A “Buffalo Boy” Passes

Obituary | Popular model of the ’80s and Madonna’s protégé, Nick Kamen was pop culture’s definitive pretty boy of that era

Nick Kamen: The career-making photo that made it to the January 1984 cover of The Face. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

One of the most striking faces associated with UK fashion and pop music of the ’80s Nick Kamen has passed away, according to reports in the British media. Mr Kamen succumbed to bone marrow cancer at home in his flat in Notting Hill, West London. A family friend confirmed to the BBC that he died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with the illness. He was reportedly diagnosed four years ago, and had largely kept quiet about his ailment. Despite the fame of his younger days, Mr Kamen led a relatively low-key live in the past 10 years or so, almost entirely away from the spotlight. He was 59.

Nick Kamen started modelling in the early eighties, appearing on Vivienne Westwood’s runway shows, but he was a relative unknown until he was discovered by the legendary British stylist Ray Petri in late 1983. Born Ivor Neville Kamen in 1962 in the town Harlow of the county of Essex, a “working class” area in Southeast England, his good looks were attributed to his highly mixed ethnicity: Burmese, Irish, Dutch, and English. The Asian connection might have accounted for his “cafe latte skin”, as teen mags of the time liked to describe him. Mr Kamen went to a Roman Catholic secondary school in Harlow, where his formal education ended. In his late teens, he and his brother Barry, who was, later, also a model and (with another brother Chester) a musician, worked in a clothing shop in Covent Garden. It was here that the lads met Mr Petri.

Nick Kamen and Madonna in a recording studio. Photo: Sire Records

According to the lore of the ’80s, Mr Petri had gone to the shop to borrow clothes for a shoot. It was that fateful meeting that led to Mr Kamen’s first magazine cover for The Face, an ’80s British title that went into hiatus in 2004. Although it returned as a quarterly and an online edition two years ago, many of today’s readers of e-mags are unlikely to know of The Face and its influence to readers, such as SOTD contributor Raiment Young. “I bought every issue back then,” he told us. “It was a magazine to read, which was not always what mags of the era, way before the World-Wide Web, offered. They covered music raves (which I could only read about) like political rallies! And the covers, always different from the last, were just unlike anything I had seen.” The Face was one of the few that covered emerging sub-cultures and underground scene of that time, putting out covers that were not considered cover material, typical of the Margaret Tatcher years: a visual identity that is exceedingly cool, but not necessarily swinging along with what was fashionable.

Mr Petri had a thing for using unknowns. The images he created was almost entirely his own making, save pressing the shutter button of the camera. His trend-setting photographic partner-in-crime was Jamie Morgan. Together they created an unmistakable aesthetic that The New York times called a “supermarket of styles”. Nick Kamen on The Face issue of 1984 (top) that kicked off the New Year exemplified that mish-mash. Now, we won’t bat an eyelid on styling that appear to imagine a spiffy manager of a ski shop creating his own #OOTD, with a bandaged gash on the right brow, but back then, when designer mania was emerging and Italian, especially, considered the height of chic, the young model looking the way he did was seen as anti-establishment: beanie, military insignia, aviators, and—untypical of magazine covers (Anna Wintour, then creative director at US Vogue before her editorship of the British edition a year later, would have puked)—Band-Aid (like an open inverted comma) and roughly-applied lip balm! This was not the American Gigolo look, made famous by the 1980 film, with costume designed by Giorgio Armani. This was “Buffalo.”

Publicity still during the launch of Every Time You Break My Heart. Photo: Sire Records

Mr Kamen’s ability to embrace realness and defiance so stylishly and, to many, sexily, was his greatest appeal. As soon as he was launched, he became associated with the totally DIY Buffalo style that Ray Petri dreamed up at the time, and with which the stylist (a self-created title, his friends declared) would go on to define British menswear of the ’80s, first at The Face and later at sibling Arena. Buffalo, a word used in the Caribbean to mean boys that were rude and rebellious, was appropriated to be synonymous with fearless self-expression. It became a personal trademark of Mr Petri, and it involved a British clique of mainly guys: fellow stylist Mitzi Lorenz, the photographers Roger Charity, Jamie Morgan, and Cameron McVey (he dated Neneh Cherry, one of the few Buffalo girls, who sang the 1988 hit Buffalo Stance, which sampled from Malcom McClaren’s 1983 track Buffalo Gals), and the crucial models who could express the Buffalo attitude: Wade Tolera; Tony Felix; the 13-year-old Felix Howard (The Face‘s youngest cover model); and, of course, Nick Kamen and his brother Barry.

With Buffalo’s influence stretching across the world, it was Nick Kamen who came to represent the much-touted Buffalo stance, culminating in a career-defining 1985 Levi’s TV commercial that showed him stripped—in a busy launderette—to his white boxers (a now-not-shocking reveal that may have been copped from a Jamie Morgan-lensed fashion spread that appeared earlier—in the March 1985 issue of The Face—when Mr Kamen wore similar white boxers and a black T-shirt under a trench coat). Ringing success embraced the American jeans brand and the British model. It is understandable why Mr Morgan called him “our muse”. Comedian Matt Lucas told the media recently, “If you didn’t have a crush on Nick Kamen in the ’80s, you probably weren’t there.”

Man in skirt, not a shocker now, but back then, scandal-rousing. Styled by Ray Petri. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

The model was one of the earliest of that time to cross successfully over to pop. Mr Kamen’s big break arrived when Madonna came admiring, and handed him the song, Each Time You Break My Heart, one that was omitted from her third album, 1986’s True Blue. The accompanying video, shot by the French fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, featured many of Mr Petri’s coterie of friends/models, including the boy-star Felix Howard (who later appeared in Madonna’s Open Your Heart and Sinitta’s Toy Boy MVs) and Mr Kamen’s girlfriend at that time, American model and 1989 Licenced to Kill’s Bond girl Talisa Soto (later, he also dated another ’80s model, the German Tatjana Patitz). So sure of his singing potential she was that Madonna even did the backing vocals of Each Time You Break My Heart, but Nick Kamen did not have a voice that you’d remember; he wasn’t a Sam Smith. He did, however, have a presence that worked well on stage and, with the emergence of music television (MTV), winsome close-ups. Although some haters of that time referred to his songs as “himbo pop”, he would continue to release another four albums, all with varying degrees of success, but none to equal those by the likes of Rick Astley or Nik Kershaw.

