Auditory Tourism: Pop in Nam
e’re in a café in downtown Saigon, where the lights are dim and recessed and the artwork is all cubist replicas and the piped-in music maintains a strict orthodoxy of lugubrious candy-pop. Every other song is a paler, nameless shade of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart.” The setup on the narrow stage—leather-sleeved bass, Yamaha classical guitar, bongos and a white baby grand piano—hint at the live schmaltz that will soon occur. In an American college town, it might have a set of devout patrons that venerated its totally awesome piano and the opportunity to wear feather boas. But in Saigon the ambience (cubism and white baby grand aside) is standard issue. The entire country seems saturated in soupy pop, awash in weepy ballads, drowning in tear-drenched duets. It’s simultaneously eerily familiar and stickily strange, like a gingerbread model of your parent’s house, or discovering that that kid in Parenthood is in fact a young Joaquin Phoenix.
It begins, inevitably, in airports. We were trying to fly standby on a sequence of fully-booked flights. Due to a Daylight Savings miscalculation, we arrived at the airport a full hour earlier than we planned. The entire airport was closed and the doors locked. We snoozed on the benches outside, but were up as soon as the doors opened. It may have been the ungodliness of the hour and the relative emptiness of the hall, but the ubiquitous muzak—tinny, shrill, second-cousin to the acidic fluorescent light—drew harmonics from the distant check-in desks, and a mysterious treble frequency that pinched the eyebrows and caused our bottled water to sweat even faster. For possibly the first time in my life, I have a yearning for a decent fake-string take on “Yesterday,” or anything that will stay comfortably in the background and break the strident monotony of the spawn-of-Mariah-and-Celine.
In our hotels, in a possible bid for tourist-friendly authenticity, the piped-in pop is local, or at least regional. Which is to say that I can’t understand the words. Pop singers traditionally treat their lyrics gently, but these lyrics are framed by consonants as soft as a leaky airbed. It’s a blessed relief and has the unwonted effect of making the songs sound much classier than their English-language counterparts, despite the overwhelming drippy sonic consistency. The performances are lachrymose – the singers’ standard mode sounds like manfully (or womanfully) fighting back ardent tears. With no need for translation, you can hear the clenched fists, the beaten breast, the swooning backing dancers. The wind machine in the hair and the eyes squinting against it. There is an almost supernatural purity to the voices, which come close to being entirely textureless, like the fake silk we’ve been warned against buying in tailor’s shops. (The guidebook recommends testing your purchases beforehand by burning a piece of the material in question. We were too embarrassed to try.) It’s as heartbreakingly earnest as anything since Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” and as emotionally super-charged as Vietnamese weather, which specializes in the kind of heat and humidity that makes a walk-in refrigerator sound like an expensive spa treatment.
All of which makes you wonder about the parochial history of the pop song format. It occurs to me that Vietnam has no history of guitar music: no folksingers, no bluesmen, no guitar heroes. Robin Williams may have spun Hendrix and the Stones on Good Morning Vietnam, but you can hardly blame the Vietnamese if they weren’t paying much attention. The Western music on the local MTV channel (which is shown during the complimentary breakfast hour) skews heavily to sodden whiteboy à la Blunt-Keane-Coldplay. But then so does much of the world. Still… is it unreasonable to wish for something with a smidgen more teeth, just once in a while? Is rock in Vietnam like country in Britain, an exotic graft that just won’t take? What do people listen to (or record) when they’re angry, or horny, or happy?
Even the Western transplants seem shorn of irony, as though it was taken from them at Customs. Hans, the German innkeeper on the island, does a good impression of a man with absolutely no imagination at all. Despite working here for eight months a year for the last decade or so, he doesn’t speak Vietnamese, talks about the locals primarily in suspicious tones, and hasn’t traveled anywhere else in Vietnam. He doesn’t have a preference for beers. He eats the European options on the immense menu. Everything, all questions, elicit a shrug and a deep “Well...” and equivocation. He listens to 80s lad rock. We while away our evenings watching the moonlit surf through the palm trees and listening to deep cuts of Meat Loaf.
Vietnam national TV boasts four channels. Based on my sampling, one channel is devoted to live song and dance numbers. Usually the stage is decorated with big signs announcing corporate sponsorship, shining ‘HONDA’ or ‘Samsung’ directly behind the singers’ heads or under their feet. For all I can tell it may actually be called “Vietnamese Idol”: the language is thoroughly opaque and to my dull Anglicized eye seems, impossibly, to be composed of the same six or seven 3-letter syllables mysteriously rearranged. The dance numbers have a titillating cultural bent—willowy ladies in gaudy, sumptuous dress, smiling and swaying to oriental strings. The singing betrays no cultural heritage whatsoever, only the pure language and universal symbolism of pop—eyes rolled upwards and squeezed closed, sweeping hand gestures and well-shaved armpits, cute turns and tossed heads, immense crescendos, slack sax solos, even (once) a mirrored jacket. My surprise is two-fold: that these musical tropes, which to my culturally chauvinist tastes seem so uniquely and god-awfully Western, survive cultural translation and are so little transformed by it, and that the lowest common denominator dominates so thoroughly. I begin to fear that this is pop Darwinism, freed of the artificial need for novelty that has Western pop in a manic spin cycle (“new rave” already when I’ve only just begun to enjoy the demise of the old rave). Is Vietnamese TV the true face of pop?
One of our final excursions in Vietnam was east to Halong Bay where hundreds and hundreds (our guide says 1,976, but he doesn’t say who counted) of tiny islands protrude just above the water’s surface. Up close they look like models, like jungled soundstages dressed up to film an episode of “Lost”: lush green foliage tumbling downwards anywhere the rocks are less than vertical, clinging to the oblique geologic slashes in the rock faces. I have never seen a more dramatic or beautiful meeting of land and sea. In the evening, as the temperature slid gently down towards the humane range and the light turned chromatic above the gathered islands, I joined the rest of the expedition on the roof deck to restring my tiny travel guitar whose strings were rusted solid from the humid salt air.
Unexpectedly, the deep calm is broken by a blast of cheap trance music. In our heat daze, it took us a while (and several indignant looks around the bay) before we realized that the sound originated in the dining room below us. The crew had apparently decided that our appreciation of the bay needed sonic augmentation, and it took some effort to persuade them that No, we were really fine without the thumping, Thanks. Later that night, I played an old Suzanne Vega song, the two Aussies sang “My Old Man’s a Dustbin” and our Vietnamese guide sang a Vietnamese a cappella love song in a fragile, lacy voice. About ten minutes later the memory is obliterated when the shrimp boat across the bay fires up an immense two-stroke generator to power its klieg-light lures.