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?)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Mall Beach at Gurney Drive, Penang


It's not a great picture, and it's a really shitty beach. I don't think anyone is allowed to even step onto it. But there's something about this lonely little stretch of sand and debris that haunts me - a faded, goodbye-all resignation in the polluted seaweed air, and all that water drowned out by the honks and whines of traffic going by on the road less than two metres away. Car headlights run mindlessly over the sand, over and over and over again. Nothing moves. I imagine all the hermit crabs and sea snails have been fossilised by the blinding light, their eyestalks long ago burnt out from the repetition: light, dark, light, dark, light. Never dark enough.

Friday, July 11, 2014

We Now Pause to Bring You a Very Important Message


The Pink Dog, showing his (OK, our) support for Pink Dot 2014.

The recent rise of bigoted, anti-homosexuality sentiment in Singapore is extremely depressing. Over in the States, Barack Obama is president, the Moral Majority have faded away, and 50 per cent of Americans now believe in the constitutional right to gay marriage (Washington Post). Over here we are still debating whether gay people are entitled to a legal existence, and Singaporean evangelicals are enthusiastically employing tactics taught to them by American rightwingers to dominate the public discourse, and cry 'reverse discrimination!' and 'beware the hidden gay agenda!' whenever their vitriol is met with disagreement. Just today they have succeeded in upholding a ban on three children's books that featured gay penguins and lesbian households. As expected, they are proud of themselves.

I grew up in a Christian household, and every single member of my maternal extended family is Christian - some are even part of the anti-gay Wear White movement. I was enrolled in Christian schools for the first 16 years of my life, joined a Christian co-curricular activity of my own accord, attended Easter and Christmas services, and for a few short weeks was sent to Sunday School until my constant sobbing grew too much for the teacher and I was returned to my embarrassed parents. My first books were a picture Bible and an illustrated collection of Bible stories. I wore a cross until I was in my early 20s.

Yet I never took to the religion, or any religion for that matter. (My parents remain baffled, disappointed, hurt.) When I was a child and sang 'Jesus loves me, this I know', my performance was entirely innocent of any understanding. When I was slightly older I would answer "Christian" to any questions about my religion, but it was like saying "Chinese" to the race question, or "O+" to the school nurse inquiring about my blood type - an automatic reply, free from analysis or even much thought. Being Christian was not a matter of deep importance. Similarly, my parents didn't go to church regularly - I guess the occasional service was enough, a biannual vaccination against Satan.

In secondary school I was exposed to the pumped up, hands in the air, fire-and-brimstone preaching of the evangelical movement, with its emphasis on active engagement with one's religion. Very different from the mild, sleepy sermons preached at my parents' old church. These young pastors bounced off the pulpit and into the congregation, yelling out, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" We were encouraged to leave the pews, gather round the altar and weep and swoon as Christian rock music swelled and the pastor's wet yearning tones wrapped around everyone, praying for salvation and a new beginning.

If you were never a Christian in a church like that, then you cannot know how thick the atmosphere is, how manipulative the entire setting can be. You cannot know the shame and fear of being the only one not to be moved by the spirit of Christ, not to stand up. You feel as if the pastor is staring right at you when he pleads, "Anyone else? Does anyone else want to be saved?"

It is not a choice they offer you at all. It is a promise that if you are not saved, you will go to hell, and it will be your fault for rejecting your only chance at salvation. It is a threat.

It's heavy stuff to lay on a 13-year-old. And yet I never went up to the altar. The following year when I was sent to a particularly tough Girls' Brigade camp - endless punishments and drill, cold, disapproving ostracism, screaming leaders to be obeyed, constant sleep deprivation - I still didn't go up during the inevitable in-camp altar call. I thought about trying to escape, and I thought about killing myself, but I never once considered accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought that if He existed, Jesus would never force a terrified teenager to shovel rice into her mouth until she came close to vomiting, and then make her scrub the toilets past midnight for the crime of wasting food. (I couldn't quite manage that last mouthful.)

