Ethical Dilemmas in Rehab

Rehab is a song sung by the late Amy Winehouse, which focuses on her alcohol and drug addictions. Amy Winehouse on numerous occasions poured her heart out in interviews, delving into the horrors she was living because of her addictions. On top of that, she was married to Blake Fielder-Civil who introduced her to the world of drugs. This was ultimately her catastrophe. To battle her depression, she leaned on alcohol and drugs to get her through her day to day.

Her song Rehab is said to be quite controversial. It is said that Amy Winehouse’s father pressured her into going to rehab because he felt that she wasn’t taking her addiction seriously nor was her partner Blake a right fit for her. Hence the lyrics, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no.” She did end up going though, but the facility closed down because it was running without proper licenses.

Amy Winehouse talks about her personal life a lot in her songs. She is known for her rawness and pure language that stemmed from within. According to Powers, “This dig into the self, and the collateral damage it may cause, defined what singer-songwriters did as long ago as the late 1960s. Writing about the chart-topping bards of the Laurel Canyon scene in 1976’s Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Janet Maslin questioned the emerging style’s “reactionary expressions of frustration, confusion, irony, quiet little confidences, and personal declarations of independence. (Genius)” Artists like Winehouse find solace in writing their songs about their lives because they know that their listeners will somehow relate to the lyrics, one way or another. They will also appreciate the rawness of the lyrics. Winehouse didn’t hold back in Rehab and became a model singer for many artists to follow.

The lyric mentioned tells a true story. Amy’s former management saw that she was on a path of self-destruction due to her alcohol and drug addiction. But Amy was not going to take life advice from her management. She did ask for advice from the people she loved, especially her father. However, her father failed to see the devil that Amy was dancing with. So, she told off her management, thinking that it was yet another stunt to control her life and appearance for the music industry. Although people around her were trying to help her, she refused. She struggled with her demons immensely but no one seemed to truly understand her. This is how she fell into the world of hard drugs, presumably through Blake Fielder.

In the final verse of the song, Amy confesses that she doesn’t even want to drink. She doesn’t even love alcohol. It is just a means for her to escape from her reality. She needs alcohol and drugs to deal with everything that is going on in her life from depression, stress, lack of emotional connections, messed up relationships, and the rest. In the third verse, she sings “I just, ooh, I just need a friend”, indicating that she just wants someone to be there for her and someone she can simply talk to.

She sings again that she is not going to waste ten weeks (70 days) in rehab and fool everyone to think that she was helped. It seems that, deep down, Amy believed that she did not have an addiction problem. But rather, it was just an outcome of other problems that she was trying to suppress.

Going back to Powers, writing autobiographically in music can cause collateral damage. Amy’s music and Rehab in particular let the world see the demons Amy faced. Her genuine music even won her awards because the people fell in love with the way she was able speak about and deliver how she was feeling. But the damage it caused was also shown through her documentary titled Amy. It painted her father as uncaring and only cared about her fame rather than his daughter’s well-being. While her father clearly argued in a BBC interview that that is false and that he cared for many times while she was intoxicated, her song lyric “and if my daddy says I’m fine” goes against what her father states. Her father brushed off his own daughter’s physical well-being, let alone her mental health and depression.

Amy didn’t think twice about her lyrics, at least from what the public knows. She has stated that she wrote the lyrics within 5 minutes immediately got to recording and producing it with Marc Ronson, who she had worked with before Rehab as well. While her song may be controversial, the public has grown to love her music and her soul. Many people can relate to her music and she speaks for hundreds of thousands of people in her songs. It may be a controversial song, but it definitely speaks volumes.

 

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Let Nas Down by J Cole

J Cole’s song “Let Nas down” gives listeners insight on the pressures and frustrations that come with succeeding in the music industry, and how he let his idol, Nas, down in the process. The song echos many of the idea that Eakin and Powers offer such as social accountability and the right to privacy or anonymity.

In the first verse of the song J Cole begins his story and name drops three people immediately. He first mentions Nas, whom he explains his admiration for by detailing memories of printing his raps and taping them on his wall. He goes on to recall him meeting Nas on tour, J Cole lets him know how much he admires him and Nas replies that he is also a fan of him. Before listeners can obtain more details about their meeting, he moves on to the next name, Hov, or Jay Z. At this point in the verse J Cole details the pressure he felt from Jay Z and his label to make a radio hit that he couldn’t soak up the moment with Nas, he raps, “Hov askin’ where’s the record that the radio could play/And I was strikin’ out for months, 9th inning, feelin’ fear/Jeter under pressure, made the biggest hit of my career” The biggest hit J Cole refers to is his single “Work Out,” However it wasn’t initially clear that the song would be one of the biggest hits of his career. Instead, he raps, “Dion called me when it dropped, sounded sad but sincere/Told me Nas heard your single and he hate that shit/Said, “You the one, yo, why you make that shit?” In these lines he drops another name, Dion, also known as No I.D. He raps about fining out that his Idol Nas hated his new song, and implies that he is disappointed in him for abandoning the lyricism he was coming to be known for. These lines lead listeners to the chorus which includes the line “I let Nas down” in several configurations.

