“soju one glass” – jung jae-il & choi woo-shik (2019)

915wseQURHL._SS500_

Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comedic thriller Parasite took several of the top prizes at last night’s Academy Awards including the honor of “Best Director” and “Best Picture,” making history as the first foreign film to earn the Academy’s distinction.  The film also took home the award for “Best International Film,” a symbolic rebranding of the now defunct “Best Foreign Language Film.” The South Korean film made history on several fronts, and rightfully so. Of the nominees, it was the best film of the year and deserved every accolade it won.

The plot of Parasite revolves around the lives of the Kim family, a husband and wife with their son and daughter, as they struggle to make ends meet. Together, they work low-paying gigs and pool their money to keep their lives stable in a small semi-basement apartment, complete with poor plumbing, bug infestations, and a window view of drunks urinating in the street.  When Ki-woo, the son, earns a gig as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, the family conspires to take advantage of Ki-woo’s new role as an opportunity to make life better for themselves, albeit deceitfully.

The Kim family plots to have the remaining staff of the wealthy family laid off and, one by one starting with Ki-woo as the tutor, recommend someone else from the family as a replacement but appearing as unrelated.  Soon every member of the family has a new job working for the wealthy family, living adjacently to a life of luxury.

One evening, when the wealthy family is out of town, the Kim family shack up in the wealthy family’s house and live as though they owned the home.  Drunk, and with food trash everywhere, they have nearly turned the pristine house into their semi-basement slum, proving that old habits die hard regardless of setting.  When the wealthy family’s prior nanny makes a surprise visit to the house in a middle of a rainstorm, the Kim family learn that they are not the only ones feeding off the wealth and success of their employers and ultimately, for the sake of the film’s title, hosts.

Parasite is a clever and shocking analysis of class and social inequality.  It serves as a reflection of modern capitalism, with individuals relying on connections to get ahead in life. And given that the remaining eight nominees for “Best Picture” featured well-known Hollywood juggernauts, seeing a fresh, international face garner such acclaim is refreshing.  Especially at a time when tackling gender, ethnic, and racial inequality in entertainment was a top priority.

I was thrilled when Parasite took the top prize last night.  The group I was with watching the Oscars with all let out shocked cheers when the announcement was made.  We knew it was the best film of the year, but still felt like it was a longshot to earn the distinction of being the best film of the year.

When the awards were over, I was joking with my friends that the Korean movie about the poor family usurping the rich family winning the biggest award of the night was really funny.  Think about it.  For all the criticisms that Hollywood gets for being too white and male, the dark house foreign film swept most of the biggest awards.  The foreign film usurped the biggest night in American film.  The irony was rich, but then something started troubling me.

Chris Rock and Steve Martin were two of the first presenters and took some time to roast Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, about him being there. Martin proclaimed Bezos a great actor and followed that by saying “He’s got cash. When he writes a check, the bank bounce” and “Jeff Bezos is so rich, he got divorced and he’s still the richest man in the world. He saw Marriage Story and thought it was a comedy.” It was a funny joke and I laughed at the time.  But when I left the Oscars party I was at and walked home, I was thinking more and more about that moment.

Amazon Prime has been making headway with content production and distribution, with titles that have earned accolades at the Emmys and Golden Globes, and it isn’t stopping there.  Streaming media is not just changing the business of television, but film as well.  Netflix had produced and distributed The Irishman, Martin’s Scorsese’s latest epic that earned several Oscar nominations (though no wins), thus proving that streaming media is changing the landscape of cinema.  With Netflix paving the way for streaming media to earn recognition in Hollywood’s most elite circle, it stands to reason that Bezos wants Prime to get a piece of the action.

Bezos in the audience means that Hollywood is courting Prime to finance, produce, and distribute films.  And I see that as being a big problem for more films like Parasite to earn the recognition they deserve.

It is getting increasingly difficult for smaller and more independent content creators to distribute their film.  Major media conglomerates are absorbing, and sometimes dissolving, smaller studios and often serve as the gatekeepers.  Where once were many commercially and critically successful media companies, there are much less now as only a handful of major media conglomerates control the vast majority of content production and distribution.  It is getting increasingly difficult for independent filmmakers to get their films seen let alone be commercially viable or critically recognized.

A lot of jokes and comments were made during the ceremony about Hollywood’s issue with diversity and inclusivity.  And it certainly does have an issue when it comes to gender, ethnic, and racial representation.  Our entertainment needs more women and people of color on screen and in roles that are dignified with commercial and critical appeal.

However, the solution to solving Hollywood’s diversity problem cannot just be solved by adding more women and people of color to films.  Hollywood is a business, and a very elitist one at that; a business built on nearly a century of systemic institutional flaws that where gatekeepers enforce a consistent status quo.  Hollywood wants a to talk a big game about accessibility or how the stories they tell reflect people from all walks of life, but not if affects their bottom line.

So, the real solution to making Hollywood more inclusive and diverse and breaking down the big money that drives the industry and culture.  It means keeping people like Jeff Bezos from earning so much power in the highest echelon of film.  It means dismantling the institutional biases that allow the largest studios to remain unchecked. It means taking the money out of the awards circuit, with often the big winners being the ones who spent the most money.  It is about taking the power from the few and transferring it to the many.