As the telling of most who knew him goes, Mr Kamen was an extremely nice individual, so uncommon a trait in the business of fashion and pop music that stars still remember him by his niceness. Boy George, the first to break the news of his death, posted on Instagram, “RIP to the most beautiful and sweetest man”. Duran Duran’s John Taylor wrote on Twitter, “One of the loveliest and gentlest men I ever met.” Madonna was just as effusive on IG, “You were always such a kind sweet human.” Could Neneh Cherry, three decades earlier, too, have referred to Nick Kamen when she sang in Buffalo Stance, “No money man could win my love. It’s sweetness I’m thinking of”?

Her Power

Billie Eilish’s new single from her upcoming second album has immense force and pull

By Ray Zhang

Every time I listen to Billie Eilish I have to remind myself that she’s nineteen. Barely out of her adolescence, she’s not supposed to sound like this. Way past my adolescence, I am not supposed to like her (!), or specifically, her music. But I do. Ms Eilish is not, image wise, my cup of teh C kosong. I do, however, like her songs—they have a pull that, by convention, I shouldn’t now enjoy—when I am supposed to be in reminiscent mode and collecting old Kean albums in vinyl! Her first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? of 2019 really caught me the way teens releasing first albums almost never do. Like my colleague Mao Shan Wang, it took me quite a while to intensely enjoy Miley Cyrus, and it wasn’t until her much later, later albums and The Backyard Sessions that really got me hooked. That girl can sing. And Billie Eilish too. And neither just for the tween-aged.

The voice is always important to me. I am never into voices that scream, roar, or belt. Or that are desperate to be cute. I like it when they don’t sound forced, as if in participation of some vocal Olympics or a jam session where the crooners are clearly out of their league. I understand why there is so much hooha about Joanna Dong’s (董姿彦) performance at the Star Awards. She over did everything—impress took the place of express. Subtlety is not her style, showing off is. Ms Eilish, by contrast, sings as if to you only, in her ballads, especially. There is an intimacy that is rather uncommon in the Idol-era bombast. She does not make dramatic note leaps, but within the gentle coos of an ungirlish-sounding tone, I can hear that she uses her voice in a skillful and nuanced way. Her vocal ability does not attempt to outpace the music, and it works rather well with minimal arrangements. Such as her latest single.

Early this week, Ms Eilish announced through social media that she will be releasing her sophomore album Happier Than Ever in July. Since then fans have been expecting a teaser by way of a single. They didn’t have to wait long. Your Power is for the woke generation, a ballad with folksy undertones that draws you in. Against a rather spare arrangement, with strummy guitars, rather than fierce electronica, Your Power is for waking up to, for drive time, and for going to bed with. It is not for pre-club hours or to get you moving your hips while readying to go out or while doing housework. I find its simplicity not quite so simple, and extremely refreshing, as in her Bond theme No Time to Die. Both Ms Eilish and producer/co-writer brother Finneas have a flair for tunes. The lilt and the legato are nothing like what’s recorded these days; the hummability is easy to catch on, but maybe not; the accessibility not quite Taylor Swift. I feel I am listening to a follow-up to the lush Everything I Wanted. While much of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was tethered to teenage angst, Your Power is a far more grown-up confrontation with the real difficulties and threats young women have to navigate in the world of entertainment, and beyond.

Lyrically, Ms Eilish, now all-blonde and big enough to let a python curl around her, sounds like she grew up too soon in the glare of the spotlight and in the company of music-exec creeps. Your Power broaches the IRL prevalence of sexual abuse, especially by an older, abler person. The words suggest a scumbag in similar business that Ms Eilish is in: “Will you only feel bad if it turns out they kill your contract?” If only more women—the way-to-young as well: “She was sleeping in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class”—will take the senior, more powerful person on! And to protest sooner than later: “How dare you and how could you?” Despite the dismay and anger, she is aware of her own vulnerability (as well as others in similar positions): “I thought that I was special, you made me feel/ Like it was my fault you were the devil”. This isn’t being only woke, it is being awake too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Screen grab: YouTube

A Good Let Down

Paris Jackson’s debut single is surprisingly listenable. And she didn’t have to take after her dad Michael

Paris Jackson doesn’t sound like a Jackson, not one bit—not vocally, not musically, and therein possibly lies her peculiar appeal. Nor, does she even look like a Jackson even when her father has unusually fair skin for a black man (attributed to vitiligo), which, to us, possibly gives her an edge. With her debut single let down (lower case her choice), she showed that she can go the musical route her own adult way. There isn’t the necessity to reach into her father’s back catalogue. And she need not ride on her family name, or the reputation of the King of Pop.

We really didn’t expect this. The eldest child of a child-prodigy dad really chose her own path. Unlike the youngest member of the Jackson 5, she took her time, starting rather late (her father’s career as a soloist began when he was 13. She’s now 22). As an artiste, she did not grow up in the presence of an adoring audience. Lyrically this is a rather a teenaged view of love lost, and but musically, it has a maturity that brings to mind Billie Eilish. We are not familiar with Ms Jackson’s influences, but it seems she is—at least for now—staying clear of the R&B much associated with the legacy of the paternal side of her family. Or, the two famous aunts.

When we first heard let down—from the up-coming debut LP Wilted, we thought of Sophie Zelmani (whose Going Home was covered by Faye Wong as Passenger [乘客] in the 2003 album To Love [将爱]). In that sense, the sound is rather European, compared to those of her American peers releasing first albums. Co-written with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, the song surprisingly avoids a catchy dance hook or Thriller kind of hard edge, preferring strumming guitars and the gentle swell of rather lush orchestration. The sum borders on what might be considered trendy melancholy pop. With the name Jackson in mind, it takes a while to get used to her somewhat wispy voice (her father, for sure, isn’t exactly known for his deep power vocals). But Paris Jackson sings with conviction and the pleasing tune quickly wins us over.

The accompanying video isn’t visually ground-breaking stuff and Ms Jackson offers no impactful sartorial statement, unlike, again, Billie Eilish. She wears (to a ball?) vaguely Victorian gowns—seemingly corseted—and a prairie dress (or two) that suggests lounge wear of another era than what has been popular during pandemic lockdowns. And how the nose ring fits isn’t clear. Ms Paris has been a model (and still is), but she has not (yet) been a fashion darling. Gucci clearly hasn’t invited her to appear in their films-as-fashion-show. It is, however, possible that she may make a mark through her music—if listeners don’t find her a let down.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Screen grabs: Paris Hilton/Vevo

Hip-Hop Flop

Was Versace selling fashion or music?

 

Versace SS 2021 P1

Sure, in the age of e-fashion presentations, lines are often blurred. Since fashion and music go hand in hand like a needle and thread, they do often come together to make some noise, although if the music is sweet is another matter. Versace, like other brands, have decided to play this easy pairing up. They chose to work with the British rapper from Ladbroke Grove, AJ Tracey and the Sudanese-American model Anok Yai (who considered Carine Roitfeld writing in an Instagram post about her—“Anok is not a black woman, she is my friend”—as “insensitive”) to create a music video. And in doing so, they targeted two birds with one stone, simultaneously shining the spotlight on black creatives—an on-trend theme.

