Kylie Minogue - All The Lovers 

I somehow made it through the last 15-20 years of pop music consumption without realising that Kylie Minogue is a really good performer, a tiny firecracker in glittery minis and leopard print heels. Like, good enough that I would seriously consider paying to watch her live.

This is All The Lovers from her 2010 album Aphrodite. It's a great dancey pop track, one that puts you in a good mood automatically. How can you not be, when Kylie is asking you so sweetly to dance, and give her a little bit more?

Another nice thing about Kylie live is that she often re-arranges her old hits, so there are probably at least ten different versions of All The Lovers floating around YouTube, not including remixes. I'm partial to her Motown version of The Loco-Motion (BBC2, Maida Vale gig). She does a purer pop-orchestra version of All The Lovers on her Abbey Road Sessions album, but it seems to lose a little of its edge. The original is good enough for me.

3. Disclosure - January

I was a bit depressed to learn that Disclosure were technically half-in their teens (!) when they produced their critically acclaimed Settle album in 2012. What was I doing when I was 17? (Answer: wearing ripped jeans, still listening to Green Day and Blink 182.) I cheered myself up by introducing my teenage students to Disclosure, pointing out that while some of them were still struggling with past and present tenses, the baby-faced Disclosure brothers were pumping out UK hit singles and being very, very cool.

I know everyone loves Sam Smith and therefore they also love Latch, the massive Disclosure hit featuring his rather sheep-like bleat (don't get me wrong, it's not unpleasant - well, in small doses) but I favour January from the same album, which has the added mystery of vocals by Jamie Woon, a one-time promising UK R&B/trip-hop artiste who flamed out in 2012 from an undisclosed (ha ha) injury and hasn't been heard from since, apart from this track.

I have no idea what the significance of 22nd January is (graduation night? first kiss? O-level results?) but it goes down so smoothly, like quicksilver for the ears, no cheese at all. It's unfair that some people are so sophisticated at such a young age, but I don't mind if it means they have more time ahead of them to keep crafting electronic beauties like this.

4. Roxy Music - Over You

Last and best of all, the inimitable Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music with Over You, from their Flesh and Blood album. Yes, the video I chose is not actually Bryan Ferry, the reason being Roxy Music is ancient enough that YouTube has only fuzzy TV recordings with shitty sound quality. So here's a British cover band, Roxyrama, with a Bryan Ferry soundalike who's almost perfect - a few too many floppy head tilts, but otherwise just as insouciant and debonair as the original.

There's a great Roxy Music performance floating around that has Bryan Ferry smoking a cigarette while singing Over You - the long instrumental break allows him to enjoy a slow drag on it. The year is 1980 and his voice hasn't broken down yet. I recognise that this is a sick personal preference (one that's been proven hazardous to health), but I adore the way he holds his cigarette oh-so-nonchalantly and raises it to his mouth while dancing - OK, humping the microphone stand. I can see how he ended up scoring with his son's ex-girlfriend.

The lyrics are ridiculously simple, as befits a song written in five minutes. But what else do you need to describe the no man's land of unrequited affection? "Oh baby/this is nowhere/wish I was somewhere/over you." It moves briskly on to a common-sense coda: "Some day/yes it might come babe/When I'll be babe/over you". Not poetry, but the last thing you need in a situation like that is deathless verse. You need a quick pop fix, an optimistic guitar solo and a jaunty wave goodbye. Save all that romance nonsense for the next single.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Party Game for Horrible People

Image from amazon.com

Cards Against Humanity promises to be "as despicable and awkward as you and your friends". I'm like, how did they know about me and my friends?

Actually I think everyone wants to imagine that their friends are the coolest, craziest, most interesting people around - and by extension, so are they. People go around saying "my friends are so weird!" or "yeah, they're insane" in tones of pride and wonderment. Don't get me wrong, I like my friends too, but I'm under no illusions that any of us are true originals. Surely somewhere in the world a Mormon, a Muslim and a gay man are walking into a bar together, accompanied by a semi-employed bum, a severe commitment-phobe and a neurotic depressive. Then they sit around feeling like they're so special, chuckling at obscure in-jokes and endlessly repeated anecdotes from their teenage years.

