January 28, 2014

Why I Don’t Like Frank Sinatra

Many’s the time I’ve been sitting in my favourite haunt, The Hungry Dog in Haebangcheon in Seoul, nursing beers, doing crosswords, playing chess and chatting music to fellow customers and staff. One tidbit I picked up there was told to me by Will, boyfriend of the owner. He’d studied German, and was, moreso than me anyway, familiar with many aspects of German culture. He told me that the song ‘Mack the Knife’, a huge hit in the late 1950s for Bobby Darin, was originally a German song, written in the 1920s called "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" (The Ballad of Mack the Knife). You can read about it at the Wikipedia article here

This song was, originally, a sinister song, with a feel about it that would, if you like, scare children. It was dark and moody, slow and chilling, atmospheric, haunting. You can listen to it at this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QXJ3OXWaOY It is not in any way to be considered a cheerful number. It is not, nor was it intended to be, performed or received as a jaunty, peppy or upbeat song. It’s a song about a rapist, arsonist and murderer. A song of warning.

Now listen to the Bobby Darin version, the most famous and well known version around. It has been translated into English, but that’s not why it’s different – it’s different because now the Bobby Darin version has a jolly feel to it. You can almost hear him smiling throughout his performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEllHMWkXEU

I’ve always liked a bit of Fats Waller, the guy was a genius. You’ve probably heard his superlative version of ‘I’m Gonna Sit Write Down and Write Myself a Letter’, which was the first time the song was a hit. If you haven’t, you can check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62mMrDUXD6Q. Again, this is poignant, emotional song. The listener is not quite sure if the lover has left, died, is just absent, or even simply doesn’t like writing letters! Whichever it is, Fats is sad. Fats ain’t happy.  Now listen to Frank  Sinatra’s version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBvAL6zIst0 You can, again, hear the smile in his rendition, the jauntiness in the song, the happiness, the ‘swing’. Sorry Frank, you’re getting it totally wrong. Can you sing? Hell yes, you’re a great singer. Can you ‘sing’? No. It hurts my brain listening to ‘Letter’ by Frank. The disparate mismatch between delivered style, and the meaning of the song is enormously confusing.

I subscribe to quite a few podcasts from back home, one of which is called ‘Soul Music’ from BBC Radio 4. It’s a fairly pleasant show, and each show’s many guests are invited to explain what that week’s piece of music means to them personally. A few weeks ago the music was ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ which I was surprised to learn was originally a slightly melancholic song, with a meaning something like ‘this year isn’t/hasn’t been great, but maybe next year eh?’. Although it was changed slightly from its original by Judy Garland et al as they thought it ‘depressing’, it was when Frank Sinatra got a hold of it that any of its former meaning was lost. From the Wiki of the song “In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." He told Martin, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin's new line was "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

And there you go. That’s why I don’t like Frank Sinatra. He sucked the life, and original meaning, but most importantly the ‘feel’ of so many songs, he and many of his contemporaries. Songs are allowed to be sad. Songwriters are entitled to have their work remain unpoisoned. 

January 07, 2014

Korea's Two-Dimensional Fashion

There is something about Korean fashion and style that I don’t quite understand. It is true that they are a fashionable and stylish set, and wear nice clothes and no doubt take fashion quite seriously, but the effect it has, its strength, potency, its expression, just doesn't seem right to me somehow - it seems to lack power, it has no statement about itself. And I can't quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s because I’m not that fashionable myself? Or perhaps it’s the definition of the word ‘fashionable’? A middle-aged man wearing a classic tweed jacket and a nice pair of brogues, for example, would be defined as, by me anyway, as stylish, rather than fashionable. Furthermore, said middle-aged man in tweed jacket would be saying many other things like: I’m not a biker, I’m not a chav, I’m not a builder, and so on. Of course, he might be saying none or any of these, but he’d certainly be giving off the impression of, well, something. Wearing the jacket and brogues wouldn’t be an empty statement. The simple fact is, in the West, it would be a statement, about something. Wearing a biker’s leather jacket is a statement. Clothes are a statement, even if the statement is ‘these are all I could wear today because I’m doing my laundry’, ‘I’m getting married today’, ‘I’m going to a funeral’, or ‘I ride a skateboard’. Fashion in Korea seems empty, devoid of having anything to say, other than 'I've bought some clothes recently'.

Fashion here smacks of a limited imagination, a reliance on 'being told what to do', of conformism. Of getting your ideas from a magazine. But also importantly, and often missed here is that if you wear the latest ‘magazine clothes’ you hand over your statement about what you’re wearing to a magazine editor, whose only statement on your behalf is ‘look at me I’m fashionable’. It's why fashion here is fashionable, if fashionable means empty and vapid.