This first verse arguably violates Nas, Jay Z, and Dion’s right to anonymity and privacy as Powers describes it. J Cole walks an ethical line when he not only decides to name drop these people but also including what listeners will take as truth. Powers mentions a “thrilling immediacy that comes at the risk of their makers dignity and their close companions’ right to anonymity.” When J Cole names and quotes these people it brings them directly into involvement with the content of the song. This can be thrilling to the maker and listeners of the song where the goal is to explicitly depict a narrative where listeners gain access to a life they otherwise would not be privy to, which is what makes confessional songwriting “stand out as a counterforce to pops generalizing tendencies” according to Powers. However, this also comes with the potential infringement on peoples right to privacy. The right to privacy, in this instance, could complicate the truth, lending itself to the questions: How much is ethical to disclose in a song? Isn’t autobiography inevitably a display of privacy? Should we just charge it to the game?

Another substantial ethical dilemma this song illuminates is the issue of social accountability that Eakin offers. Eakin explains that social accountability conditions us to believe that recognition as a person is translated through the exchange of identity narratives, thus, a narrative that is not satisfactory would equal no self. But what narratives are deemed ‘satisfactory’ and what are people holding themselves accountable to when making autobiographical music? Eakin suggests that it’s the responsibility of the people receiving and judging these narratives to decide.

Let Nas Down can be judged against the pillars of social accountability based on its perceived lack of sensitivity to culture and context as it relates to those of the Christian faith. In the refrain of the song J Cole raps “Yeah, long live the idols, may they never be your rivals/’Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible/Now what you ’bout to hear is a tale of glory and sin/No I.D. my mentor, now let the story begin” While J Cole is using the trope of a fall from grace to describe his perceived highs and lows in the music industry, the comparison of human figures to Jesus would be considered offensive, or unsatisfactory to many Christians. Not only does J Cole make this comparison, but in the last verse of the song he then compares himself to the “Lord on the cross” when he raps, “And so, I took the fall/Like the son of the Lord on the cross/Dyin’ for that fake shit you niggas bought.” Here J Cole ultimately expresses the feeling of taking a fall from grace, falling out of favor with Nas and selling out on a song that departs from his lyrical roots.

Overall, Let Nas Down is a narrative of discontinuous identity where J Cole acknowledges he is not now who he was. His truth is that he walked “amongst the evil” of making dumbed down, radio friendly rap music, for the greater good of getting listeners to listen outside his “core” and show them they “need more.”

Listen below, what do you think about these “ethical dilemmas”?

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Crying In H Mart: The Struggle in The Mother’s Tongue

When reading Crying In H Mart: A Memoir I was instantly brought into a time where I would travel around Jamaica, Queens only to be met with the culture food courts on Jamaica avenue. After traversing the lucid pages of the first chapter, I was met with the grief and loneliness. Not just from the loss of a loved one, but with the confusion and isolation met with someone who is finding their own culturally. I felt at home as a mixed child with the author giving dropping lines such as “Growing up in America with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, I relied on my mom for access to our Korean heritage.” (pg.3). As a Black and Hispanic male growing up in Queens, I always felt that I had to “get in touch” with my ethnicity in order to be a part of something more than myself. The first chapter really strikes that chord of attempting to be in touch with sides of yourself while grasping at every little thing to keep hold of it. Even if it means to dismiss peoples own right to that (ethnic group) because you identify more with that group than they do. There’s not “X”, “Y’” or “Z” to have an opinion or understand. The first chapter was nothing but recollection of familiar turf, that I wished to pave but could not. 

As the story goes on, I realized the time in H mart was more that, it was an account of what the author identity and life took her and how the H mart was internalized into something more. Many of the passages in later chapters are not only vivid but does a great job of making you feel personally apart of the storytelling. It’s as if a friend decided to personally run you by a whole segment of their life you were unfamiliar with. Crying In H Mart to me was more than an autobiographical detail of one’s life. It felt like a personal story that needed to be told in order to express the author’s own inner conflict. Identity in the early chapters, in the later chapters, growth.  

Michelle Zauner does everything to make sure that the language used is personal, vivid, and most of all Her. Though I resonated with more of the early childhood aspect (in a time before yonder) as opposed to the growth and success of Zauner with getting in touch with her “mother’s tongue”. Not that it isn’t a great revelation and conclusion to the problems that she faced within but to me the story hit me the most in the beginning in a struggle that is more than relatable.  

