Sunday, November 02, 2008


The Trains are Alive With the Sound of...

For a person who hates mornings, there are few things worse than being woken up by an alarm at 7 a.m. One thing that definitely is worse, however, is waking up at 6:58 a.m.

In the middle of a work week, just because the eyes have opened and awareness has somewhat returned doesn’t mean one will be ready to rise. This is why most alarms sound like they do: a shrieking series of notes designed to be the aural equivalent of having an ice pick thrust not so gently into one’s eardrum.

I’ve come to appreciate the manufacturers of these alarm clocks, however, in that they knew whatever sound awoke those like me would become one we’d hate with an undying passion. Kudos to them for picking one they knew I’d hate from the start, and not spoiling any of life’s other sounds.

6:58 wouldn’t be such a bad time to wake up if the energy required to rise from bed and turn off the alarm were there. Usually, though, the commencement of that ice pick in the ear sound is what is it takes to motivate to get me out of bed. All I get from waking up at 6:58 is two extra minutes to think about the alarm, and two minutes can go by awfully slow when you don’t even have the energy to turn your head away.

The 7 a.m. alarm will surely come, though, and with it the demands of the day. These days my first demands to be met consist of getting dressed and inhaling a bowl of cereal before driving to the Chuncheon train station, where the 7:55 will carry me to Seoul, two hours away, so that I can then take a 20-minute subway ride, assuring me that I will make it to work by my scheduled time of 11 a.m.

Until recently, the train ride was a drab, but peaceful experience. Then, in the last couple of weeks, the train company decided that music would better help us pass the time. Like in many places, the Beatles are quite popular in Korea, and a local musician (or musicians) thought it would be a fitting tribute to record some of the Fab Four’s songs with Korean traditional stringed instruments. At the institute where I practice taekwondo, the instructor has a playlist of such songs, including, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

The train has only one song given the Korean instrumental treatment, however: “Let It Be.” Among the Beatles repertoire, one could do better (“Dear Prudence” is a personal favorite) and one could do worse (“Octopus’s Garden” … ick). I think I appreciate the Fab Four as much as anyone born a decade after they broke up, but certainly not enough to hear any one of their songs plucked all the way through several times each morning. The train company is fond of playing it just before departure and just before arrival in Seoul, apparently triggering it just after reaching a certain point that’s just before our final stop in Seoul. The problem is, sometimes, with all the other trains and subway cars going in and out of that station, arrival can sometimes be delayed long enough to pluck “Let It Be” three times all the way through.

After 10 non-stop minutes of this, the train station succeeds in doing something far more egregious than any alarm clock manufacturer: They take a sound I once liked and make me hate it.

Less offensive than this, but still highly unpleasant, are those who would ruin a sound before I ever got a chance to like it. The greatest such offender is the office building where I work. The newspaper company that employs me shares its building with an insurance company, with the latter apparently winning the thumb-wrestling contest that decided whose commercials would be advertised on our elevator monitor. It certainly wasn’t through any creative genius that they won such rights: as near as I can tell the company has only two commercials.

Their logo is a kind of flower with red, round-shaped petals, and in the first commercial those red circles turn into bouncing red balls which attach themselves to people’s faces and turn into clown noses, to these people’s apparent delight (I feel that now is a good time to point out that the same narcotics which are illegal in the United States are also illegal in Korea).

Not only have I memorized the facial expressions of these people before and after they receive their red-bouncing-ball-clown-noses, I have every note of this commercial’s insipidly cutesy piano tune committed to memory, and will probably hum it incessantly between Vicodin injections once I’m sentenced to the loony bin.

That tune, however, is Heaven’s golden angelic chorus compared to the company’s other commercial. In it, the round red shapes are balloons which carry people in dresses and business suits to a kind of business meeting in the sky while an elvish character plays flute and sits on a cloud (and I reiterate; drugs are illegal here! Somebody came up with this idea while sober!). The harpsichord-and-flute ensemble was kind of pleasant the first time, but I’ve now been hearing it on every elevator trip since I started working there five months ago. I imagine that whoever watches through the elevator security camera counts the number of building employees who’ve cocked their fists at the monitor, contemplating whether shattering it, and thus earning an eternal blight on their resume is a small price to pay for blessed quiet.

None of this bothered me so much before I fell asleep one morning on the train with my iPod attached, only to wake up and, after leaving the train, find that it had slipped off my belt loop. Now nothing can protect my ears from the elevator music. But, on the other hand, I now know what everyone in Korea is listening to: “Nobody” by the Wonder Girls. I don’t mean it’s on everyone’s playlist; I mean that it IS everyone’s playlist: I’ve heard young women blare this three minute, thirty second song on their headphones for up to 10 minutes non-stop. All of them also have it as their cell phone’s ring tone.

It’s not that Korean pop songs are worse than American pop: It’s pretty much the same, except the singers are Korean, as are most of the lyrics. The chorus, however, is more often than not in English. For “Nobody,” the chorus is as follows: “Nobody nobody but you/I want nobody nobody but you/ooooooh/nobody nobody/nobody nobody.” This tells you all you need to know about the creativity found in Korea’s popular music scene, as well as its English competence (which is to say, slightly higher than America’s in both departments).

Not long ago, I thought I might be losing my edge and that Korean pop was growing on me. This single song has convinced me that I have not completely slipped off the edge into lowbrow territory. I suppose that the next time I wake up at 6:58 I can console myself with the fact that I have taste in what I listen to. More often that not, though, I lie there thinking that, with all the alarm clocks, pop songs, elevator music and the ritual desecration of classic rock standards that await, it might have been better to have been born deaf.

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