Back in January 1956, a young unknown American singer named Elvis Presley released his first single called Heartbreak Hotel.
While appearing on the Milton Berle Show, Presley started rhythmically gyrating his pelvis as he sang. Half the country screamed in delight. The other half gasped in horror. What was this base, barbaric, sexual abomination of a dance that stirred the collective loins of America?
The Catholic Church, always one to pounce on anything loin-stirring, claimed the pelvic thrusts “roused the sexual passions of teenaged youth”. This enraged the church because, as we would later find out, that was the mission of their priests.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is too young to remember this controversy. He was just two years old when Elvis started thrusting his pelvis in public, and who knows if the news reached his family home in Nakhon Ratchasima. This week public thrusts returned to the spotlight, proving that in six decades we may have moved forward technologically in leaps and bounds, but when it comes to sex, we’re still fumbling in the dark.
Last Sunday this column lamented the rise of misbehaving talentless net idol celebrities. This week we examine a celebrity who does have a modicum of talent — she can sing — but it is questionable whether she is misbehaving, although the PM thinks she is.
Elvis was not just the King of Rock And Roll … he’s also the father of “twerking”, the act of thrusting one’s pelvis back and forward rapidly to music. Twerking is provocative and sexually stimulating, apparently.
(I write “apparently” because just then I tried doing it in my living room. I put on my Missy Elliot’s Greatest Hits and started thrusting my pelvis back and forth to the music in front of some unexpected dinner guests. Nobody admitted to arousal, although one of my dogs did start barking, but that was probably because of the music.)
Over the last few months a musical phenomenon has gripped Thailand in the form of Lamyai, an attractive 18-year-old country music singer with a pleasant enough voice. She released a song called Phusao Kha Lor which means “Girl Who Likes To Have Fun”.
The song is innocent enough. “I’m not very studious or diligent – I just wanna go out!” Lamyai sings. It’s very catchy. As this column is being written, it has notched up 250 million views on YouTube — almost four views per Thai citizen!
Do you want to hear something even more incredible? There’s not even a music video for the song. It’s just one of those lyric videos where the words flash up on the screen. No lip-synching, no bells and whistles, and definitely no twerking.
Lamyai’s concert and TV appearances are a different story. Dressed in the skimpiest gold shorty-shorts, when it comes to the chorus, she does her own style of Thai twerking, thrusting back and forth, back and forth, a total of nine times.
(How does she get nine? The song is in 4-4 time so she should have gone for eight thrusts or 12, though I fear 12 may have had the Cultural Ministry Police blowing their whistles.)
Thrusting one’s pelvis nine times contravenes Thai decency. At least that’s what the PM thought. One wonders where he got that arbitrary number from, but let us not wade into those cultural waters.
This may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers, but I am not offended by the prime minister’s comments. Society needs to have elders pull the youngsters in tow, or at least offer an alternative, more conservative opinion to keep their behaviour within the accepted norms of that society. A healthy society should be made up of pelvis-thrusting liberals and staid cross-legged conservatives, with the general population hopefully making value judgments that put them somewhere in between those extremes without being persecuted for their choices.
One such conservative is Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights and a former senator. Ten years ago, when singer Tata Young released her number one song Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy Me, it was Rabiabrat who came out claiming Tata was a bad example to young girls. At the time Thailand was grappling with a new fashion trend — spaghetti strap tops, and she was very down on those too.
When Lamyai became front-page news this week, the media immediately ran to Rabiabrat, knowing she would give some great soundbites on the pelvic thrusts that aroused the prime minister enough to make him speak about her (on three separate occasions in the one week).
There is nothing wrong with this. Free speech is free speech, and a little moral controversy doesn’t harm any of us. It’s when things start bordering on the ridiculous, such as calling police in to arrest singers on stage, or ordering Cultural Ministry to issue bans on songs, that we need to start scratching our heads.
Does an 18-year-old’s pelvic thrusts really warrant prime ministerial, and the media’s, interest? And does twerking really pose a threat to Thai culture as the PM intimated? He says it’s inappropriate for Thailand. Has the prime minister been to Patpong lately? Has he seen the glittering brothels that dot Ratchadaphisek or any other main road in the country?
Of course he has. But that is not the point.
The prime minister is right to say there are bounds to public decency, and young people need to understand what is morally acceptable and what is not. In this regard, the prime minister and Rabiabrat have every right to air their opinions, and young people should listen. They don’t have to follow the advice, but at least listen and evaluate the situation for themselves.
Unfortunately such storms in teacups also bring out the crazies.
One government spokesperson blamed the twerking on farangs. We apparently like to gyrate our pelvises more than Thais do. “Thais don’t need to follow foreigners in everything,” said one general, seemingly ignorant to the fact that Thais, too, require pelvic thrusting to propagate the species.
Another spokesperson insinuated that such sexy dancing leads to women getting raped, a truly abhorrent line of argument that exonerates the male from his insatiable urges. So it’s okay for me to murder a person for wearing a Mariah Carey t-shirt and claim he egged me on?
At least Lamyai didn’t get banned.
In 2005 Sinjai Hongthai came out with I Love Her Husband while Chai Muangsing brought out My Wife Has A Lover. A disturbing trend to say the least; the Ministry of Culture banned both from the radio.
They were seen as going against Thai culture, the ministry announced, since no decent Thai woman would ever secretly love another woman’s hubby. Worse, listening to the songs could promote “marital infidelity”. And just to prove they weren’t joking, they banned a third hit, One Woman, Two Men. One suspects that a song entitled One Man, Two Women wouldn’t have batted a Culture Ministry eyelid.
Sadly for the media, this storm in a twerking teacup ended peacefully and, gasp, sensibly. Lamyai agreed to tone down her act for the sake of decency. The Prime Minister thanked her as she announced a reduction in the number of pelvic thrusts in the chorus from nine to just three.
In Thailand that’s a compromise; in the West, that’s a quickie. n