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SONGBIRDS

By Andrew BIggs

This week our prime minister came face to face with the hottest musical group in Thailand.

The group is BNK48, a band I’ve been aware of for at least six months. This is not because of any predilection for following the local pop charts, something I would only recommend as punishment for tourists overstaying their tourist visas. They first came to my attention thanks to a catchy little song that has been ubiquitous since the end of last year.

There is one song that can get any Thai, aged 3 to impending retirement, up on their feet and dancing along, complete with synchronized hand movements. That song is called “Fortune Cookie”.

It’s an earworm. Hearing it for the first time transported me back to the late 1970s. It was the Nolan Sisters all over again; female voices belting out a melody that borrowed brazenly from nursery rhymes against an infectious dance beat. Society can radically change, cultures can differ, but we humans haven’t lost our desire for a good old singalong by young girls in skimpy costumes.

My memory of the Nolan Sisters is that of five Irish girls mugging for the camera while performing rudimentary dance steps to “Gotta Pull Myself Together” and “I’m In The Mood For Dancing”. Their popularity faded around the same time as their looks, which was no coincidence.

I always thought five singers in a single group was kind of pushing it, but they were sisters, and imagine the family dinner table explosions if one or two were sacrificed for the sake of pop conformity.

Well BNK48 is having none of such restrictions. They are a vocal band consisting of 30 members. Yes, that’s right, dear reader. I wrote >>thirty<<. That’s not a pop group. That’s a show choir!

The general rule in pop is the more members there are the less talented the band, with the exceptions of Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic. A band with more than ten singers is simply there to cover up members with influential fathers. But a band of 30 members? That’s the Nolan Sisters times six. The law of averages states at least a third must be tone deaf.

This is a trend borrowed directly from Japanese and Korean pop bands. Nowadays every single J-pop and K-pop group consists of a dozen or so single-sex members who are as interchangeable as minor wives of a Chinese meat ball magnate.

Two years ago I was caught in an unholy traffic jam outside Central Lardphrao thanks to a Korean boy band’s meet and greet. The band was “Exo” which consisted of 12 skinny South Korean boys with faces as white as sheets.

(One member sued to get out of the band in 2013, then another in 2014, then another in 2016, reducing the number of future plaintiffs to just nine. Do you think their art suffered because of it? Come on. This is not artistic loss; it’s natural attrition.)

On that day, when 10,000 screaming teens converged on Central Lardphrao, only five of the band’s remaining nine members showed up. Imagine if I’d camped out for a meet and greet with the Nolan Sisters and only three appeared. And Exo wasn’t even there to perform. They were here to sell skin lightening cream to Thai teenagers.

Popular music has always been about manufacturing artists for money. But there was always some attempt to suggest the band in question was, well, musical. This is not the case in these modern times, such as with BNK48 which began as a casting call for pretty young girls who wanted to dress up and dance.

Actually that’s not quite correct. It began back in Japan in 2005 with the original AKB48, an all-girl band who dressed as schoolgirls and danced like synchronized swimmers in a drained swimming pool to their big hit — yes, you guessed it — “Fortune Cookie.” Since then they’ve sold the franchise to China (SNH48), The Philippines (MNL48), Taiwan (TPE48) and even geeky Indonesia (JKT48). Thailand is the sixth in line; “Fortune Cookie” is the musical version of rinse and repeat.

This week I asked my 20-year-old Thai niece, a good yardstick for teen trends, how popular BNK48 was among her friends. “Not huge,” she replied, “We’re a bit too old for them. Though one of my male friends is totally in love with Cherprang.”

“How would he know which one she was?” I asked. My question was a valid one; out of 30 girls prancing around in identical schoolgirl outfits, how does one differentiate? At least with Abba one of the girls had blonde hair and the other was a brunette.

(The Nolan Sisters would have been a little more difficult, since all five had mousey brown hair and resembled quintuplets.)

So how does my niece’s friend manage to have a favorite? It turns out Cherprang is BNK48’s “class captain”, so she gets to stand right in the middle in the front row. She is the Mick Jagger of the band if indeed Mick Jagger wore a skimpy dress and possessed no musical talent. Cherprang is clearly the envy of the other girls, too — you can feel the seething jealousy emanating from those also-rans with influential dads down in the back row.

The band stages “handshake events”, which is 2018-speak for “PR meet and greets designed to sell merchandise”. But get this; you don’t actually get to shake their hands, thanks to a strict rule that one cannot touch any BNK48 member. Imagine if a long-tail boat containing BNK48 members sprung a leak and sank in the middle of the Chaophraya River. Like royalty in the Ayuthhaya era, you’d have marketing people shouting “Don’t touch! Don’t touch!” as poor Cherprang departed this world for the great lip-sync in the sky.

My niece claims her friend once waited two hours in line to meet Cherprang at a “handshake event”. In the end he instead got to meet one of the nameless ones from the back row for a grand total of five seconds. That was after purchasing their single. I am not sure to be more shocked by the audacity of BNK48’s marketeers or the stupidity of my niece’s friend.

At Parliament House this week the prime minister met six members of BNK48, dressed in short purple skirts with pink frills in matching schoolgirl outfit styles — the girls, not the PM.

This should not have been as big a media event as it was. It did raise the question of why the event took place and what correlation existed between 64-year-old Prayut and a gaggle of teenage girls dressed up like staff at a Soi Thaniya fetish bar for Japanese tourists.

But the teenage online world lit up in shock as the prime minister posed with six members and … I hope you’re sitting down for this … he shook their hands! Yes, he touched members of BNK48 despite not purchasing any of their merchandise!

“PM breaks the rules” screamed the headlines, as if breaking the rules was alien behavior for an army general who staged a military coup.

So why did the PM have to meet this girl band? Well let’s see. Any BNK48 fan who is over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Such an appearance makes him endearing to Thai youth, and no aspiring post-election prime minister would eschew that opportunity.

So like BNK48 itself, this has nothing to do with music. It’s about popularity and marketability and, ultimately, making a profit. And for anybody thinking to criticize, just remember the hands-off rule.

/Andrew

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