“What do we need memory for? Is it a safe harbor? Is it an indictment? Is it to remind yourself never to do something again?”
Thảo Nguyễn was one of our guests to our first Lab roundtable. She shared the music video and lyrics to two tracks from Temple, an album by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: Temple Video I lost my city in the light of day Thick smoke Helicopter blades Heaven and earth I’ve never moved so fast You’ll never know the fear your mama has I know your father can’t call anymore He never meant to be a man of war But we found freedom what will you do now Bury the burden baby make us proud I lost my city in the light of day Thick smoke Helicopter blades Why would I bother to remember when Our people baby die and live again Look at this one I want you to see Fashion was high My hair was so long This was maybe ‘73 You know I have been adored by good and kind men They sent their love with poetry By day I gave grand speeches At night, like you We danced to be free I lost my city in the prime of my time Mud Silk And the dust of life I was a diamond of the embassy It doesn’t matter what I meant to be Girl you come from the fortunate ones Gold Sky And a firstborn son We don’t have words for the way you have grown We’ll always feed you You can always come home Why would a million dare sink in the sea? I don’t want to say anymore But I have been here before I don’t want to say anymore Find what you need I don’t want to say anymore But I have been here before I have earned this sorrow Mine to keep I lost my city in the light of day Thick smoke Helicopter blades Why would I bother to remember when Our people baby die and live again I lost my city in the light of day Thick smoke Helicopter blades Heaven and earth I’ve never moved so fast You’ll never know the fear your mama has I know your father can’t call anymore He never meant to be a man of war But we found freedom what will you do now Bury the burden baby make us proud Phenom Video Sip on joy the purest drink Move to make Thought to think They can feel us from afar Avenues and boulevards White collar cannibal Whatcha gonna do Everyone’s a tendon So who you gonna chew I will not equivocate If that’s so let’s celebrate Shamefully shame’s claim on me Led my life with infamy But I don’t call it I don’t solve it I dissolve it Famously I’ve been so politely at the bottom Pull it tight bootstrap Strap it on and top ‘em I’ve been so politely at the bottom Pull it tight bootstrap Strap it on and top ‘em In the past I was patient Now I’m so tired Fa fa fa feverish few I will not drop it Power cowards never stop it I have nurtured You corrupted I am erupting Don’t interrupt it Careful I’m an animal trap trap trap First of the secondary class class class You know I don’t trust you what’s the catch catch catch Don’t you fucking touch me I will gnash gnash gash Cause I am an old phenomenon And I am an old phenomenon Show them we believe See the unforeseen Sharpen canine teeth Get those ringside seats When the scorched of the earth Come back by sea Sip on joy the purest drink Move to make Thought to think They can feel us from afar Avenues and boulevards I’ve been so politely at the bottom Pull it tight bootstrap Strap it on and top ‘em I’ve been so politely at the bottom Pull it tight bootstrap Strap it on and top ‘em I’ve been so politely at the In the past I was peaceful Now I’m on fire I’m a creature I’m a feature Of the future And I am on fire But I am an old phenomenon ❑
Transcript: The first and only time I’ve been to visit Vietnam was in 2015. My mom hadn’t been back in forty-three years. And it was so intense to witness her engage with it and what she chose to remember and what she chose to not remember. It took me months before I even thought about it, coming back. And it took me that time, those years of processing it, to better understand the legacy of war and how people choose to proceed. And I’ll say that my family——I’ve always been struck by how joyful everyone is and really light, my mom and her siblings, everyone who, over the years have made their way to the States, but have definitely lived and survived the war. They have this remarkable capacity to just be fully present and alive and happy, happier than I can be, and lighter than I have been. And with my mom, I think it's just this decision, to leave what is no longer useful, to choose not to take it with you. And it made me reconsider what memory is for. And Daniel, that’s what you were saying. You know, and I think we’ve all touched upon it, sort of the accuracy or inaccuracy of memory at a certain point is not relevant. It’s: What do we need memory for? Is it a safe harbor? Is it an indictment? Is it to remind yourself never to do something again? It’s useful to me to let go of the idea of maybe a fundamentally sound documentation of time. And I think memory now is this decision to not suffer anymore. That’s what I’ve learned from my mom and my family. There are lyrics——“Why would I choose to remember?” It’s true. You feel as someone who doesn’t have that immediate connection to war: how insensitive is it, or how useful is it that I ask questions? What do I need to know from it that they don’t want to remember? And what kind of position do you put someone in when they’re surviving in a way that you’ve never had to? And so that’s my application of time and memory now for my own life and as I move forward. As a songwriter——I’m sure you guys have this too——you’re kind of confronted with your catalog. And at a certain point I realized everything captured so much pain and it had to, but now I’m done. In moving forward, what am I trying to capture? As a performer, what is the energy I want to create in my live shows? It’s such a symbiotic relationship, which is what Daniel was just talking about. Like writers, they don't know what they wrote cause, you need that reflection. I'm a performer. I don’t know what I'm doing without an audience. If I didn’t——if that didn't matter to me, I wouldn't tour, I wouldn't perform. So the exchange, the creation of that energy——people pay money and I'm there and we enter into a contract and this symbiotic relationship where I feel a responsibility to make sure that whatever energy and atmosphere I create is something that I would want to be immersed in. Because when they enter that space with you, they’re trusting you. I want them to trust me and I want to take you somewhere, but where is it that I want to take you? Not just to pain. I want to take you beyond that because I want to go there. I’m done with just pain. And then also, oh, with time, yeah, the, time is, time is so interesting to me in a more immediate sense. As a musician, there’s a ton of collaboration. And when you improvise with someone, you have to have an aligned sense of time in one way. But then basically you all agree to meet at different points, but how you get there is your own business, which I think is really cool.
Thảo Nguyễn (better known simply as "Thao") is a veteran artist, songwriter, touring musician and producer, originally from Northern Virginia. Throughout her impressive career, she has released music via legendary labels Kill Rock Stars and Domino Record Co. imprint Ribbon Music and been featured by the New York Times, NPR, Austin City Limits, Pitchfork, Washington Post, and many more. Thao is the subject of the 2017 documentary film Nobody Dies, exploring her first trip to Vietnam as the daughter of refugees who fled during that country’s civil war. She was the 2019 guest host of the acclaimed podcast Song Exploder, and most recently hosted the PBS TV series Southern Sounds, released in summer of 2023.