Proving my point, Cards Against Humanity is immensely popular, so popular that it's spawned Canadian, British and Australian editions, five expansion packs and a flurry of holiday packs and other merchandise, including the infamous box of bovine excrement they sold in honour of Black Friday. So there are a lot of self-proclaimed despicable and awkward people out there.

It's played with a minimum of four people, and presumably a maximum of alcohol. Everyone draws up to 10 white answer cards, and the players take it in turns to draw a black question card - "What ruined the orgy?" You each submit a chosen answer card - "a robust mongoloid" or "the Pope" - and the question-drawer reads them all out, and chooses the funniest one.

There isn't much of a point to the game. You basically play until you get bored or hungry or it's time to go home, because you have work in the morning. But it doesn't matter because you laugh so hard your stomach hurts, and it dissipates the awkwardness in the air that comes from not having seen each other in the flesh for close to four years. It's a shitload of fun, the kind of game everyone wants to keep playing late into the night. (As opposed to the other game we used to play, which was fun but confusing for the non-nerds who just couldn't understand the difference between race and class - "Goddammit, a dwarf is a race, a cleric is a class! It's so simple!")

The downside is that you can really only play Cards Against Humanity with people who you know for sure spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at porn, digesting pop culture and pirating Judd Apatow movies. It's not a game for the faint-hearted, the easily offended, or those who fear the surreal and dark. If you don't find chainsaws and vaginal folds funny, don't waste your money or time on this.

I know there are people who play it with mere acquaintances, or even online, but to me half the fun comes from choosing exactly the right answer that will crack the question-drawer up. This requires years of exposure to their sense of humour, their understanding of the world around them, knowledge of their boundaries (or lack of). To really enjoy it, you have to be old friends, or at least friends who are super open. People will know that you know what golden showers or queefing are.

Because we've all known each other since 1997 - our first year at a shitty neighbourhood secondary school - it's not that hard to guess what my friends will find funny: usually jokes about genitals or gruesome death. I like to think that my sense of humour is more complex and dry, but I find myself laughing just as hard as the others at combos like "My plans for world domination begin with... a bleached asshole". It's a humbling experience.

The set the American so kindly left with me comes with blank cards, so I'm spending this evening in anticipation of our last game tomorrow writing custom Singaporean answers (let's just say there are a few choice Hokkien phrases involved). After he goes home, we won't be getting together so often, not until the next overseas member of our group arrives. Maybe I should bring the set to my grandfather's house for Chinese New Year? I'll probably be the only one laughing.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fear & Loathing On Public Transport

Bad shit happens to everyone, and if you're a woman, certain kinds of bad shit are almost a given.

I always wondered if that day would ever come for me, if I'd be one of the lucky few, or just another depressing statistic. I made it to 30 years of existence without having once been molested. When I was younger and less assertive, in my school uniform or cheap high heels, I carried that dark vigilance around with me, like a fist closed tightly over a key when walking home at night. Call it a minor state of terror, a low-burning awareness that some men often try to lean in too close, place an unwanted hand on your back, insist on talking to you and asking for your name and more. Always be wary. Be smart. I've exited taxis, bookstores, libraries, malls - annoyed and flustered, a little frightened.

Maybe I got stupid and complacent over time. Nothing truly bad ever happened to me. There's a decade's worth of younger women in short shorts roaming around in public, so who'd want to touch me? I wear glasses, sensible flats and modest necklines to work. On that day I wore a knee-length dress that buttoned right up to the collar, with sleeves.

Of course it didn't matter. It was a crowded train, and I was forced towards the back by people surging in as the doors closed. Some lady's handbag was jabbing into my side, and someone's sweaty backpack was almost under my nose. Only two stations to go.

I had my earphones in, and I managed to take my phone out and twist slightly to the side so I could read an article on it. It was a very interesting long-form piece, but for the life of me now I can't remember what it was about. That's probably a good thing. I delved deep into it, forgot where I was and where I was going.

I don't like this next part, but I've been having such bad dreams. If I leave it here I might finally get a good night's sleep.

I felt something shift against the small of my back, but I assumed it was yet another bag or possibly unwieldy sports equipment (there were loads of schoolkids on the train, carrying musical instruments and other torture devices). It moved again, and again, with an unusual and determined intensity, and then I awoke - as if from a dream - startled out of my reading and music by some instinctive internal alarm: I knew what it was.

