Wednesday, August 22, 2018

a postlude to "hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer", a riff on the ubiquity of Anglo-American pop music by way of the soundtrack for Crazy Rich Asians

For those who remember this earlier post

hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer--the Western art music canon or Anglo-American popular music can be the current hegemony depending on what you want to teach in a class vs what you see

This post is a postlude to that.

I caught Crazy Rich Asians over the weekend.  It was exactly the kind of cotton candy film I was expecting it to be, a Jane Austen meets Singapore elites with a romantic comedy of the sort Austen immortalized centuries ago.  I wasn't expecting too much from the director who gave us G. I. Joe: Retaliation, for instance.  But I caught it with a college buddy and one of my relatives.

It was cute.  That the mother has any psychological nuance at all is entirely because she is played by Michelle Yeoh, who gets the most memorable lines in the whole film when she tells her would-be daughter-in-law that Asian families build things to last while Americans follow their passions, and that the reason she is skeptical that Rachel (the protagonist) may be a good wife for her son is because Americans think first and foremost about their own happiness rather than about what is good for another person or for their family.  Since this is a comedy there's a happy ending because Rachel is willing to compromise out of love for her boyfriend and out of consideration that the would-be mother-in-law she thought was against her had better reasons for being skeptical about her family history than she realized (there's a subplot in which Rachel discovers her mother has hidden the truth about the nature of her ancestry in a way that would be considered shameful, even unacceptable to a traditional Asian family of a sort Americans don't tend to care about in the 21st century).

But for all that and for the coverage about how thoroughly Asian the cast is and how well-received the film is ... the soundtrack.

There are songs in Asian languages but I picked out a Madonna song, an Elvis song, the inevitable (alas) Coldplay song (the most obvious one and I won't even name it because the title just jars if you type it out on the page for a movie like this ... ). 

Ian Pace has blogged in the past about the ubiquity of Anglo-American pop music and it might be a sign of how pervasive it is that the soundtrack for a film by Asian Americans about Asian and Asian American experience is still, nevertheless, saturated with the whitest of all possible Anglo-American pop songs because, let's face it, Madonna, Elvis and Coldplay are all pretty white as pop music goes.  It's not that the soundtrack was exactly bad, the whole movie was kind of a rambunctious rambling music video and not necessarily even in an altogether bad way.  But, still, Anglo-American pop songs are all I can remember from the soundtrack. 

That and Michelle Yeoh's a superstar and one of the main reasons I watched the film.  She can't go stunt for stunt with Jackie Chan at her age but she has the screen presence to carry just about any and every scene she's in.  I don't know if Americans necessarily appreciate her because it's not like the Bond movie she was in was really any good but so it goes.  One of the fun parts about living in Seattle is I have a much better chance of catching films from Asia than I would living elsewhere even on the West coast.  I'm not saying you'll necessarily enjoy Miike's bananas Blade of the Immortal adaptation but up here in Seattle it was possible to see it the handful of weeks it was showing.

A brief thought about the success of Black Panther and the apparent initial success of Crazy Rich Asians, the popularity of these films has something to do with them being fun but let's not overlook the explicitly aristocratic/elite aspect of these tales.  If there's a reason for people to be a bit skeptical about intersectionality it's not so much that we should doubt the sincerity of folks who are concerned about repressive or oppressive behavior.  I, at any rate, can grant that point.  My concern is that it seems that the sorts of folks to write ad infinitum about privilege tend to not recognize the privilege inherent in their being able to do so.  My electrician friends and friends who work in construction have never heard of anybody from the Frankfurt school and wouldn't know or care how critical theory informs collegiate discussions about the Western canon.  On the other hand, the kinds of academic turf wars that wax and wane these days can leave me feeling that the aristocracies at hand are just fine, super, even, provided every substratum of the visible light spectrum is present in the ruling elites as depicted in popular culture.

Don't get me wrong, I thought Black Panther was a ton of fun and was happy to watch it more than once.  After all the quippy smart-ass superhero motormouths T'Challa's righteous earnestness to the point of being a stick in the mud was thoroughly refreshing!  But then I like that Black Panther and Batman take what they do seriously because they take the fact that if they make the wrong calls people pointlessly die seriously.  Which is another way of saying these are the sorts of aristocrats who recognize that they can ruin the lives of people as well as save lives so they have to think about what they do.

In the excitement about films like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians let's not forget that these are films about aristocracies even if they are not the default white heteropatriachal aristocracies that may be popular to thoroughly blast a la Jeong-style in some quarters.  Let's also not forget, those of us who saw the latest release, that even with so much going for a film about Asian American and Asian experiences it's kind of remarkable for me to consider that the only musical cues I can remember from the entire film are the Anglo-American pop songs. 

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