Tag Archives: Pop Conference

Tea With Chris: The Poet is a Drag

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: I should have mentioned here that I was speaking at this play about Celine Dion, celebrity, self-sacrifice and child abuse last week. However, it’s not too late for those in Toronto to see this fascinating staging of Bliss, by the Quebec playwright Olivier Choinière, translated by Caryl Churchill. I really do recommend it – as The Globe and Mail said, “A disturbing tale about the powerless and the power of love.” Meanwhile, back in Quebec, Choinière has been up to more mischief, which I would call a very exciting bit of parasitic meta-theatre, but which his unwitting and unwilling collaborator called “theatrical rape.” What do you think?

The complicated matter of being the Other Seeger. And that’s even only superficially getting into the contradictions of class and slumming and noblesse oblige.

Here’s a nice account of that Pop Conference thing Chris & I were at last week.

Finally, if that’s just too much human business for you, turn instead to the ursine peoples: 1. Bear on trial. 2. Bear gettin jiggy.

Chris: Speaking of the Pop Conference, reading Jonathan Bogart’s paper about “Urban Romanticism in Latin American Music Between the Wars” may make you wish you’d been there (the panel, the gathering, the city).

Speaking of New York, Edith Zimmerman interviewed one of its great adoptees, Eileen Myles: “To decide to do ‘this’ as a living is to invite barbs that generally pile up around gender and power. The poet is a fag, the poet is a drag, the poet is righteous. But really I think people resent our freedom. Our choice to keep doing something they may have done badly when they were younger and were full of feeling and to keep doing something that supposedly anyone can do – making something out of something as practical and mundane as language is to brand oneself as a lifelong fool rather than merely a fool in her youth. People feel sad about what they disavowed to become who they are now.”

Speaking of people who made art in the 1970s, my friend Sarah Nicole Prickett uses Cindy Sherman’s big Guggenheim retrospective as an opportunity to consider Francesca Woodman’s photographs, mercurial identity as survival strategy and why it will “never not be physiologically and psychologically harder to be female.”

Not speaking at all, just pressing a drum machine into the robotically funky patterns of ’80s Prince, look at the debut jam by aforementioned Korean/Chinese boy band EXO.

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Driving Freely Through the World: Cosmopolitanism in K-pop

by Chris Randle

[This essay was first presented as a paper at last month’s 2012 Pop Conference, which accounts for the Frankfurt School citations.]

During the summer of 2010, as one or two billion people learned to pronounce and sometimes dread the word “vuvuzela,” I was taking part in a parallel spectacle. The British music critic Tom Ewing had organized a competition called the Pop World Cup, little different from its gargantuan namesake, only played with singles instead of feet. I volunteered for the tournament, and my randomly determined team ended up being South Korea. Despite a fleeting teenage infatuation with J-pop, I’d never knowingly heard any Korean songs before. I conducted the usual recondite research – asking for Youtube links on Twitter – and my friend Maddie Lee recommended a bunch of tracks. This was one of them:

It’s the 2009 single “Gee,” by Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), and although that Korean squad would lose in the quarterfinals by a single reader vote, my fascination soon developed into committed fandom. At first I only paid attention to several familiar sources, such as Maddie’s critical K-pop blog, semi-ironically called My First Love Story. But over time my affection grew increasingly unrestrained, and I was searching for hangul-inflected Mediafire links or learning relevant slang like oppas and jimseungdol. My RSS feed now features dozens of posts a day from Omona They Didn’t!, East Asia’s rough equivalent of the gossipy Livejournal community Oh No They Didn’t! (“Omona” means “oh my gosh” in Korean.) Listening to the multilingual lyrics of these ultra-modern songs, I began to wonder how their cosmopolitanism intersected with their place of origin. The World Cup is a planetary celebration that happens to provide an arena for the most reflexive tribalism, enriching a corrupt organization in the process. Another irony: the international qualities of K-pop and its idols reflect Seoul as a city, yet that openness has often been coerced from outside.

In his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism, philosopher Kwame Appiah notes that said word dates back to the Cynics of the fourth century BCE, though it’s a distinctly un-cynical phrasing: “citizen of the universe.” They meant to sound paradoxical, as cosmopolitanism sometimes is. For its self-isolation and resistance to imperial entreaties, 19th century Westerners called dynastic Korea “the hermit kingdom,” but its eventual engagement with the world wasn’t exactly voluntary: after beginning to modernize in the 1890s, it was annexed by the Japanese Empire, which accelerated the process. Politically and culturally, Japanese rule was no less oppressive than that of a typical European power, but unlike, say, Belgians in the Congo, the colonizers encouraged Korean education and economic development, perhaps realizing that assimilated consumers would prove to be more lucrative subjects than illiterate peasants.