AJ Tracey and his companion arrived at the filming venue, both already togged in Versace, which raised the possible that the music video was backed by the brand. He got to pick whatever he wanted to wear and proceeded to meet the other participants of the video, primarily Anok Yai. The singing and recording proceeded, he doing his thing, she doing hers, both with no contact that can be considered friendly nor communication electric. The video might lure fans of the rapper, but fashion folks won’t be impressed by the model. We were suddenly nostalgic for George Michael’s Freedom! ’90.

Versace SS 2021 P2

Versace has always had a deep relationship with hip-hop stars that goes back to the late Tupac walking the brand’s runway, even singing, in the 1995 Hit Em Up, “now it’s all about Versace, you copied my style”. A year later, he wore a  black double-breasted Versace suit with pronounced shoulders to the 38th Grammy Awards. And then everyone else that mattered, from Jennifer Lopez to Kanye West to P. Diddy, were linked to the house of the Medusa head. Even Vogue declared back in 2015 that “Versace and hip-hop have the ultimate love affair”.

When a fashion season is bereft of fashion, what Versace showed only augmented that perception. Music, however catchy, even sung by the latest rap hottie, will not be able to stand in for the clothes—or the lack of them. Presented was a “Flash collection”, showing the few (preview number?) pieces that would be available for sale online next month. Donatella Versace appeared in the video to welcome the star artiste, but not to introduce or explain the ideas behind the collection. Personal appearance is always useful in advertising, and she knew it. Perhaps, with the designer showing up, we can add one more look to the video’s sad total of less than a dozen.

Screen grab: versace.com

Chromatica: An Oddly Retro Album

Lady Gaga’s just-released new material sounds like a pastiche from the past

 

Lady Gaga Stupid Love videoLady Gaga suitably attired for a pandemic-era music video. Screengrab: Lady Gaga/YouTube

Lady Gaga does move fast. She has gone from Bad Romance to, now, Stupid Love. She’s switched from dueting with Tony Bennett to, now, Elton John (both consistently still older—much older—men). She’s pushed from dance-pop to lounge jazz and, now, back to dance-pop. She has electrified from blond to, now, pink. One thing is certain, though: Lady Gaga is always there with you in your darkest hour, when you’re down, rejected, prejudiced against, and with the kind of clothes that, as usual, threaten to overshadow her message, if not her music. In addition, now, there are the “kindness punks”!

Watching her newest music video, Stupid Love, is like viewing a sci-fi B-movie, complete with schlock-y story line, fake planetary sets, vinyl-plasticky costumes, but without an Attack of the 50ft Woman. Lady Gaga looked like Ariana Grande doing Lady Gaga doing Ariana Grande. (Incidentally, Ms Grande duets with the former in the track Rain on Me.) The Born This Way chart-topper dances with the same energy that she always projects, but now with a cheerfulness and bounce once associated with Debbie Gibson.

20-05-31-23-48-53-670_decoSoaked during inclement weather, Lady Gaga in Rain on Me. Screen grab: Lady Gaga/YouTube

A Lady Gaga performance is enjoyed for both songs and costumes, and in Stupid Love, fans won’t be disappointed. Chromatica is not a about colour nor, in the case of the singer’s profession, about modifications of normal musical scales. The title of her sixth studio album is apparently the name of a planet that “rots on conflict”. And on it, inhabitants, formed by “many tribes”, dress and dance fabulously, “while the Spiritual ones pray and sleep for peace” and the Kindess Punks fight for Chromatica”. It is not clear who Lady Gaga is in this motley population, but she does dress to look like some futuro-chieftain. Her dancers—fellow Chromaticans?—surprisingly nearly threatened to outdo her. Accessorised to the hilt, they are in Victoria’s Secrets fabulousness, Mad Max madness, eco-warrior juggle greens, and, incongruently, a few shower-curtain caftans Andre Leon Talley would definitely approve.

Lady Gaga’s albums are not known for their conceptual heft. Visually, perhaps, but not musically. The Fame is indeterminate reputation than solid output, Artpop is more pop than art, just to name two. All along it’s her image (as before, conceived and styled by partner-in-crime Nicola Formichetti) and the danceability of her songs that conduce to her success. Chromatica is a clear extension of what she has been doing, save the rather protracted jazz interlude (with the Sound of Music thrown in for good measure). For those seeking the moderately experimental from an artiste that’s musically straight-forward, this album is the vanilla among tubs of cookie dough/cherry/chocolate snap-studded.

Chromatica cover art work

Cover art of Chromatica. Photo: Lady Gaga

Perhaps we were hoping for a tad more. With repeated listening, the album sounds uneven, as if begging for a remix. A nod to disco—between 1980 to 1995?—is clear enough, but the sonic imagery swings from the droning beat/base of Lipps Inc.’s Funky Town in 911 to the faint Shibuya groove of Sour Candy (with Blackpink guesting and its vogue-able chorus). Lady Gaga, as critics have constantly reminded us, can sing. Yet, most of the tracks depend, again, on what sounds like vocoder-tweaked vocals to ventriloquially transmute her singing into some robo-high expression. Repeatedly heard too are bass lines and electro-riffs that we have come to associate with a certain anthemic, hip-swaying, head-bobbing pop that the tribe of Bengs and Lians enjoy.

Albums drenched in dance beats could be an antidote to the present climate. “This is my dance floor I fought for,” Lady Gaga sings on Free Woman (with a chorus that reminds us of Ultra Naté’s 1997 hit Free). At a time still a lock down for many, listeners may share her dance floor too. Chromatica is, for a generation of quarantined party-goers, the soundtrack of Zoom happy hours. 

Reprise: Listening To Another ‘Home’

A nation in song earlier this evening, but some of us aren’t moved. Do we have to be?

 

TH Home album

By Raiment Young

It has been a grey day, but the evening is not a natural progression of the day-time gloominess into sedative twilight. The night looks agreeable, with a discernible petrichor of earthy familiarity and an increasing darkness, dappled with leftover blue that struggles to express. Still, there is a sureness that seems to agree with what American school teacher Jeb Dickerson observed, “A setting sun still whispers a promise for tomorrow”.