The ultimate irony is not that the foreign film usurped the American awards.  It is that a film that condemns class struggle and inequality won big in the arena that is courting one of the richest men in the world, thus signifying the arrival of yet another conglomerate taking up space that could be reserved for elevating films from smaller studios.  I really hope Parasite is a sign of true change and not an exception.  If we really want to continue to see more groundbreaking, unique, and diverse films like that, Hollywood has to change on a deeply institutional level and not be swayed by big money.

Since this is a blog with music as its central theme, let’s pivot.  While Parasite was not nominated for “Best Original Score,” the soundtrack to the film is stellar. Composed by Jung Jae-il, the soundtrack effectively captures the tension and conflict of the film.  With many tracks from the soundtrack’s score really elevating the narrative quality of the film, with an aesthetic that symbolizes the score as a sort of character in the film, the needling piano and disquieting strings and drums allow you to immerse yourself into the house.  You feel you are taking up space along with Kim family.  The score feels uncomfortable and signifies that you don’t belong there.

Most notable in the film is the track “Soju One Glass” which plays over the film’s credits and closes out the soundtrack.  Written by director Bong Joon- ho and sung by the film’s star Choi Woo-shik, “Soju One Glass” is the Kim family’s son’s declaration that he will buy the house he had helped to try to usurp.  With the ending of Parasite being somewhat ambiguous, though reinforcing the wide inequity of class today, the song is a perfect extension of the film’s theme and the Kim family’s struggle. And much like Bezos infiltrating Hollywood, one’s dreams are at the mercy of someone far richer.

“do what u want [remix feat. christina aguilera]” – lady gaga (2014)

R-6798185-1426887601-1306.jpeg

The Oscars aired last night and, continuing my streak for a while now, I did not watch. For me, watching the Oscars has always just been entertainment, not something to take seriously.  And while the Academy deserves to be checked for not being inclusive enough when it comes to films coming from people of color or from smaller, independent filmmakers, how seriously people take this celebrity spectacle frankly just bores me.

After the broadcast, I did check online to see the winners.  Most were standard and assumed, and a few were surprises.  And, as expected, people ended the evening upset. It always happens. No matter what, the toxic culture of social media amplifies the manufactured outrage and they rally about injustices that really do not matter. This usually lasts a few days, sometimes a week, and whatever did upset them goes into the dustbin of history to be remembered years later in some snarky op-ed about some future Oscars ceremony or in a pub trivia question.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of all the categories, the only one I felt was an absolute 100% guarantee was “Shallow” for “Best Original Song” from Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born.  Joined by his co-star, Lady Gaga and Cooper performed the song together at the ceremony with all the confidence of people who knew their Oscar was just moments away. And while “Shallow” was the best song in the category, this win, unlike the others during the night, troubled me a bit.  Specifically, its loose connection to the other big pop culture story of the last week.

Kelly was arrested last week after two decades of committing sexual assault against minors, many of whom he had groomed from an early age and kept trapped in the cult of personality carefully crafted and cultivated by the disgraced singer. Kelly’s arrest came right off the heels of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that aired in January.

While I applaud that Kelly has been arrested and will, hopefully, pay for his crimes, I am deeply disturbed by how long it has taken. Kelly’s sexualizing of underage girls and women can be traced back to the early 1990s through his lyrics and comments he has made, both public and in private. In the mid-1990s, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah Haughton. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for emotional and physical abuse stemming from a sexual relationship with him.

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, two reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times published the first report of Kelly’s relationships with underage girls. Since then, DeRogatis became entrusted by these girls and young women to expose Kelly for the abuser that he was. DeRogatis was sent video evidence of Kelly having sex with an underage girl, immediately sending it to the authorities.

One would think that video DeRogatis received would have ended Kelly’s career and landed him in prison.  However, it did not. Kelly was sued and taken to court by multiple women in 2002, but all the cases were settled out of court and Kelly was able to continue living as a free man. Being a teenager at this time, this part of Kelly’s history will always be remembered through Dave Chappelle’s portrayal on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, a satirical take on Kelly with Chappelle performing the song “I Wanna Piss on You.” This was a takedown from a comedic master who was truly ahead of his time, even though the rest of his industry was not. Kelly was allowed not only to continue his career but thrived within it every time he faced controversy over the years.

Now, let’s jump to 2013.  It has been roughly two decades since the earliest documented evidence of Kelly’s comments about underage girls, over a decade since his first court appearances and Chappelle’s super popular portrayal, and Lady Gaga is preparing to release her third studio album Artpop. In just a few short years, following the release of The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way, Lady Gaga was dominating the music industry with her pop hits. Designed to be an introspective look into pop stardom with a Warholian slant, Artpop was meant by Gaga to show that she was more than just the latest pop star in a long line of pop stars.

