In 2004 when I first visited Cambodia I didn’t get to see much television until I arrived in Phnom Penh and for one day coped with the cultural overload by staying put in my hotel, reading a Nick Hornby novel and watching music videos. I love Cambodian pop music, but what struck me at the time was how these music clips perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of their day. Here are images and 3 minute storylines designed to connect with the audience. Any video producer wants to use images that easily resonate with the mood of the young fan base: in this case the young urban audience who were wealthy enough, and have the electricity to have TV.
So what were the video tropes of 2004? Well, there were the usual global pop cliches – the Britney dancers and the K-Pop princesses, but what stood out for me was the presence of pining, wistful romances in which the lead singer would walk through city life (the cars, the fashions, the cell phones) but feel empty without their true love: and I’m talking not about a girlfriend or boyfriend: I’m talking about their family life in the countryside. We’d see walks by the river, ploughing with the water buffalo, the greeting of elderly family members: a life without the hustle and shallowness of the modern city.
Here surely was evidence of a widely shared angst about urbanisation. Is the shift to the city worth it? Is modernisation all good?
The most memorable video featured a great singer who wore a straw cowboy hat. A very talented singer: and the story in his video was about family life on the farm. There are two kids and a water buffalo whom they adore. They pat him, feed him, ride on him…they love their water buffalo.
But one day while the kids have trudged off to school the water buffalo is sold by the father. The children come home and are distraught when they learn their water buffalo has gone. They weep and cry. But the father shows them why he has sold the water buffalo – it is to buy two new bicycles. Now the kids can ride to school! They light up and – it seemed to me – quickly forget about their old water buffalo. Now they have the gleaming bicycles of modernisation.
Today, ten years later, the music videos have broadly changed. For sure, there is the occasional sentimental story about the girlfriend who dwells back in the village – but for the most part Korean Pop has formed the stylistic reference point for the video makers who churn out clip after clip with the shiny, pounding (and still Britney-esque) K-Pop dance moves and pale-skinned princesses.
I miss the water buffalo.
For more on Khmer music read this one: The Golden Age of Cambodian Pop
Or follow the wonderful work of the restorers of Cambodia’s lost vinyl gems.