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Singing on the Borderline with Lee Sunmi

On February 24, 2019, Lee Sunmi, former member of the massively famous girl group the Wonder Girls turned solo artist, kicked off her Warning world tour in Seoul. Since the Wonder Girls disbanded in 2017, Sunmi had become one of the group’s most famous alums, with her first three post-disbandment singles becoming hugely successful on the Korean music charts. On her personal Twitter, Sunmi tweeted the lyrics to two unreleased songs from the first night of the tour, including the English language track Borderline. In March, during her New York City tour stop, Sunmi sat for an interview with Pop Crush where she mentioned that Borderline was “about [her], but [she thinks] it’s a song everyone can relate to when they hear it.” She continued to perform Borderline until the tour’s conclusion in June 2019.

In late August, Sunmi released the single LALALAY and in November was the first guest on Studio K’s new segment, Talking Lyrics, where she discussed the meanings behind LALALAY and Borderline. When asked why Borderline was unreleased, Sunmi simply answered that the song was “too raw.” She further explained that while Borderline’s lyrics were things she wanted to say, since she debuted with the Wonder Girls at such a young age, she felt like she had grown up feeling pressure to present a good public image to not incur hate from the public.

On August 19, 2020, Sunmi released a special performance video of Borderline featuring new choreography. During the tour, Sunmi had sung the song directly to the audience standing at a microphone and walking back and forth across the stage, while in the new music video, she and two backup dancers perform contemporary dance, and Sunmi acts from a filled bathtub. A week after the release of the music video, Sunmi posted an interview on her YouTube channel about the stylistic decisions behind Borderline, explaining the bathtub represented a small space in which she expressed extreme and dynamic emotions. She also stated that Borderline was “[her] story that [she’s] hidden for a long time.” A day after the music video was released, Sunmi tweeted on her personal Twitter, “I was quite afraid to reveal my injury from the past bcuz all the words in this song are true and honest feelings of mine. I realized that many people, not just me, were struggling with this feeling.” Some fans began to speculate that the singer had borderline personality disorder, but at the time nothing had been confirmed.

It wasn’t until December of 2020, when Sunmi was appearing on the reality program Running Girls, that she revealed she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder five years prior and had been receiving treatment for it, including medication, ever since, and her condition had improved to the point where she felt secure enough to speak about it openly. In August 2021, Borderline was finally officially released as the final track on her newest EP, 1/6, and she performed an abbreviated version of the song with a live band on Naver.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition characterized by difficulty regulating emotions and long-term instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, and self-image. It is among the most highly stigmatized mental health conditions; a 2013 literature review of several small surveys of various mental health professionals in Western countries revealed that a majority of mental health professionals studied viewed patients with BPD negatively and admitted to treating patients with less empathy, and believing they were dangerous and therefore more difficult and time-consuming to care for (Sansone & Sansone). Although this literature review did not include surveys conducted in Asia, mental health has been a taboo subject in South Korea until very recently, especially mental health conditions that require treatment with medication. Former member of 2NE1 and now soloist Park Bom was embroiled in a massive scandal when her prescription Adderall – illegal in South Korea but filled legally in the United States by her mother – was intercepted at Korean customs in 2014, leading to accusations from the public that Park Bom was a drug addict and drug smuggler, when she was only treating her ADHD (Benjamin). The culture surrounding discussing mental health has changed since 2014; at the beginning of 2020 there was a wave of announcements that a number of kpop idols were going to take breaks from activities due to being diagnosed with anxiety disorders (Yonhap).

Sunmi has revealed her battle with BPD in stages, speaking little and vaguely about it after Borderline’s unveiling in 2019, and primarily through her personal Twitter where she often interacts with fans in English and in English language publications, before linking the song more explicitly to her own story in mid-2020 with the release of the performance video on her YouTube channel where she also discussed the song in a Korean language interview. In March 2021, a few months after she finally publicized her BPD diagnosis, Sunmi appeared on the music program You Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook and You Hee-yeol praised the lyrics to Borderline and said he felt like he was peeking at Sunmi’s diary and remarked viewers at home were probably crying listening to her words. Sunmi’s castmates on Running Girls, all fellow female kpop idols, also praised Sunmi for her strength and bravery when talking about BPD.

It seems Sunmi waited for Korean culture to become more receptive to celebrities talking openly about their mental health to share her story. Korean audiences have praised Sunmi for her bravery and efforts to destigmatize discussions about mental illness, and fans worldwide with BPD have expressed their admiration for Sunmi talking about BPD openly and how they related to the song. At the end of her interview about the Borderline video, Sunmi is asked if there are any last words she wants to say, and Sunmi answers that although she does not think Borderline has a grand message because she wrote it as her own story, she hopes that through it she can tell people, “You are not alone.”