When the second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want” dropped, it was blowing me away.  Filled to the brim with raw, dripping sexuality and the freedom within, this 80s-style synthesizer-heavy track was a serious jam.  I loved it.  Or, more correctly, I wanted to love it. As hard as the music slapped and as well as Gaga performed on the track, one thing kept me from truly enjoying it as much as I could; R. Kelly was a guest vocalist on the track.

I listened to “Do What U Want” a lot when it came out.  However, with each listen, I liked it less and less.  Not because I was getting tired of it, but because Kelly’s involvement with the song really made me feel uneasy.  I was questioning why Gaga, who had survived sexual abuse herself, would give Kelly space on her album. It felt like a slap in the face to people who had experienced violence and had seen Gaga’s music as a place of refuge where they felt valid for who they were.  Gaga, in response to the criticism to working with Kelly, said

“I’ve been living in Chicago and spending a lot of time there, and that’s where R. Kelly hails from. I was working on Artpop and I wrote [‘Do What U Want’] on tour. It was about my obsession with the way people view me. I have always been an R. Kelly fan and actually it is like an epic pastime in the Haus of Gaga that we just get fucked up and play R. Kelly. This is a real R&B song and I [said ‘I] have to call the king of R&B and I need his blessing.’ It was a mutual love.”

Gaga also said

“R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us. That we were able to say, the public, they can have our bodies, but they cannot have our mind or our heart. It was a really natural collaboration.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped listening to the song and just kind of gave up on Gaga.

Within the last few years, the #MeToo movement swept through the film industry and took down some of the more serious abusers. While a lot of past behavior by many people within the industry went unchecked as the media focused on the bigger Hollywood names facing scrutiny on social media and in the courts, the music industry largely went unscathed.  And despite the massive cultural shift that #MeToo and #TimesUp were bringing, Kelly continued to thrive.

Even DeRogatis, who had been championing justice for the young women abused by Kelly, was becoming frustrated with how Kelly managed to continue having a career.  I remember reading Jessica Hopper’s First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, and she discussed the time DeRogatis called her out for supporting Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. DeRogatis had questioned Hopper how, as a woman, she could support someone who had a long history of abusing women.  Like Gaga, Hopper’s excuse was that she grew up with his music.

As #MeToo continued to dominate social media and the entertainment industry, some commentaries questioned when it would get Kelly. In 2019, it took a new documentary series, largely retelling the story DeRogatis had been reporting to disinterested audiences for almost two decades, and a new tape sent to lawyer Michael Avenatti, to finally bring Kelly into custody. On one side, it is great that it looks like Kelly will finally pay for his crimes. On the other, when I consider how long it took to bring Kelly to justice, and the voices of people like DeRogatis being largely ignored because the music industry is a large fraternity organization only looking out for their own, I am also disappointed by the complicities of the music industry and the players involved.  Players like Lady Gaga who, because she grew up with his music, felt compelled to introduce Kelly to a whole new generation of potential fans.

Gaga has since recognized the error of her ways.  The track “Do What U Want” has been pulled from all streaming services, and Gaga has gone on record saying she stands by survivors.  She rationalizes the collaboration with Kelly saying, “as a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

I am unsure if I can accept that given that Kelly’s history of abuse had spanned two decades by the time the collaboration was released. I don’t question that Gaga was going through a rough patch in her life, but I do have to question her judgment when there was so much evidence against Kelly. In 2016, prior to denouncing the collaboration with Kelly, Gaga performed the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about universities covering up rape and sexual assault cases. In the performance, Gaga shared the stage with the victims of campus rape. It surely adds some complexity to Gaga’s history when it comes to working with Kelly. So, with her being celebrated at the Oscars for her performance this year and ultimately winning the award, I’m not impressed. While #MeToo did some great things, there are still many problems within the entertainment industry.  Not only did they award Gaga who was previously complicit when it came to Kelly, but they also gave an Oscar to, Peter Farrelly,  a man who would frequently show his penis to people on set.  It reinforces to me how the Oscars are a farce and not something to take seriously as a measure of quality.  It is hard to not believe that Gaga’s denouncing R. Kelly came only at a time when she could earn an Oscar.

After not listening to “Do What U Want” for several years, it wasn’t until recently that I learned the song was remixed to exclude Kelly’s vocals and replaced with Christina Aguilera’s. Debuting on New Year’s Day in 2014, this “Do What U Want” remix with Aguilera was still released during a time when Gaga was complicit when it came to Kelly and his crimes.  However, I loved the that I could now listen to this jam again guilt free because Kelly was nowhere on it.  Recorded in a session in Carly Simon’s living room, this new version elevates the song and gives it a power that was absent when Kelly’s vocal was originally included.

As people everywhere are groaning over the wrong film winning the top prize at the Oscars for being too white, let’s not forget that the industry is still problematic when it comes to sexual abuse. And Gaga’s win last night reaffirms that.  While people grow and learn from their mistakes, the media cycle moves so quickly that we forget sins of yesterday for the outrages of today. I am not saying that Gaga cannot be forgiven for her work with Kelly. I am sure she is sincere when she denounces it now. We all learn and grow and better ourselves.  However, this was not that long ago, and people are largely quick to forget when they are distracted by things that do not really matter.