Tuesday, December 14, 2010

holiday in cambodia

The more I think about this song, the more problematic I find it. Don't worry; it's not about being PC. It's just that Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia was such a shockingly weird and tragic place. The leadership operated under secrecy, they were doing things like abolishing money and clearing out the cities. The numbers from their secret prison, S-21, rare somewhere around 7 survivors for the 17,000 who went through. You had a .04% chance of getting out of there. I was assigned Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison by David Chandler to read in school and I couldn't make it all the way through. It was that disturbing.

So the song is ostensibly about rich kids in the US acting in a self-righteous manner by professing their empathy and understanding of plights less fortunate than theirs, all while driving around on the East Coast in their dad's fancy car that I couldn't even tell you the maker of.

So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you've seen it all
In daddy's car
Thinkin' you'll go far
Back east your type don't crawl

You're right, Jello Bifra. Nobody likes those people. And you say it in such a catchy way. He next suggests that these kids should check out Cambodia in order to see how bad it can really be:

Well you'll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake.

One problem is is that that last line there is a little too Orientalist for my taste. It almost says, Oh those wacky Cambodians. They put heads on stakes just like those Polynesians do. And the Indians did. And the Vikings. It's a classic trope of barbarianism, along with, like, not wearing shoes and going months without bathing-- and barbarians, by it's etymology, is simply the group in opposition to us. That's lazy-- which is my main problem with slogans in general; it's a distillation of complex issues into a single, sensationalist soundbite that lets people be lazy about understanding those complex issues that are now lost the moment you put it on a shirt or tote bag.

In fact, the cover of the single is a picture from a 1976 student massacre in Thailand. Thailand is not the same country as Cambodia. They might all look the same, but they're not. Maybe they're the ones that put heads on stakes?

But really what it is is that the lyrics suggest that Jello Biafra's main concern is not describing the problem with the situation in Cambodia, or even exposing it to the casual listener. It's about how the existence of that situation is beneficial to him because it let's him stick it to the fat capitalist cats he has problems with. He is doing the same thing that he accuses the people in the song of doing: using the plight of others to prove a point about himself. Here he is saying that his awareness makes him superior and thus righteous. This is exactly what he says the kids in the song are doing. If we were really going to look at Cambodia under Pol Pot, you could say that that toothless bum living under the overpass has it better than the people over there. Because it's true. That shit was fucked. up. Maybe we all need to be sent back in time over there to truly realize how lucky we are-- the kids on the crew team at the Ivy Leagues, the suburban moms in their SUVs, the punk kids in their squats. But I don't think that's how people learn or solve their problems. If you spend all your time comparing your situation to the desperate conditions of others, you can't get things done.

I thought of this while reading the comments under a Youtube video of the Foo Fighters & Serj Tankian of System of a Down covering the song at the VMAs. The argument, as usual, was how nobody in the audience knew the song & they suck. First off, who cares. If you're worried about who listens to what music, and that's how you decide your tastes, you're giving them an awful lot of control-- you are giving them the power-- and not paying attention to the merits of the actual art. But it also showed me that this song hasn't sparked discussion about Cambodia, history, or even class divides. People were more interested in whether seeing this vid got people into the Dead Kennedys rather than wondering if they became interested in the Cambodia of the title-- a name perhaps only used by the song in a sensationalist, exploitative way? (Second nature to the band in light of their name.) The discussion was thus concerned with labels and constructs and superiority-- could this be the case because that's all the song is about, and the lyrics and phrases and name dropping is simply to rile people up rather than to make them think?

It's still relevant today-- some of the leaders are only just now being put on trial.

It's also too bad that kids today have taken the lyrics seriously and decided to slum it in order to gain whatever cred your scene gets you.

Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin' that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

That's what half the kids I knew in NYC were about-- adopting mannerisms, living habits, and addictions in order to prove that they haven't "seen it all/In daddy's car." That they've seen it at ground zero instead. You're still doing it in "daddy's car" if he's paying for your rent, coke habit, & credit card. These are all addictions they can afford, with the help of their therapists-- and I know your part-time Urban Outfitters pay can't be covering that. The style of proving one's awareness and empathy might have changed but the philosophy behind it hasn't. Nowadays, you might be living IN the slums rather than driving by them, but you're still doing it to prove that you got the "soul" that you presume these slums to have, and that they have it by virtue of deprivation. What's most reprehensible is that they are leeching off others' misfortune and it is in their interest that neighborhoods remain dangerous rather than thriving. Plus their very presence (and its purchasing power) is one of improvement through gentrification rather than community building from within.

But on the other hand, whatever. I like the song. Let's go.


King AdBeck said...

I am in a gang of one, so to gain cred in my scene, I misinterpreted the lyrics to X's "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," gave MYSELF knockout drugs, and groped myself inappropriately. :o

b said...

hahahah. (i actually just giggled out loud.) now that's punk rock, kids!

(on the other hand, trying to imagine groping oneself appropriately-- okay, not actually *imagine*. . . i guess i mean it's its own paradox?)


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