If this night has a social media account, I’d sent it a Friend Request. But this night, with a digital life or not, has many others to connect with than to address my pointless entreaty. Sing Together Singapore was just broadcast, a roughly six-minute crepuscular chorus, led by Dick Lee and digitally patched to encourage citizens to sing the pop-track-turn-national-song Home in the quiet of night. Communicating via social media in song has gained traction during this pandemic, affirming, once again, that not only is our life increasingly connected, it is so by means of entertainment, or what is entertaining. More and more, the unconnected and unentertained self is too lonely a dwelling.

I’m replacing Dick Lee with Terry Hall, supplanting one Home by another, a 22-year-old song by a 26-year-old album. Terry Hall’s Home accompanied me through the early years of my professional life. Formerly of the Coventry band The Specials, Mr Hall was the indie-pop act with a jaunty vibe and a jangly sound that, post-Brit-synth-pop, I found greatly appealing. Looking back, I hear a sparkling optimism that seems right for today.

DL & co

Before I could past track three, Dick Lee Peng Boon (李迪文) appeared on my TV screen as sprightly as he usually is, attired as if ready to be subject of a Warhol portrait. When he spoke, “Hello, Singapore…”, I kept waiting for it to end with “weather report brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric”. As he was looking rather closely into what I assumed to be a webcam, he loomed a little larger than what I normally would find comfortable. Even newscasters don’t fill the viewable space to this extent (maybe BBC’s Rico Hizon). Or, was it because I was not sure having a hi-def familiar stranger in my living room, close-up-as-backdrop, singing Home the umpteenth time could be deemed conducive to my stay-home well-being.

I like to think it’s Home fatigue, but I’m not alluding to cabin fever. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Frankly, I’m sick of it. For some reason, the song has never struck me in a way it has others, or the nation. I like the original Kit Chan (陈洁仪) version of 1997/98 in that it was then not sung with nationalistic fervour to rally a people. Ms Chan has one of those warm voices that is beguiling, especially in lower registers. No one who sang Home after her has come close to the intimacy and tenderness that she imbued the song with. Not even Dick Lee himself, now leading the eight-person sing-a-long, not as a choir master but as the leader of cheer leading, and that was what Sing Together Singapore essentially was.

Home will have its place it the history of national songs, but will it leave a legacy in the pop domain? As a pop tune, it ticks the boxes for simplicity of lyrics, structure, and melody. This is as karaoke-friendly as any Canto-pop hit. Yet it has the anthemic mark of songs that can be sung nationally by a sizeable mass, with a manageable tessitura to match. But as with many chart-toppers, Home has outlived its freshness—its sentimentality is beginning to feel tiresome, and its repeated broadcast, especially the singing with comely comradeliness, is on the verge of annoying. I’m not even sure that the broadcast of Sing Together Singapore is providential. How has the exercise made us forget that much of our island is still pestiferous? Of is it, as one media outlet posed, “empty distraction from meaningful action”?

DL

Seeing only a handful of waving torches outside my window, I think of what I would really like to hear. It’s odd that when it comes to songs that can move a nation, we consider only those by the self-styled Son of SG Dick Lee. At the time he was a prolific songwriter, someone else too was managing quite an impressive musical output, the far more percipient Liang Wenfu (梁文福). And one particular song—easy to sing too—I now desire to hear again in these bleak days is the up-lifting Catch the Sunrise with Me (陪我看日出) from 2005, sung by the now mostly forgotten Joi Chua (蔡淳佳). Mr Liang was the lyricist for this track, and the hard-warming narrative that speaks of a better tomorrow—sun after the rain—seems more befitting of the present climate than the reminder of self and nation in Home: “The rain has fallen, walk carefully, I shall remember these words/However hard the wind blows, good blessings will not be carried away with it/After the rain, there would be a way for us to see the sunrise as in the year past (雨下了走好路这句话我记住/风再大吹不走祝福/雨过了就有路像那年看日出).

Admittedly, this (literal) translation captures not the nuances, imagery, and positivity that Mr Liang intended. And not many may consider xinyao heavy with schoolyard innocence—however evocative of our home—not Home enough to sing on a national level. If Dick Lee’s contribution to our city’s catalogue of patriotism-stirring songs must be sung, could it not benefit from some rearrangement, if not reimagining? I am thinking of the rousing rendition of Foo Fighters’ Times Like These, initiated by BBC Radio 1’s Stay Home Live Lounge, featuring Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and others. Or the 100-year-old fundraiser Captain Tom Moore’s duet with Michael Ball, singing The Weeknd’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, backed by the staff of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS). The latter, this week, charted at number one. These are not only inspiring, they sing of what Jeb Dickerson wrote with palpable hope (and I reiterate), “a promise for tomorrow”.

I am (still) playing Terry Hall’s Home—on loop, something I have not done since my Spotify subscription of many moons ago. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds (also on my playlist), Home is Mr Hall’s debut album. I was very much drawn to his lyrics, as much as I was a few years earlier, to Stephen Duffy’s for their art-school vim, tinged with Euro-centric swish. On the opening track, Forever J, Mr Hall croons, “Like Isabelle Adjani/She glides by upon a bank of violets…” It is, hopefully, understandable why, for this evening, as a form of escape from the unsettling reality outside, I’m giving “the river which bring us life” and one that “always flows” a decided miss.

Update (26 April 2020, 3.30): if you need a new take on Home, listen to Mr Brown’s deliciously funny version. Now, he should be leading the sing-a-long

Photo: Jim Sim. Screen grabs: YouTube

Holding Out For A Hero

Is Uniqlo’s message sent by Superman and Louis Lane?

 

Uniqlo on FB

This appeared on Facebook some time today, the start of what is called Circuit Breaker, in response to the increasingly critical situation brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Circuit Breaker (unlike most, we will not use the abbreviated form, so as to edge to the side of propriety) will change the entire local retail landscape, and Japan’s Uniqlo, which, in 2019, ranks 8th in terms of retail sales worldwide, won’t escape the clutches of the business havoc the coronavirus will wreak. Despite the closure of all physical stores on the island, Uniqlo saw it necessary to send a positive message to its customers and followers: “Our stores may be closed for now, but our support for you, our staff and the entire Uniqlo community has not.”

The succinct and optimistic message is accompanied by an illustration of a couple in a classic nan zuo nu you (男左女右 or man on the left, woman on the right) positioning, with their backs facing the viewer. Together with the caption, “We’re Here For You”, it is not unreasonable to assume that Uniqlo is telling us they’ve got our backs covered, but what caught our eyes is the red cape of the male. Could this be the Man of Steel (the blue, skin-tight sleeve also corresponds to the Krptonian’s crime-fighting costume), and if so, is Superman’s arm protectively around his “primary” love interest, Lois Lane, the Daily Planet journalist who married the superhero in 1996?