By 1930, of the 200-plus factories on the peninsula employing more than 50 workers, a fifth were Korean-owned. Seven years later, 52 000 Japanese bureaucrats were there, fifteen times the number of French colonial officials in Vietnam. Jonathan Krieckhaus’ book Dictating Development uses this and other data to argue that the Korean state is an international construction, doubly shaped by foreign rulers; while occupying the country after World War II, the United States actually wanted Japanese advisors to stay on and run its government, but settled for recommendations of “acceptable Korean replacements” following the local outrage. Well into the 1960s, majorities of high-ranking civil servants and police officers – including the dictator Park Chung Hee – were former Japanese collaborators. There’s a loaded Korean phrase about toadying to outside powers, sadaechuui, which dates back to the era of Chinese influence: “serving the great.”

Like Japan, the U.S. saw Korean economic success as an important part of its geopolitical strategy, and sent huge amounts of aid to its new southern ally after the peninsula’s division. The money was certainly needed. Conservative estimates suggest that half of Seoul’s buildings were destroyed during the Korean War, making modernity inescapable there. Today the city’s skyline is dominated by towering headquarters of the chaebol, family-controlled multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai – these corporations employ roughly 10 percent of the South Korean population, but their outsized influence and prestige make them loom over competitive university entrance exams. The three companies releasing most K-pop, which go by the confusingly generic names of SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, are relative upstarts. They were all founded in the mid-‘90s, after the fall of South Korea’s military junta, and none is a subsidiary of some larger conglomerate, unlike the remaining major labels that North Americans know. In a recent Omona They Didn’t! thread, “netizens” discussed the Seoul home bases of each record company, noting how ordinary they looked.

The K-pop production model parallels another city known for its cars. Marxist theorists characterized the labour-dividing ethos of Detroit’s assembly lines as “Fordism,” but one could equally call it Gordyism. Motown’s success was built on clear sonic templates, top-down control over a group’s name, image or lineup, and unyielding specialization: “Artists performed, writers wrote, producers produced,” as the Temptations’ Otis Williams put it in his autobiography. This rigidly efficient process frustrated the artistic ambitions of people like Marvin Gaye; it also churned out sublime pop songs by the hundreds. SM, YG and JYP have made the Gordyist model even more systematic and all-encompassing, on an international scale. In a Spin magazine article this year, David Bevan described the dormitory-like facilities for YG’s young trainees: “Walk down a few flights and you’re met with an assortment of plush recording studios, available to producers both in-house and imported. There’s a fully outfitted gym manned by a celebrity fitness guru. The cafeteria serves home-style Korean fare and boutique coffee until late into the night. And of course, there are those practice spaces…”

The relative diversity of these musical rosters probably exceeds that of Seoul proper, which is over 95% Korean. Where its factories were once obliged to labour for the benefit of imperial rulers, K-pop companies now court foreign listeners by choice, albeit an imperative one: unlike Japan or the U.S., their domestic market isn’t large enough to make much money from alone. So singles combine Korean verses with rapped breaks and slogan-scaled English choruses, even re-recording entire albums in Japanese or Chinese, while A&R reps search for potential idols throughout East Asia and beyond. In David Bevan’s Spin piece, a JYP PR manager describes one trainee as “post-Nichkhun,” referring to a member of the boy band 2PM. His family came from Thailand and China, he grew up in California, and he’s apparently changed the way millions of young Koreans see entire countries. Bevan quotes the American-born head of a Korean creative agency, who says that Thailand “has gone from mysterious to fabulous.”

The labels have begun taking cosmopolitanism to high-concept extremes: one new group sounds like some sort of fantastical superhero team. The 12-member EXO will apparently split into two separate boy bands, one ethnically Korean and one Chinese, and tour their respective countries before reuniting for climactic crossover shows. Extra-large configurations are common in K-pop – SNSD have nine members, and Super Junior once extended to 13 – and a canny elaboration on the Gordyist model, since they give fans more idols to potentially identify with while diluting the power of any individual star. A sudden lineup change isn’t the only questionable practice favoured by the major music companies: fans, journalists and courts alike have decried “slave contracts,” the agreements that lock a teenage trainee down for 10 or 12 years without offering any access to the huge profits they might later earn. Given this track record of exploitation, the labels’ recent forays into America feel less like sudden experiments and more like a foreseeable pursuit of similar corporations. Speaking of competitive ruthlessness, here’s the music video for “I Am the Best,” by 2NE1:

