Sunday, 27 February 2022

My Side Piece, or, the hallmark of legitimacy

When is a cultural phenomenon not a cultural phenomenon? Or rather, who gets to decide these matters? Certainly, sheer weight of numbers is a big contributing factor - when a song or video goes viral, it can become difficult to ignore. 

But not always.

A few years back, my partner and I were staying overnight in a Kansas City casino resort. Fatigued as I was from the sixteen-hour journey, I could nevertheless tell that we stood out from the other clientele, and not just because I'm a Brit who knows the difference between a Wildcat and a Jayhawk. We stood out because we weren't Vietnamese. That weekend, the hotel was hosting a two-day concert of Vietnamese pop music and virtually everyone we encountered was there to enjoy the festivities - babes-in-arms to pensioners, first, second and third generation.

It was great to be amidst such a swell of people who were there for a happy occasion. We had arrived the night before the fun started in earnest and guests were lugging heroic amounts of snacks and drinks up in lifts and through corridors. The infectious mood even touched us, as one guy who we had a brief chat with gave us a six-pack of Coca Cola, just because. He reckoned there would be, all told, about three thousand attendees at the shows. 

A big deal, then, to Vietnamese-Americans, but looking at the posters I didn't know the performers from Adam. I had no idea if they were the genuine article (apparently so), second-rate or otherwise. Were it not for the need to get moving the next day (family!), I would've stayed on to check what the fuss was all about.

On 3 April this year at Wembley Arena will play host to Shreya Ghoshal. I've been to Wembley Arena to see acts like Steely Dan, Ghost and ZZ Top. It is estimated that ZZ Top have sold 50 million albums worldwide; Steely Dan lag behind a little on 40 million and, whilst Ghost neither have longevity nor discography to their advantage, they've gone top ten multiple times in the USA, Canada and the UK (not to mention scoring three consecutive number one albums in their native Sweden). 

Shreya Ghoshal is a playback singer and actress from Rajasthan, around my age. Where the Indian film industry is concerned, she absolutely has a pedigree to be proud of. She is also popular enough to book Wembley Arena when playing London, yet I haven't a clue who she is. That a popular Indian singer would be a draw in London doesn't surprise me - after all, I originally hail from Hayes, which has a large south Asian population - but nonetheless I received a little jolt of surprise, and perhaps shame, that a wildly popular culture is out there on my doorstep, contemporaneously, that barely gets covered in the mainstream press. 

(Incidentally, on the topic of Hayes, in between Elvis tributes, Psychic Sally and Ireland - the Show!, one can find listings for Sahir Ali Bagga and Garry Sandhu at the Beck Theatre.)

I am not blind to the fact that, in my tastes and sensibilities, I overstate the importance of artists I like. It still riles me when I'm met with incomprehension at 'Blue Oyster Cult', despite the fact that they are not the globe-bestriding giants of my imagination. I practically weep with joy if someone under forty recognises the name Townes Van Zandt. But - at least, at one time, these acts had their moment in the sun, lauded by press and audiences alike; and even if they didn't, there's still the potential to be lionised by vinyl-sniffers and the like as a 'hidden gem' or 'overlooked genius'. 

Earlier this week I stumbled upon Pokey Bear's 'My Side Piece' by accident, a quirk of algorithm one could say, and as much as I found it excruciating, it's an earworm. I went to bed humming it and I woke up laughing at the line "You might find me in Mexico chilling in the sand", as if our infidelity-addicted narrator were a sandworm from Dune. I think, production wise, it sounds atrocious, as if every aspect of its dynamic range was squashed into a tight cylinder of the most irritating frequencies imaginable. 'My Side Piece' has 53 million views on YouTube in under six years and over five million plays on Spotify. Pokey Bear doesn't even have a Wikipedia stub.

I read a lot about rhythm 'n' blues music, and something that crops up often is the 'chitlin' circuit', essentially a touring round of theatres that catered specifically to Black audiences. It's often inferred that the chitlin' circuit has been consigned to the history books, but that's not right, at least by my understanding. Something like it exists to this day, dependable sources of income and exposure for artists like Clarence Carter, the late Marvin Sease (RIP, Candy Licker), Bobby Rush and Millie Jackson - all of whom, incidentally, have poked their head into the mainstream at one point or another. That's the sole reason I know who they are.

Two things to round off; it's inescapable that race, ethnicity or nationality come into play, given the Vietnamese, Indian and Black American examples given here (and hey, to a lesser extent, let's chuck in the Irish - Brendan Shine, anyone?). Yet that cannot be the sole factor, because there are artists 'crossing over' all the time - Black music dominates pop like never before, whilst the K-Pop phenomenon currently shows little sign of running out of steam. Instead, it's something qualitative about the music; whether it's too folksy, too 'downhome', too crude in its humour or sentiment, fundamentally it adds up to an immunity to considered critical commentary. And if the critical industry cannot winkle out anything worthy, the recourse has been to leave it be. So, Pokey Bear gets 53 million views and doesn't make a dent.

I won't pretend to even begin to understand or comprehend any facet of, say, Black experience that a Pokey Bear or Marvin Sease speaks to. I cannot even understand what Shreya Ghoshal is singing. I do have a simple plea, though, for those cashing cheques as arbiters of popular culture - why not bring the truly popular endeavours to light? It's no use thinking of this all as some kind of 'shadow culture', played out beyond the eyes and ears of tastemakers. For better or for worse, these acts are part of the fabric, and should be appraised as such.

However, 'My Side Piece' is still driving me bananas...

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