Year of Migration Lecture – The Return Home
I was invited to give a lecture about my music videos at the University of Kentucky by the department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, as part of the Year of Migration series. Below are the notes from that lecture, entitled “The Return Home”.
The Return Home:
- First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here at the Niles Gallery at the University of Kentucky, and thank you specifically to the department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology for inviting me down, especially Dr. Donna Kwon.
- This is really quite a treat for me. First, most of the music that I write is expressive. As a result, giving a talk about my music and videos from a distance, as opposed to just expressing how I’m feeling, is somewhat of a new experience. It’s something that I think musicians don’t necessarily get to do as much as they should.
- Aside from having the opportunity to talk about my music and videos from a distance, I’m generally of the view that the music industry is in pretty terrible shape, from the perspective of providing critical analysis. Given that, I’m more than happy to help provide some that analysis of my own work and fill in some of that gap.
- On that note, I should note that the cost of making one’s music visible to the public these days – namely through coverage by the music press has gotten more expensive than ever. Editors and writers have been inundated with hundreds of pitches every day requesting coverage of music. And what’s happened is that cutting through that noise requires paying a publicist a fair amount of money in order for writers and editors to even hear your music in the first place.
- I know for a fact that musicians who designate themselves as “indie” are spending well over 10K in order to be able to make their music visible to the public, over and above the cost of recording the music itself. And this puts the cost of making visible music far outside of the reaches of your ordinary citizen – a fact that really irks me because what happens is that the perspectives offered in visible music turn out to be the perspectives of the haves as opposed to the have nots. Something that the concept of indie music was originally designed to address.
- In the context of this talk, that’s particularly obnoxious, because people from more recently immigrating communities often have less resources. Which means that the music industry and press as a whole has systematic controls built in that weed out marginalized voices.
- Here, I guess it’s worth thinking about the value of academia in critical analysis. Academia isn’t nearly as subject to the pressures of economics. It trains its students in the skills of analysis. This isn’t to say that academia isn’t plagued with troubles of its own. But I think it’s worth thinking about the value of critical analysis in academia – especially analysis of modern music – given societal and economic conditions that currently affect what we might call commercial or popular critique. Which is all to say, I’m very much appreciative that you’ve thought to invite me down today.
The General Arc of the Second Half:
- So today I wanted to spend time talking about the series of videos relating to the second half of the record. While both halves of the record deal with immigration, the first half of the record is meant more as a personal letter to my dad. The second half of the record, however, focuses more squarely on an immigration narrative, in particular, the concept of what I will call “The Return Home” – what I’ve come to know as a somewhat common topic in 1st and 2nd generation American literature.
- The Return Home is kind of catch-all term I use for a concept or collection of concepts focused on the desire that a 1st or 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) generation-American might feel about returning to their country of ethnic origin. And what I thought I would do is I would use the music and the music videos as a kind of plot device to think about the general contours of this concept.
- In the second half of the record, the protagonist (which is how I’ll talk about myself here) reflects generally on his various attachments to his country of origin, leading to his ultimate return to Korea, ending in the song, entitled, When I Return. The first song in that arc – You Don’t Call Me Anymore deals generally with the way in which distance affects relationships – used as I guess a kind of analogy for thinking about one’s relationship with one’s country of origin. Korea reflects more directly on the protagonist’s relationship with a country that he has little direct knowledge of. People From Other Cultures deals more with the distance created by differences between 1st and 2nd generation Korean-Americans. What I Think About When You Say South Korea deals more specifically with the protagonist’s desire to visit Korea as a way of understanding his parents better.
- Musically, What I Think About When You Say South Korea ends on a V Major chord, which if you know your music theory, creates classic tension. The tension I think is supposed to correspond to the tension invoked in the protagonist’s expressing his desire to visit his country of origin. That tension is then resolved with the first chord of When I Return, which resolves it to a I Major in the same key, suggesting that the protagonist in When I Return has succeeded in making that journey.
