Hi, my name is John McMahon.
I am an American who has lived in Thailand for over a decade and I need some help.
Ten years ago I lived in a big house on a small side street with a little bar at the end. The owner of this bar also fancied himself a singer. Every night between 11pm and 1am, he liked to grind out the same set list as loud as his old speaker system would go. At the end of each night, as a sort of ritual nightly good-bye, he would channel his inner-Eagles and sing a lispy, confused version of “Hotel California”. I remember that many a night, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling, lip-syncing his perverted rendition of the song, knowing that when he finally finished noodling those last few chords I might get some sleep; that is, if the dogs decided not to start their own repetitious chorus afterwards, of course. Those were the good old days.
I don’t want to get into weighing the merits of the song here, that’s not what this is about. Meaning no disrespect to the Eagles, but if I had never heard that song again thirty years ago, I would have been fine, and that was before moving to Thailand where I now hear it 4, 5, maybe 6 times a day. Since moving abroad, it’s been brought to my attention that every bar, restaurant, house party, temple—yeah, temples are the source of a lot of noise in Thailand—are apt to drop this golden oldie at any time, day or night.
But the fun doesn’t stop here. “Hotel” hasn’t been the only evergreen to eternally stand the test of time in Thailand. There is a whole list of songs from the 60s and 70s with a few anomalies here and there that fill the steamy air as if they were as necessary as oxygen. Some of them you may be aware of, others you could be lucky enough to have never heard:
– “Hotel California” by The Eagles
– “Country Road” by John Denver
– “Zombie” by The Cranberries
– “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
– “Yellow River” by Christie
– “Lemon Tree” by Peter, Paul, Mary
– “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions
These are just a small sample of the kind of songs that have remained at the top of the charts, believe it or not. However, it’s not only in Thailand, but from my auditory experience, throughout the developing world. What these songs have in common besides being classically repeated are that they are also mind-numbingly repetitive. Just as we learned our ABC’s singing them over and over, “Yellow River” repeats that phrase 28 times in two minutes and ten seconds. Likewise, with “Lemon Tree”, “Country Road”, and, of course, “Hotel California”.
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But my question is why? Aside from the admittedly catchy tune, repetition, and iconic sounds, what is it about “Hotel” or other classics that always find their way in that taxi to your local grocery store, within the grocery store, near the market, at the main plaza, in any given restaurant, or just any place that you wouldn’t expect?
Theoretically, in a way, these songs are language learning tools. As anyone who has worked as a primary or ESL teacher knows repetition is the key to getting a class to join in, chanting the words: “Zombie, zombie, zombie”… But does this explain the outlandish popularity and longevity of “Hotel California” in a place with no cultural cross-over with that time and place of casual sex and drug-filled nights? Not completely to my thinking. I believe it has as much to do with the rebellious cowboy/biker/hippy image that the United States exported to the world in the late 60s and early 70s.
In order to test my theory and maybe find an answer, it has long been my Thai-lifelong ambition to get a van and travel the length of the country from South to North filming cover bands in local bars interviewing them to try and understand what they take from lyrics. What do they see/interpret from:
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends,
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat.
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.
Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice,
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device,
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast,
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast.
And it could be all of those things: mainstream Western exported music, ear-catching tunes, identifiable lyrics, repetition. I’ve yet to completely figure it out. One thing that does, though, cross cultural boundaries is that “Hotel California” is everywhere: from Thailand, to Argentina, to our hearts. One day I hope to discover the reason. Until then, “you can check out any time you like/But you can never leave!”