Punkishly attired in Jeremy Scott and committing enough gleeful property destruction to impress Ke$ha, they don’t seem to be working under the influence of American pop so much as they’re determined to outdo it. I especially like how the intonation of “best” sounds just enough like “bitch” to slip past any censors. Covering 2NE1’s New York City debut several months ago for the Village Voice, Brad Nelson wrote: “the crowd roared at this sudden, television-sized affirmation of their identity, inextricably tied up in this Korean group, obscure to others but approaching visibility.” The overtures haven’t always been received with such intense sympathy. SNSD embarked on their own media rounds this year after headlining a K-pop show at Madison Square Garden last fall, making this glorious photo possible. When they performed on Live! With Kelly, Howie Mandel (who I unfortunately share a passport with) elected to display some serious ignorance. In his book about cosmopolitanism, Kwame Appiah wryly demonstrates the many ways a “cultural dialogue” can fail to end in happy consensus, arguing against “those who imagine that prejudice derives only from ignorance, that intimacy must breed amity.”

Misunderstandings wreak ruptures in multiple directions, too. Last month, a young black woman with the handle IFUASKEDMETO published an Oh No They Didn’t! post called “K-pop or KKK-pop?”, compiling several recent instances of Korean stars using blackface or other racist caricatures. Without a history of white supremacy, these offenses appear less calculatedly malicious than they would in a Western context, but their tangle of perverse cultural affection and cruel mockery bears an ashen resemblance to traditional American minstrelsy. Though still a miniscule proportion of the city as a whole, Seoul has one of the largest black populations in East Asia (after the major Chinese port Guangzhou), including many U.S. soldiers stationed at Yongsan Garrison. Unlike other such installations around the region, the military base – first built as a headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Army – is located at the capital’s heart, a symbol of foreign occupation that countless thousands walk past every day. If it seems inexplicable that K-pop groups would incorporate rap with such enthusiasm while blithely reiterating imported racial stereotypes, that only reflects the tortured ambiguity of their own urbanity, both entrepôt and fortress.

It should be noted that, at least on Omona They Didn’t!, most K-pop fans are reacting to these blackface routines with conspicuous side-eyes and angry disappointment. And not all stars have used diversity as a punchline – or been portrayed as a fetishistic representation of it, as with Chocolat, the rookie quintet whose publicity focused on their three biracial members. There’s a South Korean reality show called Hello Baby that gives idol groups an adorable toddler to take care of for a while, albeit while facing totally unrealistic scripted challenges. My friend Maddie recently watched the latest season, which entrusted boy band MBLAQ with three pancake-devouring children, all of mixed heritage: one’s dad French, another’s mother Vietnamese. On her blog, she wrote: “Being Korean/Chinese-Canadian myself, I felt a Lacanian sense of fascination and kinship at the presence of a Vietnamese/Korean child, in the same way that I’m fascinated by Canadians in K-pop. I’m not mixed-race, but I’m mixed-culture, and I’ve never thought that was something others could relate to, nor did I know anyone who was in a similar situation of having two (equally diluted) ethno-cultural influences in her life. Though I’m not pleased that Canadian = white as far as this show goes, I am pleased that the approach is a multicultural one.”

In another post, about the common practice of drag in K-pop, Maddie noted: “Some female North American K-pop fans idealize South Korean culture because “it’s okay for men to act feminine”, using conservative North American conceptions of masculinity and femininity as the benchmark…But male idols who are known for frequently dressing in drag are just as frequently asked to defend (or maintain) their heterosexuality in interviews.” This hints at an important theme in Appiah’s book: universalist ideas, such as the conservative Protestantism that an influential minority of South Koreans adheres to, aren’t necessarily cosmopolitan or pluralist. They can be downright reactionary when it comes to the most fundamental differences. Over the past few years, 2000-plus songs have been banned in some form by South Korean censors, including Hyuna’s brilliant 2011 single “Bubble Pop.”

The censors weren’t concerned about the sonic radicalism of Hyuna’s onomatopoeic beats. They went after that music video because its sexualized choreography might be “hazardous.” Women now earn half of South Korea’s master’s degrees; they wield ever-increasing economic power. As manifested in song, traditional roles and female abandon sometimes collide at absurd speed. The bridge at 2:30 or so is what happens when you try to recapitulate gender norms in a moving vehicle. Such tensions existed before the music I’m discussing did; in the early ‘90s, after a media panic, governments cracked down on the sensual nightlife of Seoul’s Kangnam district. But the idea of “the club” has become increasingly central to American and Korean pop alike, and yet, looking at sites like undergroundseoul.tumblr.com, Seoul’s real discotheques only seem more hedonistic than a typical music video set there. Still, the prudish edicts haven’t gone unopposed: at http://feministkpopbloggerdirectory.tumblr.com/, the list of writers keeps growing. Feminist organizers are taking to the streets, too: there was a Slutwalk in Korea last summer.