The sweaty animal fear of ever being controlled like that again has never quite left me. I was only in the Girls' Brigade for four years of my life - only a few years spent hiding in plain sight, an atheist among the flock, not knowing what to say or how to behave, but constantly aware that to reveal myself would be to risk punishment, condemnation and isolation. And that was just for being a non-believer! Can you imagine what it would have been like to be gay, and living in that world?

This is where the heart of my empathy lies. I only experienced a small amount of shame at being different. It makes me nauseous to consider a lifetime spent this way, being told over and over and over that you are unnatural, your desires are not of God, you will never be happy or loved, that you are just plain wrong. Sure, the religious activists will mouth the same old meaningless words - 'love the sinner, hate the sin' - but their concept of sin has been scientifically proven to be an inherent part of a person's physical and mental identity, a basic biological drive. People can stop drinking, gambling, beating their wives. Can they stop loving?

For Christian conservatives, gay rights are only one target among an endless list - abortion, birth control, feminism, free speech and thought, science, art and sexuality, education and state protection from discrimination. It's no secret that many Singaporean evangelicals, like their American counterparts, would like to reshape some of these according to their own standards, limit several others and outright ban the rest. All because of an archaic system of beliefs started over 3,000 years ago in a Middle Eastern desert. No one's really sure what the Bible means, which is great because they get to make it all up to suit their own desires and fears.

Make no mistake, fear is a major part of Christianity. My parents are genuinely afraid that when they pass on, they won't ever see me again, because as a non-believer I will not go to heaven. I understand their anxiety, and I will always regret the heartbreak I am causing them. It used to be my biggest fear as a clingy kid, losing my parents forever. I had regular nightmares about it.

But if there is a God, and if there is a heaven, and if He really is a loving God, surely we will be reunited after death, though I refuse to accept man's broken interpretation of His Word. I believe that my conceptions of the world are right, that we were not made to hate or discriminate, and I am willing to place my own salvation on the line. You might say that in this, I have faith.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Four Movies I Just Can't Watch

There are some movies that I just can't sit through, even if you paid me to. Granted, some of them I've already seen, but I'd sooner scrub a toilet than sit through them again. Unlike books, which are relatively easy to censor as a reader - just skip a few pages, skim the contents briefly - films demand that you sit through the entire scene, cringing or scanning your own lap or squeezing your eyes shut. Horror movies, for example. Can't stand them, let alone those belonging to the torture porn genre (why do people want to watch shit like that? The real world is fucked up enough that it doesn't need Human Centipede visuals). Neither am I a fan of gross-out comedies - there's something so viscerally unappealing about watching human beings wallow like animals in bodily fluids, and this is coming from someone who didn't bat an eyelid throughout the tampon scene in Catherine Breillat's Anatomie de l'enfer (2004).

Besides these too-obvious genres, there are several films that I can't watch/rewatch, even though I kind of want to. Kind of, but not really.

1. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)


This one is pretty straightforward - that pivotal curb-stomp scene scarred me for life. Up until watching American History X I had remained blissfully unaware of this completely fucked up way of torturing/killing a human being. I think the reason why it's so particularly nasty is that it utilises our everyday environment in an unbelievably cruel and imaginative manner. And the human head is so fragile, and it has so many teeth, and the concrete is so unforgiving - OK, it's making me nauseous just thinking about it again. Stop.

It was billed as a film about skinheads, redemption and Edward Norton, so I wasn't expecting anything too graphic when I popped the VCD in (yes... a long time ago) and pressed play. I think the rest of the movie was pretty good and there were some funny moments in the making-friends-with-the-black-guy-while-in-prison subplot, but frankly I can't remember much of anything beyond that mind-searing, brutal scene. Ugh. Still feeling sick.

2. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)


This one is my parents' fault. When you have a sensitive, high-strung four or five year old who suffers from anxiety and abandonment issues, you might not want to screen a movie about a little boy being inadvertently left behind by his parents in the middle of WWII. He ends up struggling to survive, being exploited by an American asshole, almost dying of starvation and watching his one real friend get shot right in front of him. A great movie for kids.