 

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jeff. “Park Bom Opens Up About How Controversy, Insomnia & ‘A New Family’ Led to her Triumphant ‘Spring’ Comeback.” Billboard, 14 March 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8502609/park-bom-spring-interview-how-controversy-insomnia-and-a-new-family-led-to-her-comeback/. Accessed 23 September 2021.

“[ENG] [2회] ‘사랑받고 싶다는 마음’ 경계선 인격 장애로 힘든 시기를 보낸 선미의 이야기 #달리는사이 | Running girls EP.2 | Mnet 201216 방송.” YouTube, uploaded by Mnet TV, 16 December 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsHTwXOmjBE

Frances, Lai. “Sunmi on K-Pop’s Global Expansion, Her Solo Career, and ‘Glowing Up’ (Interview).” Pop Crush, 27 March 2019, https://popcrush.com/sunmi-warning-tour-new-york-interview/. Accessed 23 September 2021.

@miyaohyeah. “Borderline.” Twitter, 24 February 2019, 9:34 a.m., https://twitter.com/miyaohyeah/status/1099679050799362049?lang=en

@miyaohyeah. “When I started making Borderline, I was quite afraid to reveal my injury from the past bcuz all the words in this song are true and honest feelings of mine. I realized that many people, not just me, were struggling with this feeling.” Twitter, 20 August 2020, 7:14 a.m., https://twitter.com/miyaohyeah/status/1296405125943173122?lang=en

Sansone, Randy A, and Lori A Sansone. “Responses of mental health clinicians to patients with borderline personality disorder.” Innovations in clinical neuroscience vol. 10,5-6 (2013): 39-43.

SUNMI. “Borderline.” 1/6 – EP, Abyss Company, 2021.

“Sunmi – Borderline [Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Ep 532.]” YouTube, uploaded by KOCOWA TV, 18 March 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nC6B_vJW338.

“Sunmi explains the meaning of ‘LALALAY’ and ‘Borderline’ | Talking Lyrics.” YouTube, uploaded by KBS Kpop, 3 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe492FRFPac&t=1s

Yonhap. “K-pop stars temporarily leaving music scene over anxiety disorders.” The Korea Herald, 13 January 2020, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200113000709. Accessed 23 September 2021.

“선미 (SUNMI) – BORDERLINE Interview.” YouTube, uploaded by SUNMI, 27 August 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk46q2IOgXQ

Messy Beds and Messy Facts in the Chelsea Hotel

Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel #2” is a poignant depiction of a sexual encounter in one of New York’s iconic Bohemian landmarks. The most vivid line of its opening stanza is “giving me head on the unmade bed”, which discloses intimate details about the encounter in terms that were bracingly graphic for a folk song of the 1970s. But the song does not disclose sufficient personal details to identify his romantic partner – only enough to speculate that she might be a famous musician. With this veil of anonymity, the song avoids invading anyone’s privacy. Nevertheless, twenty years after recording it, Leonard Cohen called it “The sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret…Because I associated a woman’s name with a song…and I’ve always disliked the locker-room approach to these matters.”

The name in question is Janis Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose four years before the song was recorded. Leonard Cohen first dropped her name during a live performance of the song in 1976, relating an anecdote of their brief courtship in the Chelsea Hotel elevator. I provided a live video instead of the studio recording as an example, because in this case, the breach of privacy happened extratextually.

Ann Powers is far from the only writer to refer to this incident as “kissing and telling”, and the gossipy connotations of that phrase implicitly impugn Cohen’s motive for divulging Joplin’s identity. He himself expressed shame at the “locker-room” aspect, and if his only motive was pure macho braggadocio about bedding a dead celebrity, that would indeed be shameful. More calculating, but just as reprehensibly ego-driven, is the possibility that he hoped this salacious detail would boost his public image as an unlikely romantic hero; after all, his career was struggling while Janis Joplin was a cultural icon. But what if the motive was artistic rather than parasitic? This song is an elegy; we cannot know its literary genre without knowing that its subject is deceased. Cohen briefly kept her anonymous – and himself safe from criticism – in the liner notes to his 1975 album Best of Leonard Cohen, “I wrote this song for an American singer who died a while ago”. But doesn’t the song become a little more poignant when we can hear that rallying cry, “we are ugly, but we have the music”, in Janis Joplin’s inimitable, brash, wounded rasp? I, for one, am grateful for the specificity of that echo.

Is it pretentious, or even dangerous, to let someone off the hook just because their indiscretion achieves some sublime artistic purpose? William Faulkner told The Paris Review in 1956, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one…If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” I don’t usually take ethical advice from apologists for segregation, let alone advocates of gerontocide, but I’ve always seen “if he is a good one” as the key phrase here. It’s hardly fair to hold better writers to a lower ethical standard, and I would not personally argue that any song is worth literal human lives, no matter how transcendent. However, I do believe “Chelsea Hotel #2” is worth a little discomfort. I don’t know how to convert this belief into any reasonable ethical guidepost; how can an artist impartially judge whether their own work provides sufficient social benefit to violate someone’s privacy? They can’t; they can seek advice and search their soul and scour their heart of malice, but in the end, it’s a risk – and isn’t risk how art is made, anyway?