- From a musical perspective, When I Return at least in intention draws on operatic melodic and chord elements in reaching its triumphant conclusion. I had Mozart operas in mind at the time, and with a bit of research realized that I was drawing on the run up and conclusion to The Marriage of Figaro, which uses the same V / I, tension and release move. At the end of The Marriage of Figaro, the Count who has been trying to bed Figaro’s intended wife Susanna, realizes that as the result of some trickery, he has really been seducing his own wife. (Tension) Ashamed, but remorseful, he seeks forgiveness from his wife, the Countess, who forgives him, in the divinely beautiful piece Contessa Perdono. (Resolution).
- As fantastical as the Contessa’s forgiveness is, the lyrics to the song When I Return are equally bombastic. Quote: “I’ll have sprouted wings and drift right to you through the ether, arms outstretched to take you to distant land or other place, you’ll be so amazed you’ll drop your iPad on the floor, like it was so much trash.” The title “When I Return” might be initially deceptive in context, because you might think that the protagonist has returned to his home country. But in fact, we catch the protagonist on his return back to America. It’s unclear what has happened on his trip to Korea, but he returns to the United States some kind of winged super being, radically transformed by The Return Home.
- The corresponding video for “When I Return”, entitled “The Celestine Prophecy” is equally over the top. The protagonist in the video takes the viewer on a walk from the picture on the back cover of the record (a picture of Trump tower) to the front cover of the record (a picture of St. Peter’s Cathedral) – pictures taken months prior to the 2016 election. The journey intersects, coincidentally, with the protests that occurred the day after the election, where protesters on their way to Trump Tower make their way past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, seen in the background of protest footage. The protagonist narrator takes this coincidence to be a sign that better times will return in 2020.
- I suppose the point of matching up the video with the song was to try to provide an analogical illustration of the emotional meaning of The Return Home. At least, I think that’s one way of try to understand the connection between some of the videos and the music. If the viewer can understand the feeling of hope for a return to sanity in 2020, through the analogy, they can understand the way that immigrants or 2nd generation Americans feel when it comes to the idea of returning to their country of origin.
- On this note, I recently had a writer ask me why I would use video content that was unrelated to the song content when putting a music video together. And I’d say that the videos aren’t unrelated to the songs at all. It just depends on what you think is important about the song and the video. I could try and do a video that just directly animated the narrative content of a song. But that’s difficult and requires real directing skills. It’s much easier to focus on a few key elements – in this case the emotional heft of the song – and provide an analogical illustration of it through video. I should point out that this is not a foreign concept in American cinema, because the concept of soundtrack is exactly this same concept. In fact, with soundtracks, it’s generally “a bit too on the nose” to use music that too directly illustrates what’s going on in the film.
Popular Culture and the Return Home:
- The grandiosity of feeling, gestured to by the fantastical lyrical elements in “When I Return”, are I think appropriate. Because the idea of The Return Home has some conceptual connections to classic themes in pop culture and philosophy that we see over and over again – specifically the concepts of origin and destiny. 1st or 2nd generation Americans oftentimes feel out of place, isolated, or that they don’t fit in. The idea that visiting their country of origin might be able to address those feelings – this is a familiar story line. And I can illustrate this with a bunch of examples
- Consider: The overarching plot to all superhero mythologies is that origin is destiny – either a formative experience or aspect of their origin that serves as the superhero’s modus operandi. The best example of this maybe – the classic superhero immigrant – Superman, who immigrated from his planet of Krypton which was destroyed in some intergalactic conflict. In fact, in the first movie, at least, Superman’s discovery of his origins through a visit to the Fortress of Solitude somewhere in the Antarctic, is what helps him to discover the true extent of his powers, which he intends to use for good – as his Earth father died of a heart attack – something that at the time he lacked the power to stop.
- Some other examples: Consider Star Trek 5 – the crew journeys to the center of the universe at coordinates 0,0,0 (literally “the origin” of a coordinate system) in order to find God, because they think it will provide them with the meaning of life. This is sort of a too-on-the-nose connection between “origins” and “destiny”.