There is something comforting about this image. Curiously named Secret 7s, it made an earlier appearance: on the cover of Uniqlo’s debut in-house magazine LifeWork (Fall/Winter 2019), and is drawn by Copenhagen-based British illustrator, Adrian Johnson (not, to our knowledge, related to Boris). In fact, it was seen even earlier, as part of the sleeve artwork of the catchy Beck-ish 2015 single The Less I Know the Better by Tame Impala, a psychedelic-pop project of Australian musician Kevin Parker, whose stylo-retro-ish music and videos are a neat fit with the artist’s Procreate-rendered picture. Mr Johnson’s simple yet striking, colour-blockish pieces have appeared in The New Yorker and Monocle,and in the marketing communications of brands such as Stussy, Norse Project, and the Japanese fashion label and retail store Tomorrowland.

As much as we are aware, Mr Johnson has not identified the two individuals of his art. Named or not, a superhero is a symbol of hope, beacon of strength; a graspable certainty that we will triumph over evil, which COVID-19, as the most destructive villains go, definitely is.

Photo: Uniqlo/Facebook

Is This The Most Beautiful And Heartfelt Bond Song?

Billie Eilish delivers what’s possibly the most gorgeous 007 theme. And one to likely go beyond the limitations of the OST

 

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By Emma Ng

Billie Eilish has really been in the news since winning four Grammys last month. Aside from the strides she has made in fashion, we have noted here in SOTD how lovely her voice is. And to that, I want to add: she sings, not scream. And that appealingly just-sing vocal is what makes her work in the latest Bond (25th) theme song so captivating. At the first listening of No Time to Die, what struck me—and beautifully so—is how free of histrionics the track is, not just vocally, but musically too.

I am now having trouble reconciling No Time to Die with the typical opening title sequence of Bond films, with their swirling graphics and the suggestively naked woman (women?) dancing as if the audience would not imagine she has no clothes on, or is near-nude (never mind if on occasions, body-con dresses could be discerned, or heels). How is Ms Eilish’s mellow sound and unrushed phrasing going to soundtrack what’s traditionally a visual expression that leans on art-as-titillation posturing? I try to imagine and all I can come up with is oversized, boxy Chanel pantsuit! Will Ms Eilish work into her contract that any visual accompanying her music must obscure, especially in the depicting of silhouetted women, any overt sexiness and sexuality (her own outline a perfect example)?

No Time to Die plays like Bond themes of yore coming together, but that would be simplistic, even if the chorus harks back to the melodic preferences of the past. To me, there’s something suitably Brit about Ms Eilish’s sound, made more alluring with a lo-fi warmth. It opens softly—almost a hush—with the piano, and then she intones, “I should have known/I’d leave alone/just goes to show/that the blood you bleed is just the blood you owe”. Ms Eilish turns 18 this December. Does that sound like a teenager to you? The opening lines set the mood and theme of the song: balladic, bleak, brill.

How is it that Bond himself and the numerous screen writers have never thought that “licence to kill” could pay back, and that it takes a teenager (and her co-writer-brother, Finneas O’Connor) to see the deserving turn? I don’t profess to know what every line means even having heard the music on loop all afternoon (or try to see if the lyrics foretell what is going to happen to Mr Bond in the upcoming film), but there is something too mature and too true and too heartfelt when someone so young sings, “Are you death or paradise?/Now you’ll never see me cry/there’s just no time to die”. It really hit me. Or, maybe, it’s Valentine’s?

I have never been so drawn to a Bond theme, not even Adele’s grand-sounding, jazz-sure Skyfall. And I don’t even remember what Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall sounds like. Ms Eilish’s pull is as much her close-mic singing as her ability to draw you in: she seems to be directing every word, every note at you, alone. She does not get pitchy; she does not belt, she doesn’t try to impress; she does not over-colour. (Doubters should listen to her sing Yesterday at the Oscars.) I, too, like that the arrangement of the track is lush, a compelling counterpoint to the writing duo’s often bleak, melancholic, and off-kilter style. The sum: tasteful. Never thought I’d say that about a Bond theme song.

Photo: Universal Music Group

No Skirmish, No Discord

But a senses-arousing engagement. Clash de Cartier, a three-day on-site event, is welcome experiential marketing

 

Big brands and flashy events are hardly a clash when it comes to reaching out to customers, regular and new. Cartier’s “pop-up studio”, set up to introduce the Clash de Cartier range of punk-inspired jewellery, is a marketing splash—in the tradition of Time, A Hermès Object—that, even with the a-little-way-out location, is an enjoyable stress-free experience. Despite the madness that was yesterday’s media preview, attended by Korean actor/singer Ji Chang Wook—“babyfaced”, as CNA decribed him—and local stars and influencers, the pop-up, minus the celeb clash, is, admittedly, an extremely nice way to spend an hour or two of a scorching afternoon.

Clash de Cartier, the jewellery line, was launched earlier this year (the party in Paris in April was a couture confrontation among the celebrity invitees!). The pop-up studio here is, according to the creator of the Tank watch, the first time it has made an appearance in South-East Asia (and thought to be one of the largest that has travelled anywhere). This is the spot to try the Clash de Cartier jewellery pieces without any obligation to buy. If service matters to you, this could be enjoyable as the chirpy staff are eager to let you try any one of the pieces that you like or every piece in the showcase.

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Upon entering the space proper on the second floor of what is part of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, a staffer will greet you and request that you fill a questionnaire of sort on an iPad. This is a personality evaluation not unlike the many of those shared by your friends on Facebook (such as the numerous determining if you are dateable, fun-loving, or a bitch). The results will decide if you start at the book store or the record store, which, if you’re directed to, may escalate your hip quotient, considering vinyls’ born-again popularity.

Regardless of where you begin, the spaces have enough edge to let you feel a bit with it, if not exactly a major clash with the establishment, which, considering, is Cartier the 172-year-old luxury house. Among the books, if you’re able to single out Patricia Highsmith’s 1955-psychological-thriller-turn-1999-movie, you may be able to show yourself to be as talented as Tom Ripley. Here, you can have a haiku composed for your personality type (“Outwardly _________”) and typed out on an old Olympia typewriter. Cross to the room dedicated to vinyls, and if you’re able to immediately sing to The Slits’ version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, you may be able to tell others that you’re, in fact, a post-punk with a weakness for a 1966 Motown song associated with Marvin Gaye, but was originally sung by The Miracles.