Ann Powers addresses the act of writing songs about the dead, “The ultimate absence makes it easier, perhaps…there’s no chance in those cases of being told directly that you got things wrong.” But what if your dead subject winds up getting the last word? In 1969, Janis Joplin discussed Leonard Cohen in an interview that went unpublished until the 1999 release of Doon Arbus and Richard Avedon’s coffee table book The Sixties. Presumably, Leonard Cohen did not know this interview existed when he expressed his regret about naming her. Perhaps he felt less ashamed when he found out that her indiscretion had preceded his. Or maybe he felt more ashamed once he was faced with her recollection of their time together:

And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realize that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me. I mean, that really happened to me. Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened. Twice. Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to… without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them… And then they both gave me nothing.

This would not be the first time a man had poignant memories of leaving a woman unsatisfied. Maybe Cohen didn’t consciously misrepresent his experience so much as fail to perceive hers; after all, Joplin’s memory of “not balling” doesn’t explicitly contradict his memory of receiving oral sex. And yet, every time I read this interview, Joplin’s account doesn’t only call Cohen’s perception into question, but his veracity, as well. She makes it sound like what really happened was closer to nothing than not quite what I wanted. Is it not a distinct possibility that the only unmade-bed-head Leonard Cohen received was in his inebriated dreams?

As long as we’re questioning Cohen’s ethics, we might as well question Joplin’s. She’s not only naming names, she’s insulting Cohen’s sexual prowess, just for the hell of it, not for any apparent artistic purpose. But isn’t there something refreshing about a woman of the 60s speaking with such brazen self-deprecation of her sexual misadventures? In the words of Emily Gould, she “pose[s] a threat to the social order, which relies on women’s embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially accepted modes.”

Leonard Cohen said of his indiscretion, “If there is some way of apologizing to a ghost, I want to apologize now.” Joplin’s ghost may have an answer for him: Who gives a damn about indiscretion? Get your facts straight, and show some consideration for a woman’s physical needs!

Alas, we can’t get the facts straight. To paraphrase Cohen, they’re messy, but we have the music.

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Too Much Crying, Not Enough H Mart: On the Perils of Turning an Essay into a Book

While reading the titular first chapter of Crying in H Mart, I thought to myself, this is a good book for me to read. I identified with the author and topic, since my spouse also has a white father and Asian mother and sees Filipino food as a major point of connection to their culture. But by the time I was approaching the end of Crying in H Mart, I was thinking to myself, This just isn’t the right book for me to read. After all, I’m the type of person who will be bored by a cooking show no matter how many competitive gimmicks are introduced, and I consider being forced to watch sped-up food prep videos on Instagram a mild form of torture; I just don’t have a strong visual or emotional relationship with food. (And if you think that makes me weird, you’re probably right.)

Zauner’s prose is vivid, her narrative voice perceptive and appealing. I found myself genuinely moved by many passages, and I know a lot of people who loved this book (including a couple strangers who spotted me reading it in public), giving credence to my hunch that I might simply be the wrong reader for this book. But that only tells you about me and my pathologies, not about the book, so I would like to consider the possibility that Crying in H Mart has certain structural deficiencies that made it fall flat for me in the end.

But first, I would like to point out a few narrative strategies that make the first chapter so powerful. From that stunning, disorienting first sentence, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart”(3), Zauner establishes H Mart as an objective correlative for grief over her mother’s death. She also complicates this subject of grief by linking it to questions of her own identity, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?…I relied on my mom for access to our Korean heritage”(4). She uses H Mart as a means of granting the reader this access, but it is a grueling, puzzling form of access, much like navigating a biracial identity in America, “As you go farther into your pilgrimage, the lettering on the awnings slowly begins to turn into symbols that you may or may not be able to read”(6).

Within this first chapter, Asian cuisine itself begins vying with H Mart for the role of Zauner’s cathartic grief-object, “Food was how my mother expressed her love”(4). And ultimately, food wins out. For the rest of the book, the prose remains positively festooned with litanies of meals and lists of ingredients in both English and Korean, targeting not only our taste senses, but our aural senses as well, forcing us to confront the particular tactility of the Korean language. Meanwhile, H Mart becomes an occasionally-mentioned afterthought; for the rest of Crying in H Mart, we have a lot of crying, but no H Mart. That absence didn’t bother me when the book was flashing back to al those teenaged clashes with her mother; the narrative was riding a wave of tension and discovery, and had no need yet for a locus of grief. But when the act of dying takes over as its primary focus, we are treated to many climaxes that should be cathartic (a deathbed wedding, cooking as therapy), only to find ourselves drifting into the realm of pathos.