- Just another pop culture reference. We were literally just watching MasterChef, and if you watch MasterChef, or any number of other cooking shows. We all know that the secret to winning is to draw on your cultural heritage. So Gerron was encouraged throughout the show to draw on his southern heritage as the key to winning. Same with Cesar, he was told that the secret was to draw on his Mexican cooking heritage. Just reading an article about Cesar Cano – “Cano reached the finals by using his Mexican heritage to inspire his dishes.” So we see how ever-present this concept is – in a wide variety of pop culture and reality tv examples.
Unflattening the Immigrant Narrative:
- This is all pretty grandiose sounding, but I think it helps to illustrate the emotional significance to 1st and 2nd generation Americans of the idea of visiting their country of origin. However, this can’t be the full story of the Concept of the Return Home.
- After all, someone who returns to visit their home country won’t literally find their place in the world as a kind of causal necessity, or figure out their destiny. And likewise, people who don’t ever return to their home country aren’t forever cursed, or in the possession of a defective identity. The concept has more shape to it than that, and I’ll try and point out different ways in which this concept of The Return Home, can be very complex.
- I think this is important, because of course how ONE 1st or 2nd generation-American might view or think about The Return Home may be very different from how ANOTHER 1st or 2nd generation American might view or think about it. And I think it’s important to gain literacy in these similarities and differences. My view is that a lot of American analysis has the unattractive quality of flattening out immigrant narratives – treating them as if there is a single story to tell – which only differs from culture to culture by way of a different set of food, clothing and accents. And I think this treatment systematically misses out on a lot of nuance, and points to a lack of literacy on the part of American commentators. So, I’m going to take a dive into some of the specifics of a few songs and talk about that complexity and nuance.
- Take the song and the video for Korea. The narrative of the song, is generally about the perspective of Korean-Americans. The protagonist is someone who has some familiarity with his country of origin, but it’s generally through the lens of stories and photographs. The last verse goes: “And an origin story is a very nice thing, when you never know where you come from. Cause a picture viewed from a point afar is a little bit made of postum. And an origin story is a very nice thing, when you never know where you come from Cause a picture viewed from a point afar is a very bad way to remember.” I think the protagonist in the song perceives stories and photographs of his country of origin as insufficient in some way. Hence the reference to postum which is a bad caffeine-free coffee substitute.
- Has the protagonist been to his home country? He speaks of it in terms of memory. He says “a picture viewed from a point afar is a very bad way to remember”. And in an afterthought in the chorus, he notes that “I’d forgotten the feeling.” I think those lines are in there not because the protagonist has been to his country before and just poorly remembered it, but rather I think he’s trying to provide an analogy of sorts for what it’s like to want to visit a place that you don’t know. Desiring to visit your country of origin is a lot like trying to remember something that you can’t quite remember.
- I mean, I think both are similar activities. They are both goal directed – but also have an object that isn’t fully specified. When you’re trying to remember X, your activity is directed at X – but when you’re in the act of doing it, you can’t really substantiate what X is – otherwise you’d remember what it is, right? In a similar way, The Return Home for the protagonist here has an object – he has an attitude that is directed at an idea, his country of origin – but of course, he doesn’t necessarily have a full sense of what that is either – he’s only got pictures and words to go by.
- Keeping this in mind, Korea then appears to be about a very specific type of Korean-American, a specifically 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) generation perspective. (Because presumably 1st-generation Korean-Americans will have a different experience on just this point). And we can see that this distinction plays a significant narrative role in the protagonist’s perspective.
- The video comments on the perspective of “hyphenated-Americans” and provides an analysis of American thought on hyphenated-Americans, albeit a simplistic one – that being a hyphenated-American is a kind of identity-deficit, which represents an obstacle that the hyphenated-American must overcome. The narrator suggests that perhaps this analysis is incorrect, and that hyphenation presents an opportunity for identity-building that non-hyphenated Americans don’t have. Maybe it’s actually non-hyphenated Americans who suffer from an identity-deficit that we should be concerned about?
- Forget whether the argument of the video is correct or not. I’m not sure whether it is. But we can see how the protagonists in the song and video place emphasis on different things with respect to their identity. The protagonist in the song maybe believes that visiting his country of origin is important to resolving the incomplete picture he has of Korea which he takes to be important to his identity. The protagonist in the video evidently sees his being in the United States as a source of strength.
