Saturday, May 26, 2012

In Defense of Lady Gaga -- and Bangkok!

Lady Gaga just can't seem to get it right in Asia, the first continental stop on "The Born This Way Ball," her world tour, now in progress. Christian groups in South Korea and the Philippines, where she's already performed, blasted her less than family friendly brand of entertainment, which has led to a possible Gaga-concert ban by Islamists in Indonesia. (The June 3 show in Jakarta has been "tentatively cancelled.")

You'd think that a country that was battered by a deadly tsunami less than a decade ago would have its priorities straight. Lady Gaga's stage antics are not the threat to mankind that her detractors in Indonesia would have us believe they are. To quote Sinead O'Connor (and I can't believe I'm about to do this), they should fight the real enemy -- and in Indonesia, according to my friends who've been there, there are plenty, like crooked police and vicious stomach bugs. If you don't approve of Gaga, then skip her show.

Which apparently some people in Bangkok are now doing. Today, Gaga has been criticized by some of the local populace here, where she's due to hit the stage any minute now. This time, it's not for crossing the line (morally speaking, it's so blurred here that it might as well not even exist), but for something she tweeted upon her arrival yesterday in the gay capital of Southeast Asia.

"I just landed in Bangkok baby! Ready for 50,000 screaming Thai monsters. I want to get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex."

I'm assuming that by "lady market" she was referring to Bangkok's famous lady boys, and as for that "fake Rolex" -- well, they're readily available here, too. Silom Road, the site of just one of Bangkok's massive street markets (with plenty of lady boys off to the side streets), is loaded with bootleg DVDs and knock-off luxury items after dark.

But don't tell that to some of the thin-skinned locals, who are still fuming over the negative portrayal of the city in movies like The Hangover Part II, which presents Bangkok as a seedy den of iniquity, on par with Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps they'd prefer that the world associate Bangkok only with the high-end shopping in Siam Paragon, one of many elegant super malls in the city center. I can understand why they'd want to give Bangkok a public-relations makeover. Although there is that cheap, tawdry side immortalized in "One Night in Bangkok," like any great city, it's too multi-dimensional to be sized up as any one thing.

For instance, as an unholy mecca for bargain shoppers angling for counterfeit goods. There's a market, and markets, for those in many urban and suburban jungles around the world. Remember those knock-off bags that Samantha Jones salivated over in the episodes of Sex and the City where the girls went to Los Angeles? And New York City's got Canal Street, one of the knock-off capitals of the world. For years, I went there to buy my fake TAG Heuer watches until the day that I could afford to buy a real one, which was promptly stolen from me in Buenos Aires several months later.

I used to tell everyone who'd listen about the cheap fake goods for sale on Canal, and as far as I know, no New Yorker ever got insulted. But then, I'm not Lady Gaga, with millions of Twitter followers, and New York City is not suffering from bad PR the way Bangkok has been for years. The New York Times Magazine can publish articles like "Bangkok Rising," about the shiny new Thai capital (a side I keep reading about in the links that my friends are always sending me) all it wants to, but among those who get their information on the world's greatest cities from sources other than glossy travel guides intended to sell the place (like from, um, Gaga's Twitter feed?), Bangkok's PR problem persists. It's hard to imagine that an innocent tweet about fake watches could possibly affect it one way or another.

My best friend recently visited me here, and for her, one of the biggest thrills was how the city was nothing like she expected. And not just because I live in a high-rise hotel in an apartment with two balconies, running water, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and a washer and dryer (see my nighttime 10th-floor view, left). She was expecting The Flintstones, and she got something closer to The Jetsons.

The traffic is jammed with modern, expensive automobiles. Everyone is tweeting away -- or Facebooking, or Grindr-ing -- on mobile devices. And the skyline is one of the most dramatic and contemporary on the planet. In a lot of ways, Bangkok makes Buenos Aires look like the Wild Wild West.

As much as I loved BA, everything's broken there, and a certain lawlessness always seemed to prevail. After nearly a year in Bangkok, I've yet to make the acquaintance of the local police, which was a regularly recurring character during the first half of my four and a half years in BA. Too bad I didn't save my TAG Heuer for Bangkok. If I had, I probably wouldn't have any use for fake Rolex.

The two Gaga songs I'll be listening to tonight in lieu of going to the show

"Government Hooker"


"Heavy Metal Lover"

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