A Thai Folk Song in American Indie Rock

Their is an interesting genealogy between global media production and the album Locust Abortion Technique (1987) by the indie-art rock group the Butthole Surfers (hereafter BS). It feels strange to write out what will become a mere footnote to a chapter about body politics in my dissertation about Thai cinematic landscapes, but no one else has mentioned it and it seems, if for no other reason, kind of interesting. Second, me and a few friends/fellow graduate students in Political Science and Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii have been riding skateboards a bit lately–since the surf is down–and editing the video footage together has led me to remember the sorts of music I listened to back in the early-1990s.

First of all, the song I wanna talk about comes from the BS album Locust Abortion Technique. The album material filters, cinematically, through a variety of song screens (8 track recordings played backwards like flashbacks, the contrast the affective frames of hedonism and agony, the montage cutting of audio clips, and the kind of scream fluxus that pre-dates the more contemporary sounds of Melt Banana at one end or Xiu Xiu at the other). But the greatest contribution of the album in my opinion is its “repetition” of found footage, which includes a Thai folk song called “kuntz” (or, “Khan” to use Thai romanization). A cursory listening of “Kuntz” seems to be a crude mockery of the female reproductive apparatus,the one Mel Gibson likes to use with Oksana Grigorieva. Some background information will reveal “Kuntz” to be a “found” song from a very old Thai folk tradition that, likewise, plays with language to switch between two meanings of the word meaning “to itch” or “to crave for” (คัน [v.] (khan) EN: itch ; scratch ; tickle ; irritate ; feel itchy; to crave for).

Here’s the BS Remix.

In the song’s Thai narrative, the itch is the internal lament of a visual symptom, a round “duang” (a reference to a spot somewhere on the body indicating a serious or terminal disease). As a literary song reference, the pejorative use of “duang” is means something like “destiny”, such that the song locates the unfortunate destiny of the singer who is “itching, itching, itching” (khan, khan, khan). The darker use of the term is, however, doubled by a lighter sexual reference of “khan” used socially in jokes among friends to indicate the desire for sex (e.g., to be itching for it). Yet the latter sexual references is outdated and rarely in use in contemporary Thai society (according to my references). In anycase, the dark coincides with the comical in this homophonic display of the term “khan”. Yet, I am told, the darker side seems to prevail within the northeastern Thai folk genre of this song.

Here is the original.

BS remix the song by exaggerating the chorus “khan, khan, khan”, cutting and multiplying its appearance at different speeds. While most listeners may interpret this as a fixation with the sound of “kuntz”–a sort of Beavis & Butthead-like fascination–the significance of the song is in the use of “remix” to create repetition. This takes place at a variety of levels. On one hand, repeating one language in the context of another, to create a puzzle about the meanings contained therein, speaks to the global possibility of aesthetics. On the other hand, repetition reiterates a concern to be addressed. On this song it’s “the itch” (in Thai) or mysterious language of repetition in a globally-displaced audio clip from the point of view of someone that does or doesn’t speak Thai. The repetition is expressed in numerous examples throughout the album, foremost on the song “22 Going on 23”, a radio interview that repeats dark realities of a mediated age with words like “anxiety”, “depression”, “counseling”, and so on. Michael Azerrad’s chapter on BS reveals that the young female phone caller, which appears as the dominant voice in the song, had (in repetition) called into the radio daily.

In short, most BS listeners would argue that the band is poking fun at the material remixed in repetition. But I’m saying they’re re-playing it for review, reflection and reconsideration outside of the contexts where the issues have previously been settled. This is not only the product of global circulation, but in the capability of media to re-assemble works beyond their proper packaging.

3 thoughts on “A Thai Folk Song in American Indie Rock

  1. Just randomly stumbled on your blog and browsed through. Fascinating stuff. And this song is a great find. Never heard it, but my I don’t think my knowledge of Butthole Surfers goes beyond ‘Pepper.’

    Just one point to add. Not sure that คัน in a sexual sense is not contemporary Thai usage though. I’m not a native speaker and definitely not fluent but I’ve heard it used a number of times (don’t take that the wrong way)… by people in their 20s and 30s – running the gamut of social strata and backgrounds (Bangkok, upcountry and Thai-speaking expat). Have even heard it transmogrified back into English conversation as “itchy”.

  2. actually this is great to know. thanks for the input. i would definitely not take it the wrong way haha. this is great information and i’m still learning.

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