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Music is very much a part of the Clash de Cartier experience although we did not hear anything by the obvious choice of The Clash. Instead it was more indie-au courant: if the textile-factory-turn-hotel L’Hôtel Fabric in Paris had a soundtrack to its premises, this would be it. The playlist is put together by Michel Gaubert, dubbed “fashion’s leading sound director” and very much associated with the late Karl Lagerfeld for whom he put together the music for the designer’s own shows, as well as those by Chanel and Fendi. Commercially, he is known for the hotch-potch, Buddha Bar-ish ‘mixtapes’ that were conceived for the now-defunct Parisian store Colette. During our 45-minute or so visit, we heard a rather multifarious selection, from Soft Cell’s major hit of the minor 1964 song Tainted Love (by the now-obscure Gloria Jones) to the less-known ’80s German pop sisters Humpe und Humpe’s Yama-ha, a Miharu-Koshi-meets-ABBA-esque electro-ditty with lyrics that listed popular consumer Japanese brands!

Wander into the ‘Try’ space, which we presume should be the reason you’re here, you can examine in your hands (or wear) the necklaces, bracelets, and rings—either gold or white gold—till your heart’s content. No need to succumb to the unseemly discussion of price (but an arrangement can be made for you, if desired, to meet a salesperson at the store of your choice). The good-natured staff chat with you as if you have grown up in a Cartier store. It’s this bonhomie disposition that pervades the entire pop-up experience.

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Lastly, you’d be guided to a Two-Face of a café, with one half looking like a retro-cool interior Violet Oon would love to cop for herself rather than the neu-TWA posh of her present restaurants, and the other, with a sleek row of plush banquet seating that, for some reason other than chromatic, reminded us of the Alain Ducasse-headlined Chanel restaurant Beige. For all your efforts in the Clash de Cartier pop-up, you’re treated to surprisingly good coffee (from Bettr Barista) and an assiette de mignardises (plate of sweets) of a trio of the tiniest pastries you’ll ever pop into your mouth.

As we sat in the café to take in the extravagant marketing exercise, and enjoy Marc Almond’s urgent torch voice and Dave Ball’s seductive synth, it became apparent to us that the clash is not some abstract or implied idea, washed down by soothing caffeinated beverages, but manifestation for all to see. In the space of considerable thought and clear effort, a goodly number of visitors were togged as if en route to the neighbourhood Toast Box. Clash is surely here, perhaps more potent than Cartier could imagine.

Clash de Cartier Studio, 15—17 Nov 2019, is at STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, 41 Robertson Quay. Ticketed entry only. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Nicolas Ghesquière Takes A Stand

Kudos to he who holds a view that risks getting him on the wrong path with those who writes his pay check

 

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Those who follow Nicolas Ghesquière on IG—to date, 827,000 of you—would have seen this. Mere days after his bosses Bernard Arnault and Michael Burke made a show of LV’s investment in Alvarado, Texas, some 65 kilometres south of Fort Worth, birthplace of Kelly Clarkson, with a pleased-as-Punch Donald Trump, Mr Ghesquière posted on IG the cover of the single of American singer Evelyn Thomas’s 1984 dance hit, High Energy, followed by an unambiguous message—“Standing against any political action. I am a fashion designer refusing this association #trumpisajoke #homophobia”.

This contrasts sharply with what Mr Arnault, LVMH chief’s executive, told members of the media that day: “I am not here to judge his (Donald Trump’s) types of policies. I have no political role; I am a business person.” That is not an affirmation of no political view, which, perhaps, prompted Mr Ghesquière to express one. We are not sure how tolerant French corporations are to opposing thoughts of their employees, but this, from the standpoint of those of us who grew up professionally in a conservative corporate environment, may elicit a strong reaction from the boss that could lead to dismissal. Or, are we being dramatic?

Mr Ghesquière could be riding on a popularity high and may wish to use his platform to say something that other designers won’t. He received a standing ovation during the recent spring/summer 2020 show for Paris Fashion Week and was featured on the cover of T magazine last week, in which he was quoted saying “I was never trained as a businessman and I will never want to be one.” Sure, one does not have to see eye-to-eye with one’s boss, but could all these seemingly contradictory messages be construed as a sign of defiance? Or, does fashion need such opposition of thought for it to encourage creativity?

Mr Ghesquière, who has been Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for women’s wear for six years, has done much to set the brand apart from what is ailing luxury fashion, not just in Paris, but much across the fashion capitals of the world, taking strides in his own distinctive view and speaking in his own singular voice. Just as his bosses Bernard Arnault and Michael Burke have the liberty to do business in Trumpland, he, too, has the right to share his thoughts. Nicolas Ghesquière should be appreciated and applauded.

Who Is Evelyn Thomas?

Mr Ghesquière posted on IG a cover of the single of the 1984 dance hit by Evelyn Thomas, High Energy, which, if we remember correctly was mixed by Victor Flores, an American techno DJ of the ’80s, whose work included remixes for mainstream acts such as Wang Chung (Dance Hall Days) and Joe Cocker (You Can Leave Your Hat On). Mr Flores’s various mixes of High Energy (actually, we prefer the Almighty 12″ Definitive Mix from 2009 for its more stomping—almost Dead Or Alive—rather than the typical pulsating beat) became huge that year (and several later), a big, anthemic chart-topper that was especially popular in the gay scene, which may explain why Mr Ghesquière chose it to accompany the hashtag #homophobia and to underscore Donald Trump’s perceived homophobic leaning.

Ms Thomas, now 66, was already a recording artiste, singing jazz and gospel, when High Energy scored. The track was co-produced by the British/Irish duo of Ian Levine and Fiachra Trench, and it was, in fact, their second collaboration with Ms Thomas after a first single Weak Spot failed to scale the charts. Ms Thomas was credited for creating the dance genre Hi-NRG, the staple of gay clubs in the mid-’80s, but ‘high energy’ was already gaining traction when DJs, declaring disco dead, used the term to describe dance music that played faster than the typical dance track prior to that. Ms Thomas was just singing the right song at the right time.

High Energy opens with a cheesy melodic synth intro that would typify disco tracks of this time and be a clarion call to disco-goers to rush to the dance floor to kick into dance. But this rousing musical device was already heard, a year earlier, in So Many Men, So Little Time, also a Levine/Trench production and another huge club hit and, understandably, also a gay anthem, sung by Miquel Brown, Amii Stewart’s step-sister, and Sinitta’s mom(!). In fact, the frightening catchiness of these songs would eventually transpose from gay clubs to the more mass discotheques that, at the risk of sounding elitist, the bengs and lians patronised with delirious regularity. Regardless, Mr Ghesquière has put a tune in our heads and we can’t get it out!

Photo: Instagram/Nicolas Ghesquière

Is Mad Still Rad?

It’s been 30 years since Dick Lee’s Mad Chinaman album was released. To celebrate the pearl anniversary of what to some was—and still is—the definitive Singaporean album, Mr Lee staged an orchestra-backed concert at the Esplanade. Was it a fresh sound to a vintage recording, or was it strictly for fans?

