Friday, October 24, 2008

Re: Angkor Lite FM


Dear Richard Marx,

I am writing to let you know that you are absolutely huge in the nation of Cambodia. I mean you’re a veritable titan. This is no small feat; though one would expect various trappings of Western culture to be embraced by Southeast Asia, Western music has yet to deeply penetrate the Khmer market. Though I find the music echoing from the local wats alluring and the traditional instruments played in the streets lovely, popular music here is, by and large, comprised of Khmer-language ballads with melodies as soft as wet bread and beats as compelling as a fork. Though one time I heard English-language hip-hop from a passing SUV and once even saw videos from Mary J. Blige and Lupe Fiasco, the limp native tunes seem to be the most ubiquitous music across the widest measure of society. They are the bread and butter of the thriving karaoke-cum-brothel scene. Their videos are played loudly and incessantly on every bus line for hour after hour after hour. Ninety-eight percent of them involve:

  1. a boy standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost girl
  2. a girl standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost boy
  3. a boy standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost girl who is trying to make amends
  4. a girl standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost boy who is trying to make amends.
Khmer young and old, hip and bumpkin, lean forward, elbows on knees, and watch intently as the Khmer words pass across the bottom of the screen. Occasionally someone sings along. But nary a word of English is to be heard.

Except your words, Richard. In the six weeks I have been here, I have heard Right Here Waiting multiple times, in multiple social situations, and in multiple forms. You might be saying, “Well, that’s my biggest hit; it’s no surprise it finds a home in the international market alongside Soft Rock Classics like (Love Lifts Us Up) Where We Belong.” You might be saying, “Right Here Waiting is in every mid-level piano practice book printed since 1989, it was only a matter of time.” You’d be right, Richard, but your ignorance and humility is leading you to sell yourself short. Though your song is inevitably a potent part of the Soft Rock Classics mix that I occasionally hear in tourist establishments, it is also the sole English-language song that I have found treated as equal to the Khmer pop videos. It is the only song I know of to not just cross the cultural divide, but to bridge it. Lest you think that the art of letter writing leads me to embellish facts, let me state here and now that all of what follows is one-hundred-percent truth:

The morning my lady and I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, I woke up with Shoulda Known Better flexing itself in my brain. There was no reason for it - my cassette of your debut is in a box in The States - and yet there I was, snarling to Shannon in the shower, “Shoulda known bettah…then to fall in love with yo-ou…now love is just-a faded memory.” Then, just because the spirit moved us, we traded verses of Right Here Waiting. Two hours pass, we’re on our way north, and what comes onto the bus television after one of those limpid Khmer ballads? A fan-fucking-tastic cover of Right Here Waiting sung in English and Khmer, that’s what. The video is an American Bandstand-type set up, a round-faced and sincere man singing from a small center stage, Khmer couples in prom attire turning across the floor, arms rigid, partners held a basketball’s width apart and smiles unflinching. “Whatever it take,” sings the man in time with the karaoke prompt. “Oh! How my heart breaks?” Then, only one day later, Shannon and I are sitting in an outdoor café that doubles as a butterfly sanctuary and, after a delicious Celine Dion cover (that number where she bellows, “I’m your LAY-DAAEEH!”), Right Here Waiting comes on again, this time a full-English cover sung bravely by a Khmer. Another week and a half passes and, lo and behold, we’re having a drink when at the next table over a Belgian woman starts in with her own rendition. The best part? When we laughed and tried to engage in a tête-à-tête with her table over the long reach of your staff-writing arm, that other table was confused. They’d just arrived in town. They were just singing your song because it popped into their heads apropos of nothing. And do you know what just came over the café speakers when I was writing the sentence before last? A pretty solid rendition of Now and Forever, a twinge of Khmer accent whispering above the clatter, “Until the day the ocean doesn’t touch the sand, now and forever, I will be your man.” All of this is the gospel truth.

I don’t know just what it is about the Khmer experience that makes you so relatable. I’ve dwelled on it and there’s precious little similarity between Cambodia today and the United States at the end of the 1980s. It’s true that Khmers seem to be suckers for a good ballad of lost love but I don’t think that alone is enough of an explanation. I wonder if it is the combination of loss and patient waiting that is the key. If, in a country where every family includes the memory of a loved one stolen away by war and torture, there is deep resonance in the declaration, “Whatever it takes, or how my heart breaks, I will be right here waiting for you.”

The point is this, Rick: you’re in the bloodstream here, part of the cultural compote of the moment. Your song is not merely enjoyed by people in a distant land; it inspires them to make it their own. I’d put a lot of money on the bet that few people here know your name. I’m sure they haven’t seen your videos, not even the super sweet one in which you morph into a Major League slugger and take a fastball from Dennis Eckersley. I bet you the engineer and producer who set up those local recording sessions of Soft Rock Top Tens don’t even know who you are. And that’s okay. You’re as ubiquitous in Cambodia as 7-11 is at home. Americans don’t need to know the ingredients of a Coca-Cola Slurpee; that doesn’t keep them from needing one every now and again. Cambodians count on you being there and trust that you will be. That’s a trick, Richard, and I suspect you know that. It’s one thing to be a fancy face that keeps tabloids in gossip. It’s a whole other planet to craft a song that survives without you.

Warm regards,

Jason Leahey

1 comment:

Andrew and Emily said...

The Richard Marx Spirit moves us all. Emily and I have recently been singing his songs, too. No joke. Maybe Jason mentioned something to me several weeks ago, thus prompting my decision to learn the intro to "Satisfied" on the acoustic guitar. Or maybe Richard's enduring appeal (not to mention the fact that we were both moved to "make our marx" on opposite sides of the planet) is simply a mystery, not unlike the identity of Mary's killer in "Hazard."

Until the ocean doesn't touch the sand,