The OF Blog: "Ken Lee," Language, and Pop Culture

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Ken Lee," Language, and Pop Culture

It seems Dubravka Ugresic's Karaoke Culture is inspiring several posts these days.  This one deals with a Bulgarian, Valentina Hasan, who appeared on Bulgarian Idol (itself a progeny of the British and American Idol programs) in 2008 to sing Mariah Carey's "Without You," except Hasan refers to it by part of its refrain, "Ken Lee" (can't live).  This video clip went viral shortly after:

From there, the discussion went from Bulgarian/Balkan channels (Ugresic notes that there was a back and forth between Bulgarian, Turkish, Gypsy, Greek, and Macedonian commentators about which group to which she belonged, with pejoratives and denials of association with Hasan's ethnicity) to French (where TV people try to bait Carey herself into commenting on Hasan's "cover" of her song) to Spanish (which Hasan speaks fluently after living and working in Spain for four years at the time of "Ken Lee") to ultimately English-language YouTube clips, with subtitles superimposed in order for Anglophones to understand what had transpired.

There are several things that can be taken from this.  One is the sadomasochistic quality of the initial event.  We see someone who "bravely" (I believe those were the used used by Carey and others to describe what Hasan does in the first clip) attempts to interpret another's song through an alien idiom.  She does not have a grasp of the lyrics, only of the approximate sounds made by Carey in the original.  Hasan's singing, when reduced to sound replication, actually comes somewhat close to what Carey originally sang.  Listeners familiar with the original likely could recognize Hasan's a capella rendition as being at least an attempt to sing "Without You."  If we stop and think back to when we were trying to learn the lyrics to our favorite songs, chances are high that we (even those of us who speak natively the language being sung) have to hear the song several times before full lyrical comprehension sets in (nearly twenty years later, I would still have to look at a lyrics sheet to understand just what in the world Snow was singing in "Informer").

Hasan's butchering of the lyrical content thus is not surprising when considered in this context.  Ask me to sing "Te ví" (or rather "Un vestido y un amor," which is an easy mistake to make, as Hasan did with her titling of "Without You" as "Ken Lee")   from memory and I will likely produce sounds that might approximate "que llorar o salir a matar" but which would not have the intelligibility of those lyrics for a native Spanish speaker.  In listening to this, it was easy to have sympathy for her attempt and to feel some disgust toward the responses of the judges and of the French host who appears to be baiting Carey into belittling Hasan.

Yet if we look deeper into this, we sense that this performance and the resulting response is part of a larger game.  The various Idol shows draw their family and notoriety not from the Carrie Underwoods or Adam Lamberts that stand out for their singing or showmanship abilities, but for that loser, that dork, that hopeless wannabe that fails.  There is a cruelty about this new pop culture, one which Ugresic notes that people like Valentina Hasan are acting as "both an active consumer of this culture and a potential participant."  We all seek our Warholian 15 minutes of fame, yet we also desire to see the comeuppance of our fellow everyperson competitors.  How easy it is to look at some poor schmuck, say Jersey Shore's The Situation, strut about and act as though his vain shallowness were a desirable trait.  Oh how we might cackle in our minds or to others, "That dumbfuck is going to be on Celebrity Rehab in a few years!"  In today's pseudo-reality culture, where we know the events and characters have been gamed to spark outrage and commiseration despite our inner awareness that this is somehow "fake," homo lupus homini est truly reigns.

In prior generations, faux pas (if we can even call Hasan's butchering a faux pas) were generally localized.  Sure, there might have been some ridicule, yet there was not as great of a sense that those enacting in the ridicule were performing a role in which they, the Greek Chorus of condemnation, might step out and take the place of the tragic hero.  Yet today, these roles are all conflated.  There are few restraints on our ability to make a name for ourselves; even the negative consequence of ridicule has in some quarters become viewed as a sign of validation.  Twenty years ago, Hasan's performance would not have been aired on TV and later on YouTube for tens of millions to experience in a plethora of languages.  If she were to have sung "Ken Lee" back even in the early 1990s, she likely would have received a smattering of "polite applause" and she would have walked off that stage no ironic hero of amateur hour.  That is, of course, if she even felt compelled to go out there and sing for a national or even local audience.  Today, this has changed.  William Hung is now a poster child for a new pop cultural model in which the supremely untalented are as at least as likely to gain some modicum of fame as those who actually can sing or dance worth a damn.  Ugresic views this as one more sign of an emerging global culture in which:

"Valentina, 'the people's princess,' inadvertently carnivalized a body of authority (a Bulgarian television jury [ed.- replete with a female judge who bears more than a passing resemblance to Paula Abdul, it might be noted]), inadvertantly knocked a 'queen' (Mariah Carey, the queen of pop) from her pedestal, and then made one final gaff:  like a modern Eliza Doolittle, she knocked the English language off its pedestal."
Much could be said about this transposition of carnival values into the cultural thoroughfares; after all, who hasn't gawked at the original geeks?  Yet today, it seems the geeks have gained the upper hand.  Performances that were once considered gauche are now heralded for being a symbol of that ultimate transgression, that against the limns between "professional" and "amateur."  The floodgates are open, the bon ton are in full flight, and anarchy may yet rule supreme over what constitutes popular culture.  Interesting times are ahead for us.  We are left only to wonder what will come after the flood.


Bill said...

Interesting analysis, Larry.

I hosted karaoke shows and/or managed sports bars featuring karaoke throughout the 90's and later - even when "American Idol" was referred to as "Star Search."

A few of my "regulars" went on to do something with their talent. Most people of any skill, say 99% of them, remained local and become popular/notable within their own social circles.

There's a fine line between taking ourselves too seriously and then, not seriously enough. I never agreed with the William Hung explosion - it was too much. I'm not sure that I could blame the guy for wanting the attention that he got, but it's not the sort of thing I encouraged.

In short, if someone was good - the audience receives their free concert, et al. If their ego got too big (i.e., "everyone wants to hear me."), I reminded them of the venue. (This is a sports bar, dumbass, not a concert hall. Wait your turn.)

If someone was bad, though, I wouldn't let the audience mock, either. Because the point of karaoke was to be brave, to come out of your self-imposed limitations - bungee jumping for shower singers and ppl with stage fright. I never allowed booing, and I reminded people that it was all about relaxing, having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously.

My roommates watch Jersey Shore, and I cringe. I can't watch American Idol (etc.), for the same reason. The producers highlight the painfully awkward moments, without putting the positive spin on it, i.e., it takes courage to take action and most people in the entertainment business are undiscovered and/or out of work anyway.

I'm not comfortable with the shows that go out of their way to make people look bad, without the perspective of the courage that it took for the people to be in those positions to begin with. As you have implied, I don't think it bodes well for pop culture - and it certainly doesn't reflect well on a society that increasingly prefers to elevate just to humiliate.

What lesson do we teach the generations that follow? Go be an idiot? It increases your chances of popularity, which is all that matters. Ugh. Ridiculous.

rreugen said...

It seems that in our modern understanding of what Culture is we substituted the term Artistic with the term Popular.

Hal Duncan said...

Have you seen the Russell Brand interview on Newsnight from a while back? It's kind of a fascinating self-critique from someone brought up in the new culture, utterly a part of it, but self-aware to a scary level:

Worth a watch if you have a spare fifteen minutes, even if you find him insufferable. Actually, *especially* if you find him insufferable.

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