Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Passion of the Kitty-Hunter

Today is an important day. No, not referring to Kevin Rudd’s second stint as Australian Prime Minister, at the expense of Julia Gillard. We’re talking about the end of the McDonald’s Singapore Hello Kitty promotion.

McDonald’s Singapore always has excellent marketing machinery. Their messaging, timing, promotions and deals reflect something about the team that is better than your ordinary marketing team. Although some may see it as a privilege, it is even more challenging when your target market is what appears to be the masses (but in fact, it’s more of a heterogeneous mix of demographies with varying aspirations and behaviours).

And with one snap of a finger signalling the start of a 5-week campaign, the Hello Kitty promotion proves to be a major catalyst for that familiar craze that occasionally sweeps our sunny (or hazy) shores.

There were long queues, formed way ahead of the promotions that started at 12am. There were those with an entrepreneurial eye, who seek to sell their collected Kitties for a profit. There were queue-cutters and even the police was called. Of course, we’re nowhere near the glass-shattering shenanigans of the 2000 Hello Kitty promotion.

Because of these episodes, immortalised through media and conservations, we have come to conclusions about the “ugly” side of Singaporeans. We are kiasu, petty, ungracious, opportunistic and have a warped sense of self-entitlement. The list goes on.

At the same time, don’t you think it is really too convenient to direct attention and adjectives to a strange and uncommon phenomenon – as it appears to be misaligned with how we want and aspire Singaporean-ness to be?

I noticed some Singaporeans criticising and ridiculing others for battling the haze and displaying uncharacteristic patience by queuing up at odd hours for the Hello Kitties, attempting to provide sociological and psychiatric explanations for the phenomenon, tinted with negativity, and later distance themselves as wiser and trend-immune persons from the crazed “masses”.

For the record, I got 3 Hello Kitties from this campaign and waited 5-10 minutes for each of them. My daughter plays with them, so they’re worth it. I attempted to get the fourth one, but was put off by the snaking queues and rumbling tummy.

So, having been on both sides, I think there’s no need to take the “know it better” higher ground to ridicule those who queue for the Hello Kitties. Most of the Kitty-hunters are peacefully queuing up and generally not exhibiting any anti-social behaviour.

The episode presents an interesting yet overlooked sociological insight – the fascination with the uncommon and the disruptive. Little to no attention is given to the mundane, because of how deeply we are immersed into it and how we continue to implicitly and overtly sustain it.

For a change, why not let’s focus our sociological imagination and discourse analysis lenses on the persons who attempt to rationalise in such a way to impress upon others the claim of moderation, well-adjusted-ness, measured-ness and normal-ness in attitude and behaviour? The claim of being “normal” also empowers one to use behavioural and social mechanisms to other-ise and stigmatise.

There is an impatience, a sense of urgency and at times a very conscious effort to claim to be a normal and moderate person. But why?

For the Kitty-hunters, their behaviour and actions do say something about our consumerist culture, among other wider phenomena. But that doesn't mean that those who toe the lines of measured-ness and mundanity with attempts at impressions of well-adjusted-ness, are themselves not symptomatic of similar or other types of phenomena (obviously) related to modern urban life in Singapore.

I think it is just too convenient to use the truckload of theories to (re)frame, (re)rationalise and (re)imagine the Hello Kitty craze. It is also convenient to link it to our social, cultural, economic, material, historical, political, geographical or sexual conditions.

On the other side (bad binarist assumption, but heck), what is it about the conditions that underpin the claims to normal-ness and the overt rejection of consumerism and fetishism? Is the repeated and almost ritualistic claim to and exhibiting of normal, moderate and generally socially conformist behaviour or even claims to “good taste” not fetishistic? Are these claims and behaviours not reflecting a state of being subjected to larger middle-class urban discourses (oops, falling outside sociology here)?

In other cases, there are people who are quick to claim to be heterosexual and cisgendered. There are those are desperate to claim they are moderate. There are those who attempt to laugh a little less harder at a really dirty joke.

“Because normal people don’t do that!”

That means, do “normal” people subject themselves to more disciplinary mechanisms and prevailing/dominant discourses which produce and re-produce marginalities and of course paradoxes? Now that is very shaky ground to be on.

In fact, most Kitty-hunters reproduce the norms in their quest for the promotion. The queues, the smartphone time-killing entertainment, the passive demeanour while queuing  and the displays (generally) of patience. Most of them don’t actively seek to be different as a life of normalcy awaits them after the extra value meal purchase. But they become subjects of exercises by people who seek to internalise (link to psychology and psychiatric conditions) and externalise (link to wider phenomena and institutions) this behaviour.

The mundane is never sexy, never attractive, so we tend to question it less. That means, we end up taking it for granted, and normalising it in the process.

Well, think about it. If you thought "Does that mean we're all freaks and perverts?", all I can say is "You say one ah! I never say anything ah, I never say ah!"

