Friday, February 6, 2009

Guitar Heroes

There is a line in Szomjas György’s film Kopaszkutya where the singer of a struggling rock band, in their dilemma as to how to reinvent themselves, asks “OK, but who should we sound like?” This seems to be the first and foremost question in the minds of local pop musicians. Old school band Bikini answered that question for themselves in late-eighties video for their single “Legyek jó” (Be Good): everybody in spandex and a mullet. So what you get, in this delightfully cheesy take on life behind the Iron Curtain, is an admixture of Outfield, Mr. Mister, and Duran Duran.

It is easy to mock Bikini (trench-coats with the sleeves rolled up is never a good look), but in reality, "Legyek jó" was a fairly bold video. Instead of the subtle coding that many musicians under Socialism used to express their disdain for the authoritarian government, Bikini went for a balls-to-the-wall representation of dark government forces keeping down the little guy (who is clearly ready to rock). You could make the case that this is a far more daring protest song than anything Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Rage Against the Machine put out, considering the freedoms those artists enjoyed and the monetary gain that resulted from their rebellion. What could Bikini hoped to have gained? Pretty much the same thing that the band in Kopaszkutya wanted: a following big enough to support themselves, and, most importantly, a public venue to play in. Kopaszkutya’s venue was a rock club in Kőbánya, Bikini’s was their own country, without fear of censorship or arrest. And by using the language of Western consumer culture (videos, rock music, fashion) to express themselves, it was a double affront to the reigning regime. True, Solidarity was well along in catalyzing Poland’s defiant stance towards the Soviet Union, and Hungary was always the most permissive of the regimes, but still, nobody knew for sure that Gorbachev would back down, and the freedom of the media was far from tested (if anybody can enlighten me as to how this video was broadcast or distributed, please do).

On a more atomic level, there are some wonderful details in "Legyek jó". First is the representation of the police as mini-skirt wearing, anti-Bond-girl vixens, constantly sharpening their long red fingernails. Apparat-chicks, anybody? It is not just Bikini that has pulled back the Iron Curtain to reveal a burlesque show: look to Elton John’s “Nikita” (made in the same time period) to see the sexy side of Socialist repression (Elton John looking no less silly than Bikini, something like Truman Capote in his fat phase, if Truman Capote was a swishy Bedouin). Also, there is a wonderful truth is the real enemy in "Legyek jó": bureaucracy. The video begins with the singer about to knock (police?) files down like dominoes, and ultimately, the authority figure drowns in his own paperwork. It is not a very sexy target, but telling and real to anybody who has had to navigate the preposterous amount of bureaucracy needed to accomplish almost anything legally even in post-bloc Hungary.

Ultimately, it seems Bikini has been lost to the ages, which is a shame. I wonder if local bands, who are still asking “Who should we sound like?” shouldn’t also ask, “Who should we emulate?” It would nice to see the pop world make good on at least some the daring of Bikini during that tumultuous period.

1 comment:

Rick said...

WOW! I've never seen this before—that first scene with the guy playing the saxophone in the other guy's face is fucking chaos.