When I was 14, my (then-newly met, but now best-) friend Hen showed me My Little Airport's debut.
This didn't come from nowhere. Hen and I would often talk about music together. Or actually we would talk precisely once a week at the Vietnamese Student Association club meetings,
which were held in an English classroom.
You know that special feeling when you had a movie day in elementary school? A usually more oppressive and regulated space is converted at once into a free and easygoing one:
people scoot desks and rolling chairs wherever they like, out of line with their usual equidistant intervals, and the sense of leisure and intimacy is actually redoubled against this backdrop.
Looking around, we know who we are: we are, all of us, just some students, basically. Students in a club. Of course this kind of belonging is never to last. We would be, for the most part, shuttled off, down (mostly) unshared career paths. Slowly, so you wouldn't think to utter stop until it was too late. And either our more fluid identities were poured into the gelatin mould of our professions, or we resisted alterations to the shapes of our souls at the cost of a persistent feeling of nonbelonging.
Alienation isn't a choice. You can have your best friends forever, but the vast majority of the relationships that comprise your current social milieu disappear into nothing if you're switching schools, jobs, cities. There is no hope to hold on to everything, so we try to hold on to what we can.
On reflection I believe one of the club members (who once gave me some souvenirs from Vietnam which I still hold onto) had a crush on me, which I was oblivious to and did not reciprocate; and one of my friends had a crush on that very same club member, who was not aware of that, nor was I until recently. These feelings, the intertwinings of romance, friendship, a lovely present that gently gives way to an immeasurable emptiness, this is where the story of My Little Airport begins for me.
Today, in March in 2012, Hen and I were discussing about Kumisolo's debut, My Love For You Is A Cheap Pop Song, one of the first CDs I ever bought, which I still have to this day. After giving MLFYIAPS a good listen or two, Hen diagnosed me as a twee pop fan, and guessed MLA would be right up my alley. It makes sense: both albums feature amateur production, lots of cute toyish synths, and soft whispery vocals--though MLA is both less twee and less pop than is Kumisolo. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I got home, I looked up what the word twee meant; Google offered this borderline offensive definition: 'excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental." It wasn't until years later that I found out twee pop here was not being used an insult, but as a more or less neutral description of the genre of music I liked. (A genre of music whose name was a reclamation of an insult, but still, there's a certain difference.) And so, not knowing what they really meant, the words impressed themselves on my mind like a seal: they represented nothing less than my divine fate, stamped on my forehead in black ink. Yes, my fate had been sealed then and there, and, like a seal caught in those bulkbuy sodarings, no matter how I twisted and flailed, I could not escape, and my flesh became ribboned with the blush of light abrasion. At first unwilling but later total surrender. And well, this band was my first exposure to out-and-out twee-ness.
Both of them contain something beautiful that I can sense is at the core of me, but MLA is twisted with a complicating note: bittersweetness, loss, mourning, particles of these emotions permeate many of their best songs like a light mist in the empty streets before sunrise.
"Oh how can I forget your tender smile?
And how can you forgive my unstable mind?
One day we may meet again
One day we may kiss again, very splendid"
"sometimes when some troubles can't be solved even by writing songs, I will turn to Nicole for spiritual guidance." Ah P. speaking with LomoAmigo 專訪 in an interview.
Okay well obviously the whole My Little [Noun] thing makes me think MLP. Just to get that out of the way. But what's so perfectly them is how it leads into and leaves off on the unexpected airport. My Little is sincere, but it's . You can romance the airport, for sure, what with the whole airport crush phenomenon. But ultimately what's going on there is this sense of mono no aware, this sense of heightened ephemarality. An airport is (I'm sorry) a liminal space: a non-place. It's a place where you wait for a flight, often hours in advance, or experience a prolonged layover, sometimes for days. This sense of unsatisfied personal longing in a bleak impersonal world: it captures the contradictory feelings at the heart of their music. People come and go. It's all touch-and-go. People enter and exit our lives. It's no coincidence I first fell in love with them when I did.
Gao Yujuan wrote in a paper published by Lignang University: "in many of their songs named after the Hong Kong region or place, 'place' has another way of presentation. Starting with the song 'White Field Shopping Center' in their second album Becoz I Was Too Nervous At That Time, in the next two consecutive albums, there is 'Lai Chi Kok Park,' 'Mobil Gainsburg and Baitian Jumbo Gold,' 'Romantic Kowloon Tong,' 'Lai Chi Kok Tennis Court Manifesto' and several other songs that include names of places in Hong Kong in their titles. Pak Tin, Lai Chi Kok, and Mei Foo are areas that are rarely discussed by the mainstream media. Apart from the former Lai Yuen Playground, these areas rarely appear in popular culture. When the Hong Kong Tourism Board publicizes, it will never introduce these places. Probably because there are no magnificent landmarks in these areas that can attract attention and create topics, and there are no facilities that can attract tourists and generate economic benefits... These areas are precisely those areas that Ma Guoming quoted Michel de Certeau said were completely hidden when overlooking the Victoria Harbor from the top of the mountain, and they are not included in the international city imagination created by Hong Kong."
"What the music of my little airport presents is also a kind of daily life that is closely connected with the place (Hong Kong community), perhaps we can call it an authentic life. What's more interesting is that through the narrative style of my little airport starting in 2003, we can see the accumulated thickness of this authentic life — the dimension of time is also presented in their songs."