Pathos can be moving at times, and I won’t dispute the sheer vividness of the description of her mother’s fight with cancer. But those whirlwinds of emotion and witness don’t achieve cohesion. Zauner’s strategy of describing elaborate meals provides hundreds of different edible images. As much as we learn to show not tell, this culinary cornucopia functions as an exercise in diminishing returns, and ultimately prevents us from tapping into one central or unifying image. Kimchi has that monolithic, cathartic potential when she cooks it as a therapeutic means of processing her grief, but by that point all those lovely, lush descriptions were about as overplayed as the Celine Dion song that provides the title for chapter 15. They sounded like background elevator music, and ceased to excite my senses. (Well, ok, maybe I wasn’t completely unfazed by “jizz porridge”)(215). Compare those specific, rarefied ingredients with my favorite sense description in the book, after she calls 911 and gets wrestled to the ground by her mother, “she yelled, her tears and spit falling onto my face. She smelled like olive oil and citrus.”(65) Such salubrious and quotidian household scents, contrasted with such a wrenching, violent moment; doesn’t that tell us more about her mother than any of the food she cooks?

In the final chapter, Zauner switches gears; her music career finally takes off, and she discovers a Korean song her mother used to love. In a book where food serves so prominently as a medium of commonality, it’s an intriguing move to end on music, which represented her most painful disagreement with her mother. But Zauner doesn’t probe that tension. She gives us an image of her mother with “her foot on [God’s] neck, demanding good things come my way”(233). This is funny, of course, but ultimately sentimental. Where is the memory of her mother’s scathing dismissal of her musical ambitions?

Conceptually speaking, I did not find “food” as interesting as H Mart, a microcosm where fraught and overlapping identities can be reconciled. My understanding is that the first chapter was initially published as a stand-alone essay in the New Yorker, and this book was subsequently developed as an expansion. I feel that H Mart’s waning significance over the course of the narrative should serve as a warning of the perils of constructing an entire book as a sort of mega-mansion annexing a popular essay. This summer, I read another recent memoir examining the death of a parent, Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space. I preferred it for a lot of reasons (not least that the author and I ran with the same crew of maladjusted misfits in high school), but one of those reasons is structural. Rather than leaning on the fanfare of a single essay and then abandoning the very metaphor that made it successful, Dancyger’s multivalent metaphor of absence, “negative space”, is woven throughout the book, building gradually in lucidity, and finally achieving a revelatory apotheosis near the end of the story. I don’t know that I would want to read a whole book about (or gratuitously referring to) H Mart, but I do wish Zauner had found a substitute object of equal metaphorical power.

Joyner Lucas & The Duality of Pain

There is nothing but sorrow and pain when it comes to the loss of a loved one. Especially when it comes to those who have unfortunately taken their own lives. The wondering of what went wrong and what could’ve been done is something that Joyner Lucas’ song “I’m Sorry” expresses and seeks to understand. Joyner creates a biography/ auto-biography hybrid within the song as he tells the tale of his friend’s possible final thoughts while overlapping it with his own about the situation. This creates a dilemma in the storytelling that makes lister have to distinguish who the voice of the story is at sometimes. The song is separated into two distinct parts: one from the perspective of a friend who committed the act and the other from Lucas himself who has to live with the knowledge of it. The song presents a structure in its lyrics that focuses on duality and Juxtaposition. Things such as artist John legend’s song “ordinary people” is continually referred to on both parts of the song showing that perhaps it is not as easy as it seems to be an “ordinary” person or perhaps this is what “ordinary” people have to deal with.  

Though the first part of the song deals with more the ethical aspects that Phillipe Lejeune speaks about in regards to autobiography and storytelling, I first wish to focus on the more autobiographical part of the song (which is the second part). In the second part of the song words are lyrical structures are repeated in order to emphasize the similarities both speakers have while also contrasting their situationsLines like “And my mind spinning, this is the line finish. Truth is I don’t care about how you feel about my feelings”. Is displayed in both parts and helps to create a narrative of emotional dissonance between both Joyner and his friend that he characterizes. The song creates this symmetrical structure that blends the mind of both youth with viewers only asking “what if they cared about how the other viewed them?”. Would it have made a difference or would it have created some sense of clarity between the two? Regardless the song elevates it themes when presenting how both the parties are afflicted and how it can create this cycle of sadness and darkness. These thoughts from Joyner help to not only give insight to his life but to help breathe life into the situation and his friend (figuratively). The language is universal enough, that listeners are able to resonate with similar emotions and thoughts. However, it is also specific enough that it is still Joyner’s story at the end of the day.  

