Thursday, October 18, 2012

Melody Fair

One afternoon when my mother was pregnant with me, she was lying in bed (probably feeling nauseous) and a song came on the radio.

I may have been in utero, but the scene is easily pictured: my unfamiliar mother, as skinny as a teenager except for her burdened womb. Propped up on a pillow with one hand on her aching forehead, she is paler than usual and her wavy hair is damp and lank. The cheap plastic blinds are drawn and she's only half-listening to the cheerful nonsense of the radio DJ. The afternoon seems to stretch on forever.

She stirs and sighs. A few seconds separate her from an uncomfortably warm mid-day nap.

Then the chatter gives way to the easy strains of a pop song by the Bee Gees (my dad's favourite group of all time, but he's at work right now). Slowly rising out of the sleep-shallows, my mother becomes aware of the hymn-like beginning, which pleases her (only two and a half years away from accepting Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour). The music swells into dreamy, lilting fairground rhyming - "Who is the girl with the crying face, looking at millions of signs? She knows that life is a running race, she shouldn't show any sides."

(I'll admit it's not high art, but the Bee Gees weren't in their disco phase yet.)

"Melody fair, remember you're only a woman..."

The soft resignation of Barry Gibb's falsetto draws my mother into the moment, allowing her to enter fully into the three and a half minute song like she's never done before. My mother has never been into music of any kind, but her defenses have been weakened by unending morning sickness and now she lets the chiming harmonies wash over her in waves. Maybe this is what religion feels like.

By the second verse, maybe she even sings along: "Who is the girl at the window pane, watching the rain falling down? Melody, life isn't like the rain, it's just like a merry go round." 

The Bee Gees wrote the song in 1968 and released it the following year on their album Odessa. Ignored by a more cynical Western audience, the track made its way to no. 3 on the Japanese charts, helped by the fact that it was on the soundtrack for a 1971 film called Melody (directed by Waris Hussein) that was a major hit in Japan and parts of South America. (I've never seen it, but the plot sounds like something out of the manga books my students read: ridiculously young boy and girl fall in love, resolve to get married, run away from ignorant authorities with the help of their schoolmates).

Anyway, by the time the song fades out and the radio DJ's inane chatter resumes, my mother is energized by a sudden conviction: she will name her first-born child after the song. (The fetus - i.e, me - kicks in alarm. I want a cooler name, not a name that reminds middle-aged folk of the innocent 1970s and their soft-focus puppy loves. Setting a precedent for the future, my mother ignores my pre-birth protest, getting up to visit the toilet. Her mind has been made up.)

I will soon be older than my mother was in 1984, when I was born. Unlike her, I am in no way prepared for a child. But I've always wondered - if I have a daughter someday, should I continue the tradition of naming her after a popular song? (My family are terminally uncool people, so the likelihood of my daughter being named after an obscure electronica act is very small.) I imagine my future offspring - weighed down by braces and thick glasses, no doubt - sullenly resenting her name: Iris, Maggie May, Ava Adore. Sharona?

Malibu, if I'm feeling flaky. Or Dani California. Darling Nikki.

In the same year that my song (I think of it as mine) raced up the Japanese charts, a concept album was released by the French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg called Histoire de Melody Nelson. As expected of Gainsbourg, it is smoky, sleazy and inexplicably seductive, telling the listener of a middle-aged man's fantasy encounter with the titular teenage nymphet (his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost collides with her schoolgirl bicycle - what, it happens all the time). Apart from the school-going context, this could not be more different from Waris Hussein's Melody which, judging by the trailer, is a treacly exercise in school gyms, tight bell-bottoms and British sentimentality.

I don't think my parents even know who Serge Gainsbourg was, and they would be freaked out by his Melody (pictured topless on the album cover, clutching a stuffed toy to her pubescent torso). But naturally it would have been far cooler to point to something French and provocative as the inspiration for my name, instead of the unironic, falsetto-loving Bee Gees.

When all is said and done, I must admit I am beginning to appreciate the music of my parents' generation, and their intent in tying me down to it. My existence is a reflection, in some part, of their early innocence, their desire to break free and do things differently from their Teochew-speaking parents. To raise their children with hugs and kisses, Christmas trees and birthday parties with cake and presents. To buy Nancy Drew books and Disney movies on tape. To go on holidays abroad and have photos taken in fuzzy sweaters, to eat spaghetti in red sauce and ice cream sundaes. All those things they saw in books and movies they gave to me, along with the name that my mother first heard on the radio 28 years ago.