what can you sing: the tellable and not so tellable in song lyrics

it makes me seem like a total geek to admit it, but a pleasing research task for me is going through the large corpus of ‘amis songs that i have collected, tracking themes and expressions–often somewhat formulaic–in the lyrics. i enjoy the oddly pleasurable tedium of the task, but one can also find important qualities of genres through this work: what kinds of expressions have currency in the genre over a long period of time, and what kinds of statements do not ever seem to appear, what we might call the relative tellability of certain experiences in a genre. this work also gives one a sense of how the treatment of these experiences might change

sometimes i am surprised by what i find

i had expected that i would find a break in generic conventions between the earliest ‘amis language songs with lyrics and songs produced in the expansion of ‘amis popular musics in the 1970s and 1980s.  after all, the 1970s were a decade in which many ‘amis men worked the far ocean fishing boats and entire families moved to urban centers on taiwan’s west coast. it’s true that in 1970s lyrics one sees more reference to takaw (kaohsiung) and taypak (taipei) and reference to 1970s popular culture. nonetheless, the 1970s and 1980s lyrics show remarkable continuity with earlier songs, quite apart from the marked differences in voice leading, arrangement, and orchestration. thus i wonder whether the relatively tellable statements of ‘amis popular musics from the 1920s to the late 1990s suggests a cultural formation of sorts and not just the experiences of a given cohort. if so, our record of far ocean fishing, which depends a great deal on these lyrics, shows the influence of the conventions of song lyrics from an earlier period. in terms of theory, such a statement is not entirely surprising. yet, it does pose a problem for someone working on history: how can we be sure that our documents reflect more than just a specific distribution of what can be told and what cannot? if we cannot be sure, then how do we treat the documents. you’ll note that this problem is not just one of perspective. it has to do with the kind of things that one can say within a given genre

on the other hand, it is also kind of cool to think of how song lyrics create a kind of continuity across diverse experiences of wandering, labouring, and longing, which might otherwise be lost in the national narratives. ‘amis do register these in age set names; for example, the appearance of lahetay (“volunteers,” referring to the conscription of soldiers to fight in japan’s war effort in the early 1940s) and  laminko (“republic,” referring to the ROC government arrival in october 1945). fela kuti had it right to call national narratives “soldiers come, soldiers go.” the movement of governments and armies notwithstanding, labour and migration have been constants of ‘amis encounters with industrial capitalism and the state organizations that would reform ‘amis life. perhaps the song lyrics point this out of constant

the lyrics also have a set of untellable statements. curiously, what we might consider a staple of popular music, expressions of romantic love, is largely untellable across this period of ‘amis songwriting. certainly, there are songs in which the singing subject encounters someone whose “face like the moon” or other beautiful features compel the singer to wonder, “what is their name?” usually, however, the singer is too shy to ask. there are many songs in which an implied male subject complains that no one notices him or wishes to be with him or in which an implied female subject laments parental disapproval of her choice of mate. however, romantic desire generally appears thwarted by personal shyness (a virtue among ‘amis men) or parental authority. one never hears statements of love for a beloved but a lament that one can never be with the beloved

(small note here. there are actually a variety of “crooked” songs that depict, in delicious metaphors of seaside, field, or forest, sexual experience. these songs, however, rarely circulate in recorded form)

statistically speaking, the most common phrases we see in ‘amis popular musics are constructions including  rarom, maeden a samaanen, and descriptions of stations, harbours, and journeys. rarom can mean sadness, loneliness, frustration, or homesickness; and maeden a samaanen “what can be done about it?” we also see many references to ‘orip life or livelihood, described as a constraining feature on personal choice, and pinangan no fa’inayan “the way of / with men,” also a phrase that makes what might otherwise appear accident of circumstance a fatal quality of being a certain kind of person (here a man, but in ‘orip no pakayoc, we see a similar operation: i have no real choice, my life is that of an orphan). the lyrics are thus fatalistic in ways that later indigenous artists would reject

apart from their fatalism, the lyrics often do lavish attention on transportation. the places that they conjure are train stations, boats in the middle of the sea, bus stops, and harbours where one can see the flags of boats and the handkerchiefs of those sending off people embarking on journeys. the songs are populated by cooliesvolunteers, fishermen, and those these wanderers have left behind. thus the songs remind us that ‘amis experienced modernity as several kinds of displacements, whose traces remain visible in diaspora communities around takaw and taypak and in concrete houses

contemporary ‘amis songwriting, which corresponds to the “discovery” of indigenous musics by ethnic chinese, if alternative, labels, still bears some of the traces of this earlier focus on wandering. take, for example, totem’s “who is singing there?” yet, contemporary indigenous songwriting seems to have a more overtly political focus. its themes are persistence and return, and it has learned from mainstream popular musics that “i love you” is tellable within pop lyrics

i had expected a bit more of a break with the far oceaning and migration of the 1970s. now i wonder if song lyrics register a sensibility that the changes in relationships with industrial capital between the 1920s and the 1980s were differences in degree and not in kind

it’s something to think about




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