Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mamma Mia! I can still do without mutton.

Recently my wife and I watched the musical movie sensation Mamma Mia!, which is a screen adaptation of the musical by the same name. Given the movie's popularity--it recently unseated Titanic for highest grossing film ever in the United Kingdom--I probably do not need to explain what the film is about. However, I would like to mention that it is a musical entirely set to the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA, and this is relevant to what I am about to write.

I was never really a fan of ABBA. There was something rather too poppy about them for my tastes. Yet, while my wife and I watched, I found myself actually tapping my foot to the music, and for days afterwards I kept humming the music in my head and sometimes out loud. I was completely surprised by the impression this movie had on me, and it led me to quip to my wife that I've spent five years in Mongolia and all I've got to show for it is a stinkin' appreciation for ABBA.

ABBA, Bonnie Em, Suzie Quatro and Chris Norman, these are all musical "sensations" that live on in Mongolia hearkening back to a much simpler and drabber period in Mongolian history. This new found appreciation for ABBA comes from me thinking what it must have been like to hear this music for the first time on bootleg tapes in the 80s when it first made its way into Mongolia. It must have sounded like the most exotic and addicting of sounds, which I think says something more about the condition of life in Mongolia at the time rather than the musical depth of the groups. ABBA is catchy. You don't have to understand the lyrics to begin to dance along, and many of the songs have simple refrains which to the snobby critic might seem fatuous but to a non-native speaker of English are easy to pick up and sing. "Waterloo! Blah-blah-blah, da blah, my Waterloo!" is a good example.

This music has a special meaning in Mongolia because it has nostalgia attached to it which you won't encounter anywhere else. Watching Mamma Mia! I began to imagine it must have been a breath of fresh air or a window into a more colorful world beyond the Soviet Union when the music first began to be traded among high school and college students in Ulaanbaatar. It was something really easy to dance to at a time when many of Mongolia's senior democratic revolutionaries and conservatives alike were young and very impressionable. My new found appreciation for ABBA has a lot to do with understanding how something as frivolous as pop songs can really have a profound effect on the world. One can imagine that Zorig, Elbegdorj, and even President Enkhbayar were inspired in some measure to change the political landscape in Mongolia by the sounds they heard from groups like ABBA and Smokey (even if it doesn't seem to inform their decision making today). It's a really odd thing to consider, but is more believable and real to me now that I am sitting writing this and humming "Stumblin' In" to myself.

It is a fact that living in Mongolia walls off many mainstream sources of music, as well as many other forms of entertainment, by the standards I grew up in. But, really that happens in any country where you have the time to begin to appreciate the local tastes because of an inability to recreate one's world of entertainment back home. Living in Mongolia has definitely stretched my appreciation of Swedish and other pop music and the nostalgic position in holds in modern Mongolia. And, yet, I can still do without mutton, so Mongolia still has a long way to go in modifying my tastes overall, I suppose. But, ABBA is one victory I will give it.


Anonymous said...

hi, i'm Tuff, a mongolian in miami. I actually think americans are much crazier about ABBA than mongolians. It seems like it's the only non-American music (maybe except Bealtes & Spice girls)they were exposed to.
Not only the 80's worldwide hit groups like Boney M, Modern Talking, Smokie and Dschinghis Khan but also hit music of this time in this world seem to be totally unnoticed in America. Americans are unaware about Eurovision which 2 billion people watch all over the world.
When I first came to the USA I was totally shocked how isolated America was, and still I can't get over it. In terms of fashion, it is way far behind the rest of the world. You can easily spot foreigners in the USA, because of the fashionable clothes.
I still think even during the times of the communism, Mongolia was much more connected to the world than the USA. As a high school student in the 80's, I had plenty of exposure to pop & rock music of the time such as Raffaella Carra, Toto Cutugno, Sandra, Sabrina, San Remo music festival, Mireille Mattieu and US singers like Madonna, Diana Ross, M.Jackson, Tina Turner so on through Mongolian State TV, and Russian (Soviet) TV channels. My parents generation were actually really crazy about Beatles, Smokie and Boney M like people in any other country in the world (not as you thought only in Mongolia.)
Anti-Soviet propaganda seemed like brainwashed Americans quiet well.

Tea time said...

While I do agree on your observation on nostalgic ties of democracy to Swedish pop (after all Rock-N-Roll brought down communism), I cannot necessarily agree with the tone that this observation sets. The way you make it sound is that as if Swedish pop is something arhcaic, outdated and beyond western pop, and therefore Mongolian audience who listen to it somehow not as progressive as Americans or West alltogether. I believe Mongolians as progressive as as any Parisian. On the contrary to your experience, living in America I feel sometimes total bliss of isolation. There are times that I miss my french, italian, chinese, korean, russian films with monoglian or russian voiceover played regularly back home on national TV, but then I came to appreciate as you did, the cultural eccentricities such as high def channels showcasting latest realities on how to marry rich, become a top model, or compete to become an amateur latin dancer.

Brian White, ACMS Resident Director said...

Another way to look at the post (and the meaning I meant to convey) is that we sometimes gain new appreciation for things in the most unlikely of places. For me the intersection of Mongolia and Swedish pop to form a new appreciation for a past I did not experience is noteworthy.

The political and social transition of the 80s and 90s in Mongolia was something that I could not experience first hand because I did not live in Mongolia and I was in elementary school, unaware of a lot things besides Swedish pop. Same would go for the cultural awakenings and civil rights movement of the 1960s in the US, because I was not alive. Or, the independence movement in India. The Renaissance in Europe. Considering that I am not a big fan of ABBA or other similar pop groups makes it all the stranger that I would be able to gain a sense of expanded understanding towards the past through this particular genre of music. But, that is sort of the point. That ABBA without the context of Mongolia is not particularly attractive to me. Together, however, they change my world view or understanding of events I could not experience myself, giving me an appreciation of both the music and the past at the same time.

Appreciation for new things I suppose requires being willing to try those things repeatedly, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, even if you don't like them at first. In the case of ABBA, I have a greater appreciation not only for the music but also Mongolia's past because I have lived in Mongolia for 5 years, as I quipped to my wife. That's important because I did not like ABBA's music just on its own removed from the context of Mongolia.

It is the same for any person who lives outside their comfort zones and is willing to embrace new things. This post is not about the quality of the music or one culture's tastes being superior to another but rather what learning to appreciate things you don't initially like can do to expand your understanding of the world.

As with ABBA, so it is with many other things. I don't like mutton, but I still eat it when it is served to me, hoping that someday I will gain an appreciation of what attracts some of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors to this particular culinary item. This post is about appreciating that which is available to us rather than keeping tally on whose tastes are superior.