- Additionally, we see that the protagonist in the video is visiting Koreatown in New York City. So maybe he thinks visiting Koreatown is a way of Returning Home? I’m not really clear on this. I mean, I think there’s an interesting project here in thinking of all of the different ways in which someone “returns to their roots or country of origin”. Maybe for the protagonist it consists in visiting Koreatown. Or maybe it consists of food – as the makers of MasterChef would have you believe.
- While we’re at it though – we can take it a step further – if food is a way of returning home, why isn’t looking at photos and words a way of returning home? Is the posture of the protagonist in the song – someone who views these things as insufficient in some way – is it possible that he’s just wrong? Maybe visiting Koreatown isn’t a cheap substitute?
- I’m not going to answer these questions. I don’t think there’s really a right answer here, but what I do want to point out is that we can see the way in which this concept of The Return Home is not a flattened single narrative differentiated by only thin surface distinctions – the differences can have significant narrative import. Specifically 1st and 2nd generation experiences can differ given their different ways of perceiving their home country. They can have different experiences as to how they view their new country and country of origin. They can have different experience in how they view being a hyphenated-American. They can have different views about what counts as returning home.
- Adding to that – I wanted to point out two other characteristics of the song that are somewhat peculiar to the protagonist’s experience.
- First, the song makes some significant reference to the Korean War. And in this case, the protagonist’s parents were both born in North Korea. This is important because the parents of the protagonist have a migration story of their own – namely from North Korea to South Korea just prior to the Korean war. In that sense, both the protagonist and his parents experience some desire to visit their place of origin. So here, we see a kind of two-fold migration story, one which both the protagonist and his parents share.
- The other thing regarding the song – and this is more of a melodic quirk – the song is an example of re-appropriation. I don’t know if people caught this from the song, but the chorus is a re-appropriation of the now-outdated “stereotypical Asian riff” played on offensive TV shows and commercials. (demonstration). And re-appropriation is not necessarily a concept that applies to all immigrating populations. (I think generally they have to face significant social discrimination, which involves the use of certain representations, that are then “re-appropriated” in ways that are empowering – something along those lines). So, two additional quirks that kind of distinguish the protagonist’s stories in this song.
People From Other Cultures:
- Moving on “People From Other Cultures”. In the song, the protagonist reflects on the differences between his parent’s background and his own – specifically as it relates to the Korean war. The problem that the protagonist faces is that he has a kind of communication disconnect with his parents. The protagonist’s analysis is that the reason for this disconnect is the cultural and generational differences between them. Hence, the protagonist states, “I said it’s different cultures, she’s from a different universe, I said it’s a different generation.” Moreover, the protagonist goes so far as to suggest that his parents’ experiences have made them better at dealing with life’s troubles.
- The corresponding video in contrast brings the viewer to (at least the imagined) perspective of the mother. Cooking a variety of Korean foods, paired with scenes of the Korean war. I’m not sure exactly why I paired those things together. Are the scenes from the Korean war meant to be thoughts that the mother has, which are translated in some magical way into the food? Or on the other hand, maybe it’s providing additional context to the protagonist’s mother, so that the viewer can have a more comprehensive understanding of the mother as a person?
- Here, I should mention, that Korean food seems to intersect with war trauma in a variety of ways. The most prominent dish that pulls these ideas together is a dish called “Buddae-Jiggae” 부대찌개. (Strangely, not one of the dishes that the protagonist’s mother is cooking in the video). “Jiggae”, is a common Korean food term essentially meaning “stew”. You might know it from dishes like “Doenjang-Jjigae”, essentially a soybean paste stew (similar but really different from miso soup). “Buddae” is a reference to military bases. So Buddae-jiggae is essentially “Army Base Stew”. The history of buddae jiggae is that it was a stew made from rations that were distributed by UN soldiers after the Korean war, when protein sources were more scarce – or at least this is my understanding of it. The stew is traditional in some ways – a flavorful broth with anchovy and Korean red pepper. But Instead of more traditional stews made from seafood or pork or beef cuts, the stews were cooked with Spam and hot dogs. Optional baked beans. And occasionally they were topped with a slice of American processed cheese.
