Raunchy ‘Itchy Ear’ song exposes Thai sexual hypocrisy

By Saksith Saiyasombut

A music video with suggestive lyrics, the singer’s even more suggestive stage performance, and her moral scolding on national TV is the latest episode of yet another Thai sexual hypocrisy.  Yet again, the outcry  comes from those who claim to protect anything ‘Thai’ and lash out against everything that is allegedly not, while willfully ignoring the naked truth(s).

So, what happened? In June, a Thai band called Turbo Music uploaded a video of a performance of their song “Itchy Ear” (คันหู), which is about…

The song itself is a tale of a young lady with an itchy ear (khan huu, คันหู) that won’t go away. Packed with double-entendre (and invitations for vowel substitution), the song relates her quest for relief: she has tried a cotton-bud, but to no avail (เอาสำลี มาปั่น ก็ไม่หาย). Perhaps the itch was caused by some water getting in when she was showering washing her hair (อาบน้ำ สระหัว น้ำคงเข้า). She asks her mother for something to fix it (แม่จ๋า หายา ให้หนูหน่อย). The singer explains that when she was a child it didn’t ever itch (ตอนเด็กๆ ไม่เคยคันซักที) but it started just two or three years after she became a young woman (พอเริ่มเป็นสาว ได้แค่สองสามปี หูก็เริ่มมี อาการ คันคัน). If anyone can give her a cure, she will give them anything. She will drink it or inject it (once or twice if necessary) so long as it is good medicine (จะกินฉีด ขอให้เป็นยาดี จะลองให้ฉีด ยาสักทีสองที ถ้ายาเค้าดี หูคงหายคัน).

คันหู : Nong Ja ahead of Democrats!“, by Andrew Walker, New Mandala, September 14, 2011

But watching the performance of the 20-year-old singer Nong Ja aka Ja Turbo, it is pretty clear, even to those who didn’t get the innuendos the first time around, that ‘itchy ear’ means something completely different:


Maybe that’s why the viewing figures skyrocketed within a few weeks, reaching over 15 million clicks at the time of publication. Much of the popularity could also be attributed to the almost unsurprising outrage over the raunchy pop song. The most striking example of high-profile indignation was the singer’s appearance on “Woody – Born to Talk” (วู้ดดี้ – เกิดมาคุย) with Woody Militachinda on September 4. In a recent column, Pavin Chachavalpongpun describes the interview as this:

The interview was intensely discomforting. Woody acted as a typical stuck up Thai hi-so who proclaimed himself to be the defender of Thai morality. The way Woody communicated with Ja Turbo, the way he posed his questions and how he responded to her answers, all contained highly unpleasant value judgements on the part of the host. The show succeeded in unveiling a dark reality in Thai society: there remains an impenetrable barricade when it comes to “class”. This barricade is responsible for the current crisis facing the country today.

Woody exercised his “class superiority” and his supposed better upbringing in an attempt to disgrace Ja Turbo, who was a guest on his show. He asked insulting questions and made offensive remarks about her. These are some of Woody’s statements: “How can a song like this exist in this society?” “Is there really this type of girl, like you, in our society?” “Didn’t you feel ashamed when you lifted your legs in the air?” “Is your act some kind of low-class art?” “Are there parents out there who would tolerate daughters like yourself?” “Have you ever thought for a moment that you are committing something so immoral?” “Do you consider yourself a decent entertainer?”

Woody’s questions may have been harsh. But his attitude towards Ja Turbo was even more callous. It seemed that he didn’t even want to breathe the same air as her let alone sit in the same room with her. He grilled her in front of Thai viewers, believing that his supercilious attitude would earn him an even higher place in a society where morality and ethics are seemingly the exclusive assets of the phu dee, or those of a “higher class”.

Hi-so hypocrites as shameless as immoral low-so entertainers“, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, The Nation, September 28, 2011

Woody wasn’t really being host rather than being a smug interrogator, lecturing her about what he thinks is morality and ‘Thainess’ – yet another self-proclaimed cultural herald! While the music act itself is debatable, the constant attack and poorly hidden antipathy by him is not only cheap entertainment at the cost of another person, but also a deeply delusional understanding of what is appropriate and who actually decides on this.

Most of all, this is a business. It’s not the first time the music industry or entertainment in general have pushed the envelope on what is dictated by others to be ‘decent’. It is not the first time that sexuality has been used as a subject and this will not be the last time that someone will take offense from this. While the likes of Turbo Music are cashing in on the always reliable ‘sex sells’ routine, Woody cashes in by openly bashing another person and still claiming the higher ground.

This selective outcry on the public depiction of sexuality is reminiscent of an incident earlier this year in April, when three women were seen dancing topless in public during Songkran (Thai New Year). Somebody shot and uploaded the video, much to the anger of the self-proclaimed cultural heralds, especially the then culture minister who openly advocated a crackdown on them for “negatively affect Thailand’s reputation” – it turns out those girls were underage. We interviewed Thai author “Kaewmala” about the causes and motives of this seemingly predictable outrage and why some Thais seem to struggle with sexuality. Among others (I recommend you to re-read the whole interview), she saw the problem as this:

Sexuality both is and isn’t taboo in Thailand. It is taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment (real or perceived). Thais like to think that we are a conservative and proper society when we really aren’t – at least behind closed doors. People have a delusion that Thai kids are too innocent to be contaminated by sex education, another area of inability to deal with facts. There are people who actually buy into the ideal Thai Culture line (good, grand, long-lived, sexually innocent or sexless, religiously Buddhist). And these people will not tolerate any deviation from this ideal and would sing the chorus to the occasional outcries, whenever the media drum one up. Like most cultures, much of the Thai Culture is sexualized (mostly involving females) and people are drawn to sex.

“Only taboo when it’s inconvenient!” – Interview with Thai author Kaewmala on the outrage at topless Songkran dancers“, Siam Voices, April 19, 2011

All in all, this whole (made-up) controversy did Nong Ja and her band more good than harm, becoming an online sensation and adding some notoriety to their newly gained popularity, while the cultural heralds are still seemingly trying to wrap their head around the times we live in today.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.