I spent several years in Taiwan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that time, I had a routine where I would go into central Taipei early in the morning every day (by around 6am) and go to a fast food restaurant where I would drink coffee and review the Chinese I was learning at a language school before going to work (around 7:30).
The first restaurant I went to was Lotteria. It’s not there anymore.
I remember that I liked it there, but for some reason I later started to go to McDonalds. I can’t remember why I started to go to McDonald’s. I think it was because Lotteria changed their hours and started to open later.
Whatever the case may be, there is one “sound” that I remember from this time period, and I can’t remember if I heard it at Lotteria or McDonalds or both, but it was the “sound” of a cassette tape that they played while I was drinking coffee and studying Chinese – a tape of Kenny G music.
More specifically, I remember that the cassette tape was one that must have been “eaten” by the cassette player at some point, but someone must have “fixed” the tape and kept using it, because what I listened to day after day after day after day was a “warped” tape of Kenny G’s “Forever In Love.” (Why on earth didn’t the people who worked there realize how horrible that tape sounded?!!)
That sound is deeply ingrained in my mind, but there is no easy way for me hear it again. To do so I would have to get a cassette tape of Kenny G’s music (are they still available?) and a cassette player (do they still exist?), and then I would need to find a way to get the tape player to “eat” the cassette tape and damage it. And finally, I would have to replay that damaged tape.
With that, I should be able to recapture that “sound” from the late 1980s and early 1990s in Taiwan, but that’s a lot of work and theoretically I have more important things to do. . .
With that appreciation of how difficult it can be to recapture certain sounds from the past, I was very happy to find recently that someone who worked at Kmart in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s preserved some of the cassette tapes that were played in the store at that time and has digitized them and made them available on the Internet at Archive.org.
The digitization of these tapes has generated a lot of attention, including a report on National Public Radio in the US.
While all of this might seem humorous (or ridiculous) and of little scholarly value, I see in these Kmart tapes a perfect example of why “the West” will always lead the world in producing cutting-edge scholarship about human societies.
As Asia has undergone a period of intense economic development, there have been statements about how the 21st century will the “the Asian century,” and how in the case of Southeast Asia, the “center” of Southeast Asian Studies is moving from North America to Southeast Asia.
The Kmart tapes, however, are great proof of why none of this is true.
Why do I say this? Because there is a graduate student somewhere in North America right now who is trying to find a way to theorize about the importance of “banal music” in our lives, like the music that we here in supermarkets or department stores, and that graduate student has now obtained fantastic material to work with – tapes that were broadcast in Kmart in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and after writing a dissertation on that topic, that person will go on to get that dissertation published by Routledge Press in a special series on “the sound of modernity” or something like that.
Why has that graduate student been able to obtain these materials?
First it is because a national media organization like National Public Radio has drawn her/his attention to these tapes.
Second, it is because there are people in North America who realize that “garbage” like tapes that were played in Kmart in the late 1980s and early 1990s are actually “valuable.” And such people take the initiative to SHARE those materials with the public.
And that such people are able to share such materials with the public is because, third, there are other people like the founders of Archive.org, also known as the Internet Archive, who want to make knowledge (in all of its varieties) available for free to all.
And finally, fourth, academic publishers in “the West” want to publish scholarship that pushes the boundaries of how we understand the world.
So why does this make “the West” different from Asia? Because none of this will ever exist/happen in Asia.
No one who is working in a department store in Jakarta or Bangkok or Beijing or Tokyo will ever consider that the banal music being played over their sound system is in any way important or worth preserving.
No one in Jakarta or Bangkok or Beijing or Tokyo will ever create anything as selfless and democratic as the Internet Archive.
No national media in Indonesia or Thailand or China or Japan will ever think that there is any value in reporting on the digitization of department store music from decades ago.
Graduate students in (or from) Jakarta or Bangkok or Beijing or Tokyo will never consider the fact that the music that is being played in the shopping centers that they walk through (perhaps) daily can be analyzed to say something insightful about the human condition.
Instead, people in the societies of Asia and in the countless educational institutions in Asia will talk endlessly about the need to teach people how to develop critical thinking skills, etc., so that people from these societies can compete with people in “the West” . . . but no one will notice the music that is playing in the department store they visit, and no one will preserve it, and no one will study it. . . and “the West” will continue to be seen as unique in its “critical thinking.”
People! Listen and think!!