- Does the connection between history and food make food a meaningful vehicle for connecting with one’s history? I think the posture of the video is that it does. Then again, when my mom prepared this dish for me when I was younger – not knowing what it was at the time – I figured it was one my mom’s poor attempts at trying to make Korean food more appealing by westernizing it, and I really didn’t like it. I still ate it, but I didn’t like it. Does this mean that “photos and words” are an insufficient form of understanding one’s origins – as the song Korea suggests? After all if they were sufficient, then how would the history and meaning of the food escape me, except for by some accidental research many years later?
- Or maybe I’m overanalyzing all of this. Maybe sharing food doesn’t need to be a way of trying to communicate years of history and turmoil. Maybe this is food that she found nourishing and enjoyable when she was growing up, and as a result she wants to give me something nourishing and enjoyable as well. And in an obvious sense, I come to understand what it’s like to be in Korea by eating food that Koreans enjoy eating – and eating back then in post-Korean-War Korea? You know, come to think of it, when my Mom cooked buddae jiggae on a number of occasions – the only reason I didn’t know that it was Korean Army Base Stew is because she never said anything about it. Maybe she cooked it not because she was trying to tell me about the military history of Korea, but only because she thought, “I grew up with this, and this tastes good to me. I think it will taste good for him too.” And maybe that’s enough?
- I’m not going to answer these questions either– but I’m just pointing out that the idea of the Return Home is even more complicated. You can see how photographs and words, and food – how there can be substantial amount of intentionality built In to them that informs how a 1st or 2nd generation American views the certain representations of The Return Home.
What I Think About When You Say South Korea:
- In the music for this music video, the protagonist squarely addresses the concept of The Return Home, expressing the desire to go back to his home country. Expressing a typical 2nd-generation American narrative, the protagonist observes that his relationship with his father has changed over the years, and in particular, his father doesn’t tell stories about his home country anymore. The protagonist takes this as a sign that there is some distance between them. The protagonist’s solution is to go back to Korea as a way of getting to know his father better.
- Incidentally – just so we get a sense of how universal this plot line is – this is effectively the set up to Guardians of the Galaxy 2. It’s been a while since I saw these – but basically Starlord (Peter Quill) is given some general hints about his father in the first movie, who he runs into in Guardians 2, through some coincidences. In fact, in Guardians 2, his father also somehow turns out to be his own home planet at the same time? (Of course, that movie then goes off in a different direction).
- In the video, the protagonist goes on a journey to the city of New Orleans to, amongst other things, recover a memory he had about the city when he went there as a senior in College. The memory is an image of The Graveyards of New Orleans, in which a tree with lush life-affirming leaves hangs over visitors to the Graveyard who have come to pay their respects to the dead by hanging flowers over the gravestones. For reasons that are unexplained, the image has some importance to the protagonist. The image was captured with a camera, but that camera has been lost at some point, after several moves, when the camera was left behind.
- The problem with the protagonist’s search is that his first visit to New Orleans was in college in 2002, before hurricane Katrina hit, and despite some searching through a number of Graveyards in New Orleans, the protagonist is unable to find the image that he saw when he was younger. As a result of this failure, the video narrative takes a different turn, with the protagonist looking to an upcoming visit to Commander’s Palace Restaurant, upon which he provides a detailed description of the restaurant and what was eaten.
- I suppose looking at the song and video, you can see two different attitudes that the protagonist takes towards the Return Home. In the song, the protagonist sees the appeal of The Return Home, and with the subsequent track on the record, “When I Return” apparently makes the trip to his home country, where we happen on the protagonist upon his return from there – now a fantastical super being who speaks in mysteries.
- The video takes a different tack. Of course, the Return Home in this case isn’t a journey to the home country, but a journey to find a tree. But the narrative there gives up on the idea of a physical return. After all, the tree was likely wiped out or destroyed in the hurricane and flooding. Or the Graveyard was uprooted. I’m not actually sure what happened – only that it’s probable that the tree can’t be found. Following this narrative, maybe the Return Home, is a kind of lie?
