There is an exhibit at SFMOMA that has had me thinking for days. British artist Phil Collins (um, not that Phil Collins) went to Istanbul and videotaped people karaoking to the songs of The Smiths. The exhibit is called dünya dinlemiyor, Turkish for “the world will not listen.”
As you’d expect some of the performances are just hilarious – combining drunken enthusiasm, non-native English, and less than pitch-perfection. But even the most drunken has a sweetness about it. He finishes his act and grins boyishly - brown curls flopping into his eyes - at someone off camera, stage left. Another performance to Oscillate Wildly is an interpretive dance of awkwardly flailed elbows and lankiness. Who looks utterly serious when doing “karaoke” to a song with no words? (So serious, in fact, that at times he bites his lips in concentration.) When he is done, he stares directly into the camera, defiant and proud, a striking counterpoint to his dancing. Two drunken (?) girls more interested in their dancing than the lyrics. A slightly sweaty guy shot in an extremely unflattering super-closeup. The guy who muddled his way through Bigmouth by yelling the chorus, and mumbling the rest. The would-be David Bowie, shirt unbuttoned, flowers sticking out of his backpocket (??) who pranced around with one hand high in the air.
I think I’m moved by how unguarded and genuine they are. Two girls, school friends I presume, sing There is a Light That Never Goes Out. During the chorus, their eyes close as they blissfully sing “to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die/if a ten-tonne truck kills the both of us/ to die by your side/well, the pleasure and the privilege is mine.” It reminds me of sleepovers, and listening to the radio to sing into the ends of hairbrushes.
Later on, I think about how or why the works of the Smiths are known in Turkey. It makes me feel like the experience in the U.S. is so proscribed: I can’t imagine us ever really getting into non-English music. I can think of a few, limited examples - such as the odd Tunak Tunak virus, and maybe some Spanish cross-over type stuff. And how sad that is – in many ways, most Americans do not feel their place in the world (or, at least, how small it is.)
I drove home singing along with The Queen is Dead, delighted and charmed – one small star in a vast universe.