 

Dick Lee MC 30th Anniversary Op

By Cooper Low

I am guilty of listening to Dick Lee’s 1989 album Mad Chinaman back in, well, 1989. Guilty as in the feeling that is also linked to pleasure. Mad Chinaman was not an album I typically enjoyed in those days. I was very much into The Cure’s Disintegration—an album of heartbreak (then, a recent discovery) and melancholy that was tremulous of the songs’ epic-ness (even on cassette tape!). The guitar intro of Pictures of You entranced me, rather than the almost-juvenile synthesised keyboard and drums of Mad Chinaman’s. Besides, most of the people I knew were listening to either ‘harder’ machismo-affirming stuff such as Nirvana and Aerosmith, even Beastie Boys, or, conversely, the diva-esque—Kylie, Madonna, or Lisa Standsfield.

Except one, my friend Bong, who had been listening to the songs of Dick Lee and following his career since the 1974 debut album Life Story. When I finally paid attention to Mr Lee’s music, it was not even sung by him. During a period when I was totally mad about Depeche Mode, I also discovered Silence, the 1983 album Mr Lee wrote for Jacintha, her first. This was way before Drama Mama (which, I have always suspected to be Mr Lee’s creation)—eight years before, I believe. Silence opened my ears to something I had not yet hear in songs written and produced in Singapore. For a while, my Walkman played almost nothing else except Silence and Jacintha’s clear, rich, warm, unique, believable, pre-Ben Webster voice enthralled me. This was Singa-synth-pop! And catchy too. Bong and I sang to every song; we were especially crazy about the still-unforgettable interpretation of the Bee Gees’s Run to Me, the touching and relatable Still Burns, and the duet with Dick Lee, It Takes Two (I can hear Jacintha singing you wouldn’t leave things so one-sided, would you?). That was the last track, I remember, and it would bring us back to the first, Bad News, and we would instantly break into dance! Bad news will find a way to bring you down, any time, any place… Gosh, I can still sing it.

Mad Chinaman was… a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated

Truth be told, when I first heard Mad Chinaman, I did not quite like it. While Silence was synth-smart-and-sophistication (Fender Rhodes and Jupiter 8 now sound so quaint!), intriguing/catchy chord progressions, and clever word play, Mad Chinaman was—how do I put it delicately?—a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated. I admit that there was some snobbery at work here. Mr Lee is still proud to be one of the first local songwriters to use Singlish in his songs (and he would, years later, repeatedly regale the audience with the proud recount of how the songs were once “banned”), but back then, the lyrics sounded a little rough to me, or, to use a favourite Peranakan word that describes the unrefined, kasar. And Mr Lee does not have the voice to make them more lembut, soft. You can understand why I might be embarrassed if other people found out about my musical taste, which can be called many things, but questionable.

My hesitation with Mad Chinaman at first hearing was also compounded by another 1983 album I had grown to love and rather intensely—the more ‘serious’ sounding, Lou Reed-influenced, and polished Regal Vigour by Zircon Lounge, whose frontman was the non-pop Chris Ho, a radio (Rediffusion!) DJ I had held in considerable awe. Dick Lee, too, was in that seminal album, co-producing it and playing, unsurprisingly, keyboards, but any madness or Chinaman was held in check. Jacintha, too, was in Regal Vigour, although I now cannot remember on which track. These albums, including Mr Lee’s, were part of a strong body of work released by Warner Music Singapore (WEA) in the late ’80s. Sadly, WEA dropped Zircon Lounge as quickly as they picked the band up because the debut album reportedly sold a sad 1,000 copies, while Tracy Huang’s three albums that year, such as the Lou Reed-free Love of Angel (天使之戀, from rival Polygram), averaged 50,000.

Dick Lee Op

But I did give Mad Chinaman further listening. And some songs started to shine. At around this time, I discovered the Hong Kong duo Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) and was most sold on their second album, 1987’s The Story of The Stone (石頭記). The titular track stood out for me as it was unmistakably oriental, yet it sounded far from the Canto-pop that was heard and enjoyed at that time. If you took away lead singer Anthony Wong’s distinctive and clear vocals, this could be a track released by 4AD or one of the British indie bands I was listening to. Together with the massive hit Angels of the Road (馬路天使), I was certain that the Tat Ming Pair was the future of Asian pop, even not quite commercial they might have been.

Mad Chinaman, I thought, was not as subtle, urbane, and polished as The Story of The Stone. But in the former, I could hear something I had earlier heard in the latter: a sound, one that reflected the city in which it was made, and so evocative you could see and smell the place. Dick Lee has always had a sense of what is local and how that could be worked into his melody-making, which was influenced by the pop music of the ’60s and ’70s. While the Tat Ming Pair freely incorporated historical references and folk tunes into their music, they were usually less barefaced. Mr Lee’s were, of course, more perceivable—a lot more. By his own admission, Mad Chinaman “was not really written” by him since half were based on existing tunes, identifiably so.

There was nothing special, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song appealed…

While I was not grabbed by the ditty-like Ni Ni Wo Wo, the kitschy Mustapha (supposedly of Egyptian origin, featuring Jacintha en route to becoming Drama Mama), and the erred-on-the-cheesy Rasa Sayang and Bengawan Solo, I took to the titular track, the anthemic Centre of Asia, The Windchime Song, and, strangely, Little White Boat that I knew as the Chinese xiao bai chuan 小白船, reportedly a Korean folk song, now sung by Mr Lee in English. There was nothing special about this track, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song was really appealling. The reason was not apparent to me until a few years later when I heard the lullaby-like 是否真爱我 (shi fou zhen ai wo, or Do You Really Love Me?), which Mr Lee wrote for Tracy Huang, and was later sung in English as Everything I Know: Dick Lee has a knack for melodies that can be sung in more than a single language without one sounding worse that the other.

Although Mad Chinaman is now touted as “an attempt to create a Singapore soundtrack”, the idea had, in fact, appeared in Mr Lee’s 1984 album Life in the Lion City, which he had called “an enthusiastic (but unappreciated) expression of being Singaporean”. Until Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee’s work was largely Western pop, conceived for an audience of mostly friends-as-listeners who also enjoyed similar pop of the West. While the folk tune Rasa Sayang appeared in Mad Chinaman as a full (rap!) song, a refrain was first sung by Mr Lee at the end of Culture, from Life in the Lion City. Was this a foretaste of things to come? Did Dick Lee, in fact, predate the Tat Ming Pair whose first album appeared in 1986?