I remember just being utterly destroyed by Empire of the Sun's gloomy scenes and the idea it introduced - children could be accidentally separated from their parents, and nobody would care! Thanks to Christian Bale's acting debut, I started having nightmares about being similarly abandoned, from which I would wake sobbing and dry heaving. My mother tried to comfort me after I recounted one of these dreams. Patting my back as I choked on my tears, she said, "We wouldn't leave you behind!"

 I replied, crying afresh, "You didn't want to, but you couldn't help it."

3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)


This one annoys me, because I really want to see it, but the book was such a downer I'm not sure if I want to watch it play out in front of me. (Sidenote: wow, Scarlett Johansson is really everywhere! As long as she doesn't try singing again.) I read the book by Michel Faber and it was a page-turner for sure, but one that was pretty hard to stomach.

Some of the worst scenes involve the alien's scarred, mutilated body, the attempted rape (oops, spoiler) and the truly horrific scenes of obese, castrated, tongueless (I think?) men destined to be prime rib or whatever for rich aliens. The book really beats you over the head with the roles-reversed metaphor - yes, I get it, industrial meat-raising practices are bad and evil. But on top of the heavy-handed moralising, it adds a bleak ending that makes you go, I slogged all the way through these pages for this?

I've read that the movie is less graphic than the book - more atmospheric and arty, I suppose - but I'm not willing to risk it. Not even Jonathan Glazer can tempt me.

4. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)


OK, I actually just watched this. It's so beautiful, I love the golden smog and Shanghai skyline settling gently over the LA exteriors, it's amazing that no blue was used throughout and the actors are all very good. Even the Arcade Fire managed to hold back on the annoying twee-ness and contributed a decent soundtrack. I can imagine film students of the future analysing Her to death and writing hundreds of pages just on the look of it alone. Loved that adorably foul-mouthed little alien, too. 

But I don't think I can make myself sit through it again, because listening to Theodore Twombly's monologues about his divorce and the mistakes he made with his wife was just too much. It was like listening in on someone's therapy through thin walls. Like so many online commentators have pointed out, Her comes across like it's Spike Jonze's belated response to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, a touted photograph of their marriage prior to breaking down. Not so cute anymore, huh?

If Her had been a he-said, she-said retort - something a little more mean-spirited, angrier - it would have been endurable, but the movie is a sincere apology, a melancholy acknowledgement of how 'we grew up together' and the utter loneliness of walking away from that connection. It's super uncomfortable to watch, especially when bloody Joaquin Phoenix goes all out to make it believable. I mean, I already believe it's true! Stop making me feel your pain, goddammit.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Caviar - The Good Times Are Over


I think barely anyone (except my old classmate Alan and me) remembers Caviar, a one-and-a-half hit wonder out of Chicago circa 2000. For a band that was all over Top 40 radio roughly fourteen years ago, it's pretty amazing that YouTube barely has any trace of their music.

I don't know how to classify them - Spandau Ballet moves to the midwest? ironic pop-rock leavened with sampling? - but really, who cares. They're lots of fun and they don't take themselves too seriously. Without any external aids my natural temperament pulls downwards to dark-blue morose, so when life gets too heavy it's nice to kick back and sing along to playful lines like "She's American as 3.1416/hand on my throttle/leave the city behind/there's not a lot in the bottle, not a lot on my mind". I love that, it always makes me smile. (OK, so it doesn't take a lot to amuse me - I've been known to crack myself up at work and double over laughing while my superior teenagers watch, bemused).

Wherever the individual members of Caviar are today, I hope they're taking life easy - riding in summertime cars with the top down, not a lot on their minds.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sunset for Sybarites


An evening storm brewing on Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak province, Thailand. One of the worst-hit districts during the 2004 tsunami, but you wouldn't know it today. Fell asleep every night to the crashing waves and woke up to the light patter of raindrops on the villa's pool. The Casa de La Flora was all white walls, natural wood, open spaces and clean lines - a Modernist vision set against the wild Andaman Sea and sky. Horrifically expensive, except now in the off-season. But worth it.