July 8, 2006

Time, That Tasty Donut: 4 Convolutions of Jackson 5

In 1989, this was unthinkable. Sure, an aspiring R&B boy band might cover a Jackson 5 tune to flesh out their sophomore effort with a third single, but who, without the assistance of strong psychotropic drugs, could imagine a Korean post-rock band covering an American instrumental hip-hop track that reworked said Jackson 5 tune? (Not me, I was 7 years old.)

The result is impressive, musically speaking. But it's also more than that. Bulssajo's version of "Time: The Donut of the Heart" is a neat example of the way that American culture is/was digested in Korea. In general, one expects certain Western styles to emerge in Asia second hand. Korea opened to the West in the '90s and thus, to oversimplify, received both Jackson 5 and J Dilla simultaneously. Much of popular American culture was consumed vertically rather than horizontally. Take punk rock for example.

In 1998, Tim Tangherlini, Professor of Asian Languages and Culture at UCLA, went to Korea to explore the emerging punk rock scene. The result was a documentary, Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community and a solid scholarly article, Anarchy in the UK, Solidarity in the ROK. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Tangherlini conducted by Meg Sullivan.
Tangherlini was particularly fascinated by the speed with which a single culture was digesting a whole musical tradition — albeit a contemporary one. Thanks to the liberalization of restrictions on rock music, nightclubs and foreign travel, the Internet and such music file-sharing services as Napster, South Korean youth in the 1990s enjoyed unfettered access for the first time to foreign rock, he explained.

“They got all of punk rock history at once — the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Nirvana,” Tangherlini said. “It was like being in London or New York in 1978 and Seattle in the mid-80s, all at the same time.”
The corollary of this phenomenon is that if you're a Korean punker you needn't cite The Clash as an influence if you actually like Green Day better. A recent New York Times article included a quote from a young girl describing China, in it's love of Korean pop culture, as not postmodern enough for Sex and the City. I'd argue that Korea, and possibly urban China as well, has leapt straight over post-modernity into a phase outside time: meta-modernity. (The grad school bs-ing has officially begun.)

In this leap—a moment and an eternity—Green Day becomes The Clash. And this de-emphasis on originality, or "date of origin," is not limited to the sphere of popular music. Take fashion for example. If you grew up in Korea and first encountered ripped jeans in the late '90s, the difference between wearing through a pair of Levi's yourself, buying a pre-worn pair from a thrift store, and buying a pre-torn pair from Urban Outfitter's is minimized. It's much harder to argue for the authenticity of any particular band or style if you receive all bands and styles at once. After all, what does time matter if it's just a donut, if it just loops around on itself?

At the same time, you can't simply plead ignorance. Bulssajo represents a thoughtful approach to embodying the vertical consumption of culture, an approach that creates new possibilities ("make[s] it new") by paying attention to details. Their Jay Dilla cover suggests that when the donut of time is squashed, when a song's sections, intro and chorus, are folded together, when music history is compressed into a single moment, the original guises of authenticity (older, rarer, etc.) cease to be important. International borders disappear when everything good is everything to everyone.

Selecting a genre, or a history of influences, also becomes less important. Bulssajo's guitarist, who DJ's in his free time, is influenced equally by JD and the original J5; the band itself equally by Yo La Tengo and Velvet Underground. Unburdened by the history of western music, they aren't ashamed of the recency of their idols. And by condensing them all to a single point—by mixing rather than layering—they have no trouble looking fit to eat two dozen more while downing the entire first donut in a single bite. An infinite, and grossly beautiful, eating contest of sorts.

More Bulssajo here.

1 comment:

dan said...

The Roots' 'Can't Stop This' samples Dilla's 'Time: Donut of the Heart', as well. Might wanna write an addendum?