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Save my world, Saving Gaia, Saving music

Amidst the NEA-WP hawker centre saga, the dengue situation (please do your part, guys) and the government's move to control the web, there is something that deserves far greater attention.

You're right! I'm talking about that irritating campaign song from Saving Gaia. As Mediacorp puts it, it's a Mediacorp initiative.

Initiative. Check.
Thought put into songwriting. Hmmm.

First off, I find it difficult to connect with the music video, since I'm not a skinny middle-class electric car-driving ah beng who's trying to taunt you into better environmental ownership.

"NOW IT'S TIME..."
"No! Sorry sir. Sorry! I thought I paid my protection money last month liao!"
"NO NO NO... NOW IT'S TIME TO CHANGE!"

And since we're into ah beng cultural imaginings fueled by nostalgic stereotypes...
KWA SIMI KWA? AI XIO PAK AH?
YOU NEVER RECYCLE! KNN LI SI LIAO!
*flips the table and runs to a nearby hedge to retrieve a 20-inch parang*

Might as well have a video that shows a person who litters and is later set upon by a gang of 6-7 teens armed with sharp plastic combs, pocket knifes and parangs, chanting "GAO SAH GAO! GAO SAH GAO!" (the last three numbers of Mediacorp's postal code, what were you thinking?) to promote civic consciousness and environmental awareness.

No wonder those back-up kids are shitting their pants, and on the vocals. I'd rather just have a couple of kids sing the song, solo, duet, whatever.

Musically, this year's version is as bad as the previous. It's bland and reeks of the contrived attempt to use hip-hop so that the random teenager on the street will suddenly open his/her eyes and exclaim, "WOW hip-hop! That is something I sure can identify with! *wink*"

Kudos to MDA and their use of hip-hop to connect with the younger generation, because everyone in that demography sure as hell listens to hip-hop and speak like they're from the 'hood, ya'll.

At least the first Saving Gaia version, no matter how stomach-churningly awful it was, was a better attempt with some choral singing. Not Corrine May choral, but still there was some attempt at technique. It came across as earnest, but didn't help much with Singaporeans perception and attitudes toward having children. "Damn, the government wants us to have kids and after looking at this video, hell, keep your baby bonus, I'm going DINK! YOLO"

And with this year's video, potential parents will be like, "I'd rather my teenager not separate his recyclables than have that get-up and demeanour in the video."

Since we're on the topic of music, this song is irritating because it has the ingredient of irritation. No, not just the sharp-sounding kids' vocals. It's the melody.

The melody, in C major key signature I believe, is obsessively repetitive in tune and in the use of the C note. Just like the PAP's vice grip on every day Singaporean life, this song clings onto the C note a little too tightly.

Let's look at the pre-chorus melody:
A(la) B(ti) C(do) C(do)
A B C C
A A B C C B B A A G G (holy shit, that's Grammy-standard music there)

And the chorus:
C C B (that's probably how I feel about the song)
C C A
And rinse and repeat.

The melodies for each of the song's movements (verse, pre-chorus and chorus) are all tightly clustered. Only the verse has some range (within an octave but one note shy).

But the irritating factor is, as mentioned, the use of the C note. The pre-chorus builds to nothing and the chorus is anti-climatic. It's far too simple to be a singalong, never mind an anthem.

You want a proper build to a climatic chorus and then begin your chorus with a base note, then use that note (high note) sparingly, rather than abuse it. This songwriting debacle is what makes the song irritating.

And yes, monotonous too. The song is so monotonous it makes Gregorian funeral music sound like a heavy metal cover of an ABBA disco song.

No idea who wrote that song. You know what, JJ Lin's Youth Olympic Games cheer/ditty "You are the one, Singapore" is way better and has nuances that are telling of his songwriting pedigree. Some may think it is irritating probably because of its incessant presence, but if you listened carefully to the chord work and songcraft, you can tell a lot more thought has been put into it. Want to write a song that targets the masses next time? Email that guy first, pay him well, listen to him, and not micromanage (the production) too much.

Even one bar of another local song, Count On Me Singapore, has more quality than the entire production of the Saving Gaia song. I like to apologise for using Count On Me Singapore as a comparison, but to elaborate, just look at just the first bar of the chorus, the melody similarly starts with a high note but is climatic and charming, at the same time yearning and aching for something - that's artistry. Next up, the chords (in C major key signature) - F to G/F (before going to C or C/E depending on the rendition of the song). That mere sequence is a touch of class in the whole song.

Ok. Count On Me Singapore chorus' melody begins with G, the fifth note. You want to know about climaxes that begin with the base note (i.e. C)? Look at Fun's We Are Young. The verse and pre-chorus are very understated, which magnifies the crescendo that is the chorus. Not just 1, but 2 Cs to explode into the chorus. Saving Gaia has 2  Cs too but the chorus' delivery is as feeble as its build-up.

By the way, (Count On Me Singapore's chorus) G/F means G chord on F, but you could think it's "fucking good".

As for the Saving Gaia song, it is only as good as the first line of its chorus - C C B.