Maybe the problem is that there's no 'anti-fashion' in Korea, and in turn that may be because of Korea’s relatively recent entry into, if you like, the world of ‘Western fashion’. We may have had punks and b-boys and so on in the '70s and '80s, but Korea almost certainly didn’t, or if they did, they were so few in number as to have little effect on mainstream culture. If I see, say, a pair of Dr Marten boots in a store here, they will, for me, have many connotations, for example, work boots, punk boots, skinheads, 1980s fashion and so on, but for a Korean they may just look like 'boots'. That's not the man- or woman-on-the-street's fault, but it's true nonetheless. We make decisions based on decades of previously traversed fashion phases ("I'm not wearing that I'll look like a '90s raver"), but countries newer to the forefront (and let's be honest that's Europe and the USA) of fashion do not have that historical luxury. Everything is new, but simultaneously, everything is meaningless.

That Korea has little or no 'anti-fashion' doesn't necessarily mean it should adopt a whole-hearted punk [or other alternative] ethos with safety pins through noses or knee-high cyberpunk boots, it means Korea doesn't have the guys down the pub who make a fashion statement by simply not being fashionable. Deliberately. In Korea, you're either in or out. Back home, the guys in jeans and bikers' leather are saying 'we don't want to look like the inside of a fashion magazine'. 'That would be uncool'. And suddenly you’re entering into an arena of anti-capitalist, or anti-something, sentiment, of not wanting to shop in Top Man, or wear Abercrombie and Fitch, or wear Gucci sunglasses. To me and many others this wearing of current middle-to-upper high street brands would be highly uncool – like popping the collar on your suit jacket, or holding a  cigarette between your teeth – I’d never do it – to me it looks like ‘trying too hard’, like ‘Top Gun’. Trying to be cool isn't cool. Trying to be fashionable isn't necessarily fashionable. Clothes and the way you wear them, including choosing not to wear something, is a statement of attitude, a subscription to who you are and want to be. In many circles, being 'magazine fashionable' is considered uncool.

Korean fashion lacks any statement outside of ‘I’m fashionable’. Could you tell who likes jazz or hip-hop or rock from it? Doubtful. Could you in London or San Diego or Bruges? Probably. Clothes are an expression, of who you are, of what you believe. Even if you believe fashion is a fat waste of time your non-conformist, conformist jeans and t-shirt (or whatever) are saying so.

I think it will take a decade or two for Korea to realise its full potential in fashion. Many here think it's made it now, but I disagree. Fashion here says nothing, and until it does, it doesn't. It's not cool to try and be cool.  It's a kind of Catch 22 that I think fashionistas in Korea often don't understand. It's simply not that fashionable to be fashionable.

January 01, 2014

2013, A Year in Clover.

From Hamlet - "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions."

Very true, William, very true. 

It wasn't all bad. It never is. But the landmark occasions this year were all pretty terrible.

Jobs: My current job is, in fact all my jobs in
Korea have been, very nice - no complaints there. But when I first started this one, it was a disaster. The previous teacher wouldn't move out my apartment for a week. When he finally did the school was late delivering any furniture so I had to sleep on the floor. The heating broke down, the washing machine wasn't plumbed in, and the hot water stopped being hot. On top of all that, my co-teacher had a nervous breakdown when my vice-principal jokingly accused her of having an affair with me! I'd been in the job three days at this point. She was furious with him, her husband called the school and everything. It was a right shit-storm. She was never the same with me after that (distant, abrupt) and I was honestly happy when she got pregnant again and quit. My new co-teacher is a lovely woman. So all's well that ends well, I guess.

Dating: been on several dates this year, all of which either ended disastrously, or got cancelled, or didn't lead to a second date when I wanted them to. All in all, dating wise, this year was a total fucking disaster. I've ended the year as I started it. Except I'm a year older.

Friends: Made some great new friends this year, especially up in Haebangcheon in
Seoul, but lost a few too. A couple of fall-outs lead to some unhealable rifts with one or two long-standing friends, which is never good, but c'est la vie. The biggest news, friend-wise, for me and many others this year was undoubtedly the loss, due to a climbing accident, of the dear, lovable, funny, surreal, hilarious and warm Kevin Andresen. Never in all my life have I heard so many people cry, so loudly and for so long. And I never want to hear that again.

Holidays: Went to
Cambodia. Fell down some stairs. Got sick, including passing out, throwing up, going blind (twice) and for the first time in my entire life, shitting the bed, due to the muscle relaxants the hospital gave me.  Cost me a fucking fortune in hospital fees when I got back to Korea too. Holidays this year? Meh.

And finally, the biggest news of all for me was the loss of my mother, after a two year battle with cancer. It came as no surprise in the end, as she was given just a few days, but lasted three weeks. My Mum had her faults like all of us, but she was always there on the end of the phone if you needed a shoulder to lean on. I miss my Mum.

I'm a realist. I'm not one to mope about going 'life is terrible', despite laying it all out, above. Like most, I'll get morose occasionally, but I tend to laugh at it all in the end. And anyway, it wasn't all bad this year. I finished my Masters Degree before my Mum went, and I know she would have been proud of that, not to mention the personal sense of achievement. As I said above, my job is great, I have some amazing, wonderful and funny friends, and generally, I'm pretty happy with my lot. I hope, though, that the landmarks of 2014 are less harrowing and upsetting than this year's were, and that there are a lot less tears and a lot more smiles.