Tuesday, 18 August 2009

California Dream

My ontological principle in my iTune is, unfortunately, very conventional: alphabetical order. As a result, after a whole day of listening to Béla Bartók, I am now humming to the tunes of the Beach Boys while having a Heineken. Meanwhile, as Stella (Thelma Ritter) says in
Rear Window (1954), the summer thunderstorm in New York does nothing besides making the heat wet.

The Beach Boys always bring me to the PCH, with the ocean on my left, and an anticipation of an afternoon on "my" beach (no secret here, the private part of Point Dume Beach to be exact). I first listened to the Beach Boys with my mother, who usually played for me hours of American hit songs from the 1950s and 60s, though I did not start enjoying their songs until having read about Murakami Haruki's favourite character Watanabe (in his earlier novels), who always did his chores with the Beach Boys in the background. No one can possibly deny the power of their songs to summon the ideal image of Southern California, but a rather peculiar chicken-and-egg issue surfaces: Did the Beach Boys idealise Southern California?

Murakami's representation of the Beach Boys' California (often being compared with Wong Kar-wai's use of the song "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express [1994]) is often considered as an example of how American idealisation of "itself" (or a piece of "itself"), once exported to a different cultural context, became a synecdoche of the version of freedom, beauty, youthfulness, and para-modernity (notice that the Beach Boys stand precisely at the threshold between the modern and the pre-modern) that the "nation" itself wishes to represent to the "outside world." The problem with this argument, besides the simplicity of its theory of a dominant power overdetermining the semiotic structure of its imagined other, lies in its presumed dichotomy between "America" and the "outside world," as though the US has never belonged to it (a takeoff on Haun Saussy's idea of "China" and the "World" here). Is the ideal image of Southern California so much bound by "national boundaries?"

Contextulised within its historical setting, the music of the Beach Boys can be considered as the last attempt of the LA music industry (in 1961) to offer clean, homey, and wholesome entertainment for the young generation. The idea of listening to these young men expressing their sexual desire under the blessing of their "parents" renewed the already broken connection between the older and the newer generations in American families in the 1950s in popular music and cinema (Elvis Presley, Rebel without a Cause, On the Waterfront, etc.). The Beach Boys tried to portray a Southern California as a home that was desirable to live, precisely in a decade in which neighbourhoods were torn down and freeways were constructed for the purpose of building a futuristic model city. This whole picture, if we study it more carefully, is one gigantic paradox, for not only that family relationship was seriously in question by 1961 in urban California, the state itself was considered as the epitome of such systemic collapse. The intended conservative agenda of Capitol Records was therefore quickly turned inside out, and the Beach Boys were also seen by Americans and non-Americans alike as the representatives of the carefree, discrete, new generation who celebrated sexual freedom and individualistic lifestyle in "liberal" California.

In this sense, it was not that California was indeed "free" (from the perspective of pre-Civil-War international law, maybe, but that would be a different discussion), nor did the Beach Boys idealise California; rather, a "California," detached from its geographical boundary, became an imagined free agent that acted as a cohesive force between conflicting notions of an ideal life: familial harmony versus individual freedom, celebration of sexuality versus cleanliness and health, nonconformism versus observation of social boundaries. The curious thing about all these contesting notions, however, is the imaginer's oblivion to political troubles. In other words, with the Beach Boys, the social body is tactfully detached from the political body, and are thus allowed to mediate these conflicting notions "outside" the political boundaries, in a world "outside" our physical world.

No one can possibly resist the very ideal of being carried away by a surf, against the sunset off a golden beach. Despite my abstract analysis here, those beautiful beaches indeed exist.

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