Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vapors -- "Turning Japanese" (1980)

I asked the doctor to take your picture
So I can look at you from inside as well

"Turning Japanese" was another one of the songs on a mixtape that my friend Scott made for me 30 years ago.  Click here to read more about this mixtape and Scott's life and death.  

What exactly do the lyrics to "Turning Japanese" mean?  

When the Vapors toured the United States, the rumor started that "turning Japanese" was a British euphemism for spanking the monkey.  The phrase supposedly refer to the look you get at the moment that you deliver the coup de grâce to yourself: you scrunch up your face and squint, which makes you look Japanese.

The Vapors' New Clear Days album cover
The Vapors' songwriter and frontman, David Fenton, denied that the song had anything to do with self-abuse.  He said that the song "is all the clichés about angst and youth and turning into something you didn't expect to."  Fenton also said that the song could just as easily been titled "Turning Lebanese" or "Turning Portuguese."  (Fenton is now a lawyer who represents clients who are in the music industry . . . not that being a lawyer calls your honesty and sincerity into question.)

I remember "Turning Japanese" primarily because Rick Moranis, portraying a fictional middle-of-the-road pop singer, did a brilliant pseudo-music video of the song on the much-lamented SCTV ("Second City Television") show -- a show that was greatly superior to "Saturday Night Live" but much less well-known.

The first few seasons of SCTV were produced in Canada, and aired in the U.S. only on a syndicated basis.  The cast included not only Moranis but also John Candy (who had great success in the movies but was never as funny as he was on SCTV), Eugene Levy (the father in the American Pie movies), Catherine O'Hara (the mom in the Home Alone movies), and Dave Thomas (who paired with Moranis to portray the memorable Canadian-redneck McKenzie brothers).

Moranis not only portrayed the singer of "Turning Japanese" but also the "video jockey," or "VJ" -- the music video equivalent of a disc jockey -- who was playing the video.  (Note his pronunciation of the song title: not "Japa-neeze," but "Japa-neese."

Rick Moranis as fictional VJ Gerry Todd
Here's the Vapors' music video for "Turning Japanese":

Click below if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

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