When looking at how Phillipe Lejeune’s “On Autobiography” there is a clear part that helps to resonate and bring forth his ideas within the song. One of the categories Lejeune presents in relation to autobiographical prose is the “Position of the narrator” and how “The narrator and the principal character are identical.” (pg.4). Though the narrator and principal character of the are different characters (at times) in the song, there is still argument to be made on how the narrator and PC (principal character) are the same. The song plays many times with the focus of the narrator and the blending of the two lends itself to what Lejeune’s ideals are. The principal character may shift in the song but the narrator and how the message comes across is the same. In this way though the narrator and PC shifts back and forth there is still room to see how it is the same “voice” and how it aligns with Lejeune. Another thing to note of it is how Joyner plays with the aspect of character. As noted in Ann Powers article “This Song Is About You” there is a blending of truth and characterization in many artists song as non-fiction and fiction intertwine. “I’m Sorry” plays with such things as the first part has Joyner standing in place of his deceased friend. The last written words of his friend are definitely real, but the actual contents of it are subjective at best. This can definitely raise some ethical issues as one must question the validity of some of the words or possible situation. Not the tragedy of losing a loved one, but if Joyner has the right to speak on his behalf. Perhaps the question lies on if anyone is permitted to speak on behalf of the deceased in these kinds of situations? Is it something to even be questioned or do people even question it to begin with?  

Though both parts of the song have their merits artistically, they both strike a chord for many who listen. I believe that regardless of such Joyner is able to capture the duality of pain while construing things in this biographical/autobiographical lens. Some of the ideas and questions presented may be present due to the nature of the subject matter. However, their is no question that this is Joyner’s story to tell at the end of the day.

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Cooking and Crying with Michelle and Maangchi

Koreans in the diaspora, mixed race Koreans (like Michelle Zauner), and Korean adoptees (like myself) can have a difficult time claiming our Koreanness, especially when it seems there is no shortage of people gatekeeping who gets to be considered “Korean enough.” Zauner’s palpable grief over losing her mother – and making me and all of my friends who have read the book also cry in H Mart – is compounded with the loss of a part of her identity. Without Chong Mi, the last person who could share with and tie Zauner to her Korean heritage, Zauner questioned whether or not she had any claim to her Koreanness left. The loss is multiplied: losing not only her mother, but also an integral part of her identity. Zauner expresses this when she goes to a jjimjilbang; “It was ironic that I, who once longed to resemble my white peers and desperately hoped my Koreanness would go unnoticed, was now absolutely terrified that this stranger in the bathhouse could not see it” (226). How can Koreans like Zauner and I claim, or reclaim, our Koreanness? Is it enough to be born in Seoul if you aren’t raised there and don’t grow up speaking Korean? When the lessons hangul hakgyo didn’t stick? Can you be an authentic Korean even if you can’t cook real Korean food, especially when there is no one left to teach you? That’s where Maangchi comes in. For Zauner, Maangchi’s YouTube channel became a haven to learn Korean cooking and reconnect with memories of her mother after her passing. In the essay that later became Crying in H Mart, “Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” Zauner writes about the healing experience of cooking along with Maangchi’s videos, and how finally after a year of cooking with Maangchi, and a year of dreaming of a sick and ailing Chong Mi, Zauner began to dream of her healthy mother preparing kimchi. Starting with the jatjuk that Kye refused to teach Zauner how to make, instead “Maangchi had supplied the secrets to its composition step by step, like a digital guardian I could always turn to, delivering the knowledge that had been withheld from me, that was my birthright” (Zauner 191).

In 2019, Zauner sat down with Maangchi and Sarah Lee of Kimbap Lab to talk Korean food, and Zauner said to Maangchi that she is her viewers’ “surrogate digital mom” and that many people learn how to cook Korean food by following her videos. With over five million subscribers on YouTube, Maangchi teaches Korean cooking with an abundance of warmth and openness, and welcomes her viewers to adapt her recipes to suit their tastes and dietary preferences. To celebrate the publication of Crying in H Mart, Zauner and Maangchi prepared a recipe from Maangchi’s first cookbook – sagwa ssamjang – together over Zoom and then answered questions from viewers, including if Maangchi would ever create a completely vegan Korean cookbook; Maangchi has considered it but added that she has had vegan viewers tell her how they have managed to veganize even her Korean chicken dishes. The last question was about what Korean food meant to Zauner and Maangchi in regards to connections across generation and culture, and both answered that cooking and eating Korean food was a way to remember family members especially because, as Maangchi explained, Korean food is meant to be eaten together in community. Although it is only a small part of Crying in H Mart, Zauner’s brief descriptions of finding Maangchi’s YouTube channel and beginning the therapeutic process of cooking Korean dishes resonated with me because I can personally relate to that feeling of watching Maangchi and feeling connected to my culture. (Unfortunately, my own endeavors in Korean cooking have been much less successful than Zauner’s because I lack any culinary talent.)