I turned around - and here's the funny part, I couldn't see his face, because I am only 1.58m tall and he was a lot taller. I stared in confusion at a skinny t-shirted chest - and it's true, in the shock of the moment you do completely blank out on the colour of it - and then the train stopped, the doors opened, and people began to push past me to exit. Among them was the man who had assaulted me. He shoved his way out (tall, thin, pale coloured pants?) faster than anyone else and disappeared into the crowd.

I should have run after him, maybe caught him by the elbow and punched him in the face (assuming I could reach it). I probably should have screamed. But like I said, your mind really does go blank at times like these. Human programming can be so very disappointing.

There was nothing else I could do, so I went to work. I taught my students, handed out their worksheets, took the train home. I vented about the incident, and my husband made all the right statements of support and outrage and comfort, and I went to sleep and woke up again in the morning.

I never cried about it. I did feel an unbelievable anger at myself, and at the man on the train. Who the fuck does something like that? What broken shell of a human being rubs his dick on unsuspecting women on public transport?

They say that such men get off on the violation, the five seconds of power over another human being. I hope this means that they are utterly powerless in everyday life, broken by somebody else on an hourly basis. I hope that man goes to work and gets yelled at and treated like shit, and goes home alone and can't make enough money to ever get out of his lousy situation. If he fucks hookers, I hope they fake affection for him, drain him of every last cent and give him herpes in return. I want him to die in a welfare nursing home with a bacteria-ridden catheter shoved up his dick by an untrained monkey who doesn't even know his name.

I hope he feels violated and worthless every single moment of his waking life, because I don't think I'm the first person he's ever done that to.

 Anyway. I felt bad for a day or two, and then I moved on - or so I thought. I kept busy - Christmas is coming, don't you know - and a few days later I got back onto the same line, on my way to work.

The train wasn't that crowded. I moved to the centre of the carriage. Without thinking, I checked to make sure nobody was standing behind me. It's become second nature.

As the train doors closed, I felt a strange sensation settle on me. I was so uncomfortable, twitchy almost. It was a constant, chilly unease, like I'd forgotten something important at home. It took a few long minutes to identify it: fear. After so many years - fear, my old friend. You won't ever leave me again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Yesterday, Melbourne

Eight years after I graduated and left, I returned to Melbourne, Australia. On vacation, I was a tourist this time instead of a shy and painfully young student. Not spending daddy's money anymore.

It's still a good-looking city, with delicate Victorian-era row houses lining wide sidewalks. Tree branches dip with the breeze, which bears no resemblance to its icy parent, the Antarctic chill that whips your hair into your face on the Great Ocean Road. Yes, the bland international shopping malls filled with thumping music and Zara and Topshop and H&M have arrived in the city centre, but they haven't killed off the more charming suburbs.

People get possessive over places they've been, especially if they like them. It's true that Melbourne is not my city, and I don't love it the way others do. But I was surprised by how resentful I felt of the avalanche of advice and suggestions from outsiders (ranging from people who'd been there once, to people who've lived there for years). I wanted to go back and do things my way, walk round the city late at night and relive the pleasure I once took in mundane activities (grocery shopping, commuting, school). It was not Melbourne I wanted to visit, but my own past. They didn't understand.

It's probable that all the advice served me well in the end. It helped me to get Melbourne out of my system, and I don't think I'll go back again. It was good to exorcise my university days and make peace with all the potential I once had, and all the money my poor parents spent. Time to move on, and let other people have it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Pleases in Popular Music (That I Know Of)

Laid up this weekend with the flu (no chance of taking a day off with my students' exams so close) so I thought I would feel productive by jotting down this listicle that's been stuck on three measly items for far too long. Perhaps it's the cough syrup slowing me down to a treacly crawl, but I can't think of anything else to add to it.

I think the best 'pleases' in music should send a chill down your spine - not necessarily in a howl-from-the-damned way, but in an unexpected-religious-moment way. Why 'please'? What else can you say? What other word lends itself so well to an animalistic yawp, a feverish begging, a left-for-dead resignation? The only criteria I had was that it should stand alone within the song, not hastily tripped over to make room for the rest of the lyrics. A 'please' should be memorable.