Dick Lee, Ja & Denise Op

Cut to the present, it felt strange listening to Mad Chinaman again after, well, thirty years, as Dick Lee reminded us in his one-night-only concert at the Esplanade last night. Surprisingly, the album has never been performed here in its entirety, except in Japan, where, presumably, it had novelty value. Still, this was familiar territory for Dick Lee: going back to where he started or left off. If you have been to any of his concerts, you would have been familiar with the inevitable look-back, the easy, one-sided banter and the okay singing. I think people still attend his concerts because 1) he truly has many supportive friends, 2) his songs are entertaining for their ability to jolt the memory, and 3) the majority don’t listen to The Sam Willows, unless, perhaps, it is Benjamin Kheng singing Fried Rice Paradise.

What struck me last night was how few there were the under-twenty-fives. Many of the attendees could be Mr Lee’s contemporaries—Merdeka Gen, we call them now—or older, who would certainly remember the government campaign that he sang about in Let’s All Speak Mandarin. Lyrically, much of Mad Chinaman stood rooted in a particular time. Throughout the two-hour long concert, words that I had forgotten now stuck out: “the ketupat at Satay Club” (Rasa Sayang) and “a star from SBC” (Let’s All Speak Mandarin), so unambiguous b efore Soundcloud and, definitely, IG. Unless you are from Choo Bee Lean’s era, “…selling rings and things from China…” (Fried Rice Paradise, sung for its popularity and to stretch what would have been a 50-odd-minute-long album into a two-hour show), is really the mega-e-biz known as Taobao. Maybe, Dick Lee had, after all, the gift of foresight?

Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun

The concert had the backing of a full orchestra, which was the opportune moment for Dick Lee to declare, perhaps a little too earnestly, “I am a serious musician, and it takes an orchestra to prove it!” (I noticed he didn’t say ‘singer’). To be sure, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) that accompanied him is no SSO. Still, they played competently—hiccups aside, but Mr Lee’s music, especially Mad Chinaman, requires not just competence, but cheek. Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun—which has always characterised Mr Lee’s music and musicianship. What was needed was what Nigel Kennedy might have called “pathos”, not perfection.

Mr Lee was accompanied by “muse-my-whole-life” Jacintha, who no longer appears as the vivacious and immensely listenable side-kick she once was. Predictably, she came on to duet with Mr Lee on Mustapha, a song given a “Bollywood movie theme song” treatment. Ja, as she is known to music industry veterans, could once possibly be Singapore’s Sade (her version of Smooth Operator—never, as far as I am aware, recorded—surpassed any version I have ever heard), but now with a hardcore, traditional jazz recording career, she seemed unable, last night, to give Dick Lee songs the girlishness and, at the same time, sultriness they require. What surprised me was how self-conscious she appeared and sounded, and how unable she was to deliver, near the end of the song, “you naughty, naughty” with the Indian impishness it deserved. Dick Lee’s music, as one of my friends noted, can be quite camp. He needs Jacintha to deliver it. As for the other guest star, Denise Tan, if Caldecott is no more, so should that sound.

Perhaps, I no longer listen to Dick Lee’s music for reasons of nostalgia. When I was an impressionable teen, the Mad Chinaman’s music was charming because it was amusing. Perhaps I have grown up and Dick Lee has not. Thirty years later, I was hoping for something more full-bodied, but, despite the orchestral backing, got something quite thin. (Sadly, the song I was most hoping to hear, Little White Boat, was omitted. Or, did I, somehow, miss it?) Approaching the Esplanade last night, haze hung like a heave, I had hope this could be how Spandau Ballet re-recorded their back catalogue in the 2009 album, Once More. Instead, I left, thinking, not again.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

From Seoul With Love And An Infectious Beat

By the end of 2012, Psy’s Gangnam Style was not only a massive world-wide hit, it became the first video to receive one billion views on YouTube. With a similarly catchy tune, is Seungri’s new single Where R U From going to beat it?

 

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Big Bang may be on hiatus as four of the band members have been enlisted, but they are not done with making the news. While serving the army, frontman/Chanel muse G Dragon was allegedly given preferential treatment when he was admitted to hospital early this month to receive treatment for ankle injury, T.O.P was indicted in June with marijuana possession and is discharged, awaiting re-assignment to public service duties, while Taeyang, looking like he has gained weight, “dominate(d) the stage with hot performances at a military band concert” three weeks ago.

The youngest and the sole member of Big Bang not called for national service yet isn’t lagging behind either. Seungri, or Lee Seung-Hyun, released his first, full-length studio album The Great Seungri on 20 July, and the second single Where R U From is now predicted to beat Psy’s Gangnam Style, if not to equal the latter’ spectacular success. It’s not hard to see why. Where R U From is Seungri at his most cheerful and confident in a music video that is possibly the most irreverent in the brief history of K-pop.

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The video released a few days ago has already garnered more than four million views. It features the all-dancing Seungri attending a re-staging of the Kim Jong Un/Donald Trump summit, although, admittedly, both leaders are very poor stand-ins. Korean pop stars are rarely political creatures. Seungri’s cheeky jab at the Kim/Trump meeting, singing “we go hard/attention; we go high/attention”, perhaps reveals uncommon smarts and awareness in the world of manufactured Korean pop songs.

Musically, Where R U From can’t be considered ground-breaking since the happy tune, electronic sounds, pulsing bass, and catchy refrain are similar to Psy’s Gangnam Style. In fact, this could have been Psy’s follow-up single. Instead he succumbed to the pressures of building on the success of an earlier hit and released the forced output Gentleman. The title, in Psy’s case, is, of course, ironic, but it is even more so that it is label mate/same-camp competitor Seungri who plays the suave, horse-ridding, socially-positioned great one to the hilt.

This is Seungri at his handsomest too, projecting a suave confidence that nearly alluded him as he synced with Big Bang’s out-there, gender-bending flashiness. (Thank goodness he has dropped the blond hair because of scalp problems.) Good looks and a good tune make better pals than band mates, and Seungri is able to twin the two into an image that has an old-fashioned idol edge to it. Few K-pop stars rely on such effortless poise to project unchoreographed polish. He sings, dances, and DJs in the new music video as if he does not need to outdo the hyeongs who have gone solo before him.

And there are the well-appointed suits, blazers, and 007-ish tuxedos that he has been wearing a lot as a solo act (including the MV for the precedent single 1, 2, 3 that could have been Motown gone hallyu). Whether this is a deliberate shunning of the visual excesses of K-hip-hop or the attendant street leaning, it is not certain. Seungri appears totally comfortable as a grown-up, sartorially sharp singer. It doesn’t matter if Where R U From sounds like Gangnam Style. The Great Seungri is definitely not the next Psy.

Photos: screen grabs Big Bang channel, YouTube/YG Entertainment