 

Works Cited

“Maangchi & Japanese Breakfast Explore Effects of War on Korean Cuisine | Close to Home.” YouTube, uploaded by Munchies, 14 May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7OqC0qtJYc.

“Michelle Zauner & Maangchi make sagwa-ssamjang and discuss CRYING IN H MART.” YouTube, uploaded by Knopfdoubleday, 26 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFXUlqUv4DU.

Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

—. “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi.” Glamour, 13 July 2016, https://www.glamour.com/story/real-life-love-loss-and-kimchi. Accessed 24 September 2021.

The Spectacle of Old Age in Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years”

Many of us are familiar with the trope of the aging artist lodged in time, yearning for bygones. The gravity involving the reproduction of this trope is obscured by cultural branding—or rather, the cultural conditioning that augments youth and diminishes old age to an incomprehensible stigma. This infatuation with youth and the ageism involved is prevalent in all modes of artistry. So much of our culture attempts to barricade against time with anti-aging sentiment primarily through commercialization. Moses Sumney’s autobiographical song, “Me In 20 Years,” engages with this cultural paradox by depicting it as so acutely internalized that it becomes a conversation with self. Sumney broods with his signature falsetto range in concern of “old age,” addressing himself (both present and future) with pronouns like I, me, and you. In the music video, Sumney wears exaggerated makeup and prosthetics to manifest this older self. Twenty years from now, Sumney would only be around fifty years old, and obviously not as dilapidated as he is presenting himself. This draws attention to the caricature surrounding this stigma—in this case, a grey-bearded man nudging yet another decaying tooth out of his mouth. Sumney materializes this internalization to mirror the absurdities of this stigma, and cautions its fictive nature.

Much of what Sumney offers in “Me in 20 Years” is a good fit for theoretical analysis. This is especially relevant when Sumney performs what Louis Althusser identifies in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” as “interpellation” with, “Hey, after all these years” and “Hey me in 20 years.” Interpellation involves an individual’s internalizing of a social convention through the depiction of said individual being “hailed” by a representative figure of society. Sumney engages with this internalization directly by only addressing himself, flipping the societal narrative that requires some societal figure/symbol to perform this “hailing.” In other words, Sumney takes control of this narrative. The dreary climax of “Me in 20 Years” both lyrically and visually confronts the inefficacy of society’s infatuation with youth and its superficialities. Sumney stresses the superficiality of this anti-aging stigma in the following lines: “Do you still hoard souvenirs / And make them mirrors / Of sentimental veneer?” By using the verb “hoard,” Sumney calls attention to the unhealthy obsession with youth as alluded to with the negative connotation of the word. With “sentimental veneer” he is exposing this recollection of youth as decorative or surface-level. During this moment in the music video, older Sumney embraces a sweater he pulls from his wardrobe. He finds himself in the mirror, young again, then continues to dance with the sweater as if it were alive. In the music video, the color of the sweater is a non-vibrant and unimpressive grey. Yet, he dances with it intimately. This is similar to what Karl Marx identified as “commodity fetishism” or the capitalist infatuation with objects so much so that the owner perceives it as alive. Perhaps, one of the most intriguing metaphors Sumney uses involves the term, “cavity,”  which produces visceral imagery of decay. This is especially so since the cavity also shares space with the image of “rotten milk.” Sumney presents this entity, or rather this state as “your imprint” or “pit,” but soon elaborates it to a cavity. In the music video, on the right side of his bed,  this cavity is a cushioned void that heaves as if it is breathing. The exaggerated, almost fantastical representation of the cavity points to the fictive stigma that surrounds older age. Seemingly, the cavity is the remains of what was, and perhaps, what is left; or rather, who Sumney was in his youth and what is left of him in this imagined older age. He laments this future loss by substituting intimacy with a lonely self-regard, “And nothing left to hold but pride.” By using the word, “pride,” Sumney calls attention to the abstract nature of this cavity, i.e., this stigma. In the end, Sumney imagines himself merging with “the cavity he feared.” In the music video, rather than show him being forced into this cavity,  he willingly crawls into it. This image suggests that there is a sense of choice—or could this be a reaffirmation of that intense internalization that Sumney inevitably gives in to?

It is worth considering how the function of “replay” in pop songs complicates the genre as a medium for autobiography. A song is steered into the popular realm as a result of its prevalence and how many “listens” it achieves. The result of this may be the loss of a song’s meaning. This is similar to the anomaly that is semantic satiation or when a word loses its “meaning” when recited again and again. Perhaps, the length of songs compared to more detailed mediums like books or films, contribute to this limitation. Music, especially pop music is easy to digest, so much so, its content may escape us from time to time. Any truth or autobiographical complexities in music could easily dissolve into white-noise, which begs the question: Could there be a pact that holds the audience accountable in analyzing their favorite song on repeat?

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