(In making the list I was actively looking for female musicians, but then I realised that 'please' doesn't necessarily lend itself well to women's voices. You hear a man saying 'please' with a sob in his voice, you might assume he's pining for a lost love. You hear a woman saying 'please', on the other hand - I don't know about you, but I always worry it'll be followed up with 'don't hit me'.)

1. Chris Isaak - Somebody's Crying

This is pretty obvious - "pleeeeeeeaaase, let me know if it can't be me/I know when, somebody's lying" is burned into the brain of anyone listening to the radio in 1995. According to the song's Wiki page Chris Isaak wrote the lyrics based on kids in a playground teasing each other ("I know somebody and they cry for you") and while reeling from the aftermath of a bad break-up.

I like the song's rockabilly vibe, the faint whiff (quiff?) of Elvis in the background, even the wholesome music video that an astute YouTube commenter called the 'best J.Crew ad ever'. (It can't get more 1995 than that video, for sure.) I like the vowel-heavy ache in 'pleeeeeeease' that reaches out for understanding, like a despairing late-night call made from a pay-phone booth. This song featured heavily in the broken-heart playlists my friends and I made as teenagers, but now it's just a catchy bit of nostalgia for an analog decade. Still good.

2. New Radicals - Flowers 

In contrast to the ABC-rhyming, puppyish sentiment of Somebody's Crying ('I know somebody and they called your name/a million times and still you never came/they go on loving you just the same'), Gregg Alexander spreads a thick layer of irony over this pop ode to a confused 22-year-old 'flower child' who likes drugs and suffers from debilitating trust issues. (A real keeper, huh.)

He's fed up that she doesn't believe him when he says that his love 'is real, as real as the flowers you smoke to get high', but the real genius of the song comes towards the end when he points out that 'I love you, you hate me, I took math class that ain't a fair exchange/I call you, you hang up, don't be a bitch get your number changed - I'm sorry, forgive me, I never meant to call you those names - but I'm lonely, so lonely, please."

That was the bit that made me sit up and take notice, on my first listen of his 1998 album Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too. It's witty, telling and wonderfully self-aware. You begin to understand why the mythical 22-year-old has a fear of commitment, if that's what she's expected to commit to. After the shock of 'bitch' comes a very angry and defeated 'please', punctuated with a Jacksonesque yelp of (sexual?) frustration. This raw honesty is more compelling than the empty yearning in the rest of the lyrics.

(I see that Gregg Alexander's latest track is 'Lost Stars', which he co-wrote for that shot-on-Instagram hipster date night movie Begin Again. Um... I'll blame Adam Levine. Unlistenable.)

3. Stealers Wheel - Stuck In The Middle With You

I stupidly used this as the ringtone for my old Nokia phone during my short, stressful stint in PR. Even today when I hear the jaunty opening bit, my heart jolts in fear, like a deer alerted by a hunting bugle. But the rest of it is super fun to sing along with.

Of course my first exposure to this 1972 track came from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (the ear-slicing torture scene, more specifically). The song was supposedly inspired by a restaurant meeting between the band, its record label and producers: 'Well you started out with nothing and/now that you're a self-made man/your friends they all come crawling, slap you on the back and say/please, please.'

It's a sly dig at these big, insecure men who puff out their chests and feel only as good as their last multi-million dollar deal - a very cool, knowing 'please'. The narrator knows that the desperation of their 'friends' reveals the true nature of these self-made men, who desire the constant adulation and pleading far more than they pretend to. In the end, who's the one who's really begging for something?

In retrospect the ringtone was a bad idea in more ways than one, seeing as in the world of corporate and finance PR, these big men obviously run the whole show. How can you pitch an idea to Bloomberg when you're hearing 'I don't know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain't right', or try to make nice with business journalists at a media luncheon without thinking 'Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/here I am, stuck in the middle with you'? I still do some business writing these days, but I've learnt that it's not a universe I can stand being in for more than two or three hours. Any longer, and I might be tempted to slice some ears off.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I Do This More Often Than I Care To Admit

(What do you mean, normal people don't dress their dogs up in designer human clothes, pose them in front of DIY backdrops, adjust the lighting and then take heavily-filtered Instagram photos of them?)