"So sometimes I’ll write a song for one particular person, and hopefully, it’ll blossom into a form of expression that engages others as well." from honeycomber interview
It was now 2016, the end of summer before my first year of college. I would finally be studying something I chose for myself, Linguistics, but, as in highschool, there were still government-enforced general education requirements I would have to satisfy. I needed 3 credits in a 100-level science class of some kind in order to graduate. Out of the couple of choices there were, I shruggingly chose Natural Disasters, as it sounded the least boring. Across the sheet of my mind played projected images -- apparition-like in their slight lack of opacity -- of terrifying Acts of God in the sleepy theater of a morning lecture hall. In the end it was more mundane than I expected, as we learned about normal earth science 90% of the time.
As time went and my fantasy of how the class might go receded into the distance, the last reserve of my excitement was that there would be a field trip. I had made one friend in that class, who was an exchange student from China. We were both pretty quiet and did not have much in common but that was part of the fun I guess. There was something nice about just being around each other and .
In any case, when we were turning back from the field trip, for no reason I could pin down, I started to feel longing to see and talk to Hen. It had been almost half a year, and the feeling of being far away snuck up on and engulfed me. Thinking about Hen brought up memories of My Little Airport, and so I put on "Leo, Are You Still Jumping Out of Windows in Expensive Clothes?" I looked around. There was a shift in the air. The afternoon had reddened into evening. I sat alone, waiting the return of my taciturn friend, feeling estranged: in a cute yellow schoolbus, I sat engirdled by the murmurs of strangers, and further, miles of barren rock. Hard, impenetrable layers of time had piled feelings on feelings like beds of sediment, and the lines that seemed to separate one strata from the other were like harpstrings and heartstrings played and tugged by the music, and painful gentle sounds issued from deep inside me where no one would hear.
"In the deep south of heaven
There's catfish waiting to be born
They know how it happens
Tonight is all to them..."
--"The Deep South"
Gulf-states lovely! Hot summers and concrete expressways and tall miles of sweetgrass: a-hum a thousand invisible bugs! harmonizing with the powerlines, yeah! Your body grows, and your sense of freedom grows too, scaling with your exuberance, and your exuberance with listlessness. The Promise Ring is Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days in the best possible way. Okay well maybe not that last part.
The Promise ring released four albums between 09/06/1996 and 04/23/2002. I myself being born in 06/01/1998, I grew up around the so-called Alt Rock of the day, as my parents liked to listen to those artists on the radio or CDs everytime we were in the car, basically without exception. And very loud too. So it comes as little surprise that a lot of the sounds from that era of guitar music speak to something deep within me. Maybe you could call it my soul. So, while I never heard The Promise Ring until college when I was exploring emo music, they still have some nostalgic quality for me. Some of these songs sound perfect for the Digimon Movie Soundtrack (2001). But I think that they weren't a part of my childhood allows for the way I love this band. What I mean by this is, there is a difference between something Reminding you of your childhood vs. something Literally Being a part of your childhood. The latter categories feels like bittersweetness, and growing up. Which are exactly what a lot of The Promise Ring's music is about.
There is definitely a strong sense of regionalism going on in a number of their songs that lends their lyrics a distinct flavor. To me, it is one of the most puzzling things about their music. I guess it's some form of Americana, but it really sticks out because of the way it meshes with the musical styles TPR use, and also just because of the sheer abundance of US place names that get namedropped. "Is This Thing On" mentions Delaware 22 times. "Nothing Feels Good" touches on East Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, all within the first four lines. Elsewhere, they rhyme New Jersey Shore with New York. I wonder, had they been to all these places? My mind bends to a biographical explanation because on its face it is not obvious to me at all what the purpose would be, but it's so prominent it feels like their must be one.
After some consideration, though, I considered the fact that TPR hail from Wyoming themselves. So maybe what's going on is they are trying to elevate some of the more underappreciated, less pop culturally mythologized places in the US. Still, oddly, they never mention Wyoming itself. So maybe what they're really evoking is the idea of an American summer vacation. Which also totally fits with the vibes of a lot of their music: leisurely, warm, and fun.
Another distinct quality of the promise ring is the sense of repitition in their music. I already mentioned the whole Delaware thing, but yeah, on the level of structure a lot of their songs repeat verses. But also, looking closer in, Davey loves to do wordplay, which is comprised of repetitions:
"Bored walking on the boardwalk"
"I'm losing my voice just talking to you about talking to you."
"I was just thinking
All of last Wednesday
I hope we're together
From here until doomsday
We could be each other's arms"
"Hey, hey, where are we living now
From witching to happy hour,
Which is hours and hours away from here?
And god, all of these ears and eyes,
Familiar faces and family ties.
Which is ours and ours alone?"
"Hours after after hours
Our afternoon hours are after us now
Hours before you go and still will not know
If people or time will ever move slow"
Something about this form of wordplay is adorable, like a child babbling. It reminds me of the album title of Hong Kong Twee Pop band The Pancakes: Les Bonbons Sont Bons and All already ready and ok karaoke.
Also Davey's voice is very cute. (On the .0...1% chance you are somehow reading this I'm so sorry, but also please stop. It will only get worse from here.)
"I believe in make-believe
Fairytales and lucky charms
And I believe in promises
Spoken as you cross your heart"
And then the ring part. An eternal vow... and it's childish. A promise ring is a young person's idea of serious romance and ever since I was a child I have wanted to be find someone to be wed to.