tremble clef

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Momus, "Nervous Heartbeat" (2006)

Late last year, Momus came as close to having a "hit" as he may ever have had with "Nervous Heartbeat" -- it ended up at #44 on the Stylus year end singles poll, for instance -- although I'm not sure if the music press ever came to a full understanding of the song. Which eludes me as well, but here is at least an attempt to start piecing together a story.

Taken from Ocky Milk, "Nervous Heartbeat" is a dream-like, floaty, swoonsome ballad that's impossibly beautiful. Momus's voice is heavily processed; while some critics have found this "autotune effect" irksome and unfortunately reminscient of "Believe" (because Cher invented autotunes, don't you know), the wobbliness of the vocal is precisely what gives the song part of its power: the way Momus's voice "quivers" as it goes up the scale on the line, "Doki doki, the hammering beat of my heart," for example, conveys, more than the words themselves can, just how close to falling apart he is.

The song consists of two simple verses. Its lines are fragmented and impressionistic, although, taken together, they add up to a narrative of sorts (Namely: she's left, he's sad.) Each line is split between English and Japanese, although the two parts often say the same thing, or the Japanese phrases are simply onomatopoeic versions of the English. Thus: "Crying, shiku shiku/Reluctantly, shibu shibu/Repeatedly, tabi tabi/Just in time, giri giri." The effect is of a kind of faux-Japaneseness, as if our narrator only has at his disposal doubled phrases that he can't quite use in actual sentences. He is, in other words, armed only with the kind of halting, elementary Japanese that a white man, say, might have acquired as a means of communicating with a Japanese woman.

But the song really begins with what turns out to be its most memorable element: a gorgeous string arrangement that swells with barely controllable emotion. That arrangement is a sample, or an interpolation of a passage that will be well-known to most people who know Chinese pop music, taken as it is from "何日君再来" ("When Will You Return?", although that translation doesn't fully capture the fact that "君" is rather formal, less second- than third-person, and gendered male as well: a more accurate, if clunkier, translation might be "When Will My Gentleman Caller Return?").

"何日君再來" has a fascinating history in itself: according to the page devoted to it in Chinese wikipedia, the song, whose authorship has never been definitively established, was originally the theme to a 1937 movie from China, when it was sung by one of the country's most famous songstresses of the time, 周璇 (Zhou Xuan). Although the original was well-known, the track would enjoy a new leash on life in the late 70s when Taiwanese superstar 邓丽君 (Teresa Teng) covered the tune and made it a humongous hit all over again -- especially in Taiwan and China, but really throughout the Chinese diaspora. (I certainly could not escape it, growing up. There's a whole other story to tell about my father and his Teresa Teng poster.) And beyond: the song was translated into Japanese and just as popular (you can hear a version here). Its popularity in China, however, was never "official" after the Cultural Revolution: it appears that the song to this day remains banned on Chinese radio, possibly because of its enduring popularity in Japan.

"Nervous Heartbeat" doesn't use the tune of "何日君再來" (if anything, it's melodically closer to "The Impossible Dream"!), just its strings. It's unclear to me if Momus acknowledges the sample in the credits for "Nervous Heartbeat" -- "何日君再來" is probably in the public domain or, as noted above, not tied to specific composers anyway -- but he slyly does so in the song itself, since its last line is "Chiku chiku, when will I see you again?" Here, unlike the rest of the song, the correspondence between the English and Japanese phrases is not exact: "chiku chiku" refers to a small but sharp pain, although it's one that is presumably provoked by the question of whether his beloved would ever return.

"Nervous Heartbeat" is therefore a curious little thing: a "Western" song that possibly tries to signify Japaneseness (and, perhaps more specifically, uses the idiom of J-Pop ballads) -- with its "sampling" of staccato, chopped-up Japanese phrases, but also with its "sampling" of a primarily Chinese string arrangement that migrated to Japan. Indeed, one accusation we could make of Momus is that he doesn't seem especially careful about those national boundaries; in a time when many Westerners still can't tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, the collapsing of those two national traditions in "Nervous Heartbeat" could be seen as perpetuating that myth -- satirized to hilarious effect on a recent episode of The Office -- about the interchangeability of "Asians." But then again: one of the things that the history of "何日君再來" demonstrates is precisely the permeability of those national boundaries when it comes to music. Indeed, if the (not-so-)covert story of "Nervous Heartbeat" is of a Western man separated from his Japanese lover, then the track must in some ways be itself a lament about national boundaries, and a wish for their permeability. The structure of the song, with its inspiration from several cultures, may in that light be a kind of utopian desire for a time when such boundaries no longer exist, as they sometimes don't when a hit song gloriously takes over the world.

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