- I mean, when you think about the protagonist in the song – who characterizes The Return Home as having some connection to resolving issues with his father – it is a lie – at least as a broad comment on The Return Home. Because there is no necessary connection between Returning Home, and Resolving Issues With Your Father. First – not all people have Korean Fathers, right? Some people have a Korean Mother, and a non-Korean father. So they would find no necessary connection between The Return Home and resolving issues with their Korean father. While we’re at it, some people were adopted, and neither of their parents are Korean. Actually, even beyond that, take the story of Fred Armisen, who for the longest time thought that he was half-Japanese. Only to take a genetic test on national television, and find out that he’s actually half-Korean. How many times had he made the Return Home only to find out that he hadn’t even returned to the correct country?
- And I mean, let’s suppose that we limit the protagonist’s conception of The Return Home to the idea that IF you have a Korean Father, then if you go to his country of origin, it will resolve issues with your father. Even here, isn’t The Return Home conceived as such still a lie? After all, let’s play this out. What’s the magic secret that the protagonist finds in Korea that helps him to get to understand his father better? Does he find a special herbal shop with a secret form of ginseng that resolves all issues between fathers and sons? Does he become a private investigator and trace the steps of his father so many years ago to reveal key evidence that explains his father’s move to the United States? What was the protagonist expecting to happen?
- Actually while we’re at it, I mentioned Guardians of the Galaxy 2. In Guardians of the Galaxy 2, StarLord goes to his father’s home planet, and ends up finding out that his father is some kind of virus that wants to use his son as a sacrifice so that he can become some kind of intergalactic super being. So, I mean that didn’t go as planned at all, right? And that’s not an unrealistic scenario in the grand scheme of things actually. After all, many people come from home countries that are very inhospitable and downright dangerous. And we should expect that The Return Home for them isn’t going to be some easy cake walk that results in them resolving issues with their father. So maybe the Return Home is a gigantic lie?
- In conclusion, let me answer this question. I think that it is a lie. People who go to their home country will not literally find their destiny and have all of their problems solved. Just – incidentally – in the same way that someone’s problems won’t all be solved if they just get up and move to New York City. Now, does the fact that the Return Home is a lie mean that the trip it isn’t worth making? I think the answer here is obviously no. I think the protagonist in the video understands that The Return Home is a lie – or at least understands that nothing about the desire to return guarantees that things will resolve themselves in a way that will make him happy as a kind of causal necessity. Hence, when he finds that the tree has disappeared, he moves on to other things, in this case, become engrossed in this visit to Commander’s Palace Restaurant. He learns to just enjoy the rest of the trip and have a nice vacation with his partner.
- From that perspective, maybe The Return Home is something like a catharsis. Because of its symbolic value, it kind of sits in the back of your mind like an obnoxious Pandora’s Box that refuses to shut up until you’ve opened it. Maybe you’re able to ignore it, and if you are, good for you. If not, you could leave it unopened, where it may sit and fester and become the scapegoat for all the problems in your life. Or, maybe you open it, and see what’s inside. Chances are, it won’t be a cure-all for all the mysteries of life. But now you know what’s inside, and you can adjust your relationship to it and move on.
- What you find in the box, and how you move on from it, probably depends on a whole host of factors, that differ for every individual who makes The Return Home. I’ve tried to talk about a number of these factors – using my songs and music videos from Ten Hymns as a kind of plot device to animate the ways in which immigrant populations can be distinct – and showing how those differences can have narrative import to substantially understanding the protagonist’s situation. Hopefully, that has helped to un-flatten the immigrant narrative that tends to get flattened so easily by American cultural critics.
- People come from different cultures. People’s relationship with their home countries are different. People have different relationships with their parents. People have different perceptions of what it means to return. These are facts that affect what people will find when they visit their home country, and how they move on from it after the Pandora’s box is opened. And I’m sure we could go on forever listing factors and differences between different immigrating populations. Because the story of how people move on from their country of origin is a well-trodden concept in the study of immigrating populations – and that of course is the concept of diaspora.