Looking at the contradictions and complications of K-pop, some observers suggest rejecting it entirely. In 2005, Cho Han Hye-Jeong of Yonsei University argued: “South Korean popular cultural products are nothing but a South Korean version of American popular culture, and the Hallyu [‘Korean wave’] phenomenon is nothing but South Korea’s export-oriented industrial system extended into the popular cultural sector.” It’s true that certain officials and executives discuss Hallyu in a dubiously nationalistic tone; after the North Korean torpedo attack two years ago, Southern military brass installed loudspeakers at 11 locations along the DMZ, blasting K-pop across the border as sonic propaganda. But it’s also true that Hallyu itself is a Chinese term. Even a fraught, compromised expression of cosmopolitanism, exported from an occupied city by an exploitative industry, can dissolve old enmities and bear radical ideas.

To resume those sports analogies: organized by a corrupt entity, the World Cup siphons billions of dollars in public money for the benefit of corporate sponsors and TV networks, and encourages the most lizard-brained forms of nationalism. That doesn’t make the quadrennial encounters of so many fans from so many countries less meaningful. A famous aphorism in Adorno’s Minima Moralia states: “Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar.” Less famously, he went on to argue that “the strongest argument of the apologists for film is the crudest, its massive consumption.” One needn’t rise to defend an entire medium, but they’re both right, in a sense. I don’t think I would have fallen this hard for K-pop if it wasn’t brash mass culture, able to sing of the universal while illuminating parochial differences. Unwittingly echoing those Korean censors and their “hazardous cultural materials,” Kwame Appiah praises “contamination,” idiosyncratic reworkings of common global touchstones. And why not embrace it, striving only to maintain an identity amidst impurity? To breathe is to be contaminated.

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Tea With Chris: Thank You For Your Woo

Carl: Next week, Chris and I will again be at the EMP Pop Conference, this time in New York City. If you will also be in New York City, register free by Monday and you can get a badge and jump the lines and watch the geeks geeking.

What’s it like? Please allow Stephen Colbert to explain (or if you need it explained to you in Canadian, go about 45 seconds into here).

Also in attendance, scholar-at-large Jonathan Bogart, whose great blog I’ve just discovered, including two of the truest paragraphs I’ve read (at least about the Internet) this year.

Annals of book reviewing: There’s Godwin’s Law, according to which the first person in an argument to mention Hitler loses. Now meet Evans’s Law, according to which the person who gets everything wrong about Hitler really, really loses.

And finally, a verse in honour of the real Lorax:

Although no doubt they should first read the book
Sit your kids down and have them take a look
At this version free, on the free YouTube station
And don’t pay to see Disney’s abomination.

Chris: I’m glad that my big March trip this year will be to EMP rather than SXSW (here’s only one reason why), but Nitsuh Abebe compromised that a little with his account of “the perfect anti-SXSW band,” Future of the Left. As an inveterate woo-er, this shard of derision from frontman Andy Falkous was especially cutting: “Thank you for your ‘woo.’ I will take it with me until my bath tonight, and wonder what to do with it at that stage.”

This is how that baby got on that Aaliyah song.

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The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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Tea With Chris: The Dance of the Junk

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: My pot overfloweth with Tea this week, a sign that I was frequently distracted and losing track of time. (For one thing, I have a double-toothache.) My post last week was several days late and this week’s a day-plus late. So I had to read this article by Annalee Newitz that explains, in neurological terms, how you know what time it is. Unfortunately her two-fold answer for the pathologically tardy seems pretty obvious: Stop being so distracted. And wear a watch. (Do you find a phone won’t do? I’m coming to that conclusion.) But she has an interesting time getting there.

From another blogger on that distracting website, io9, there’s further temporally themed (and, warning, highly “spoiler”-ish) word of the upcoming new film from Andrew Niccol, my (and apparently their) favourite director of middle-brow dystopias, such as The Truman Show and Gattaca. It’s great enough that Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are starring together. But this also comes with a typical Niccolian one-stop-zeitgeist metaphor – in this case, a future world where time literally is money: Being rich means being almost immortal, being poor means you’re going to die tomorrow, unless you find a way to scrounge some more time. “The cops are called Timekeepers because they keep people from stealing time.” Of course this is an allegory about wealth gaps, a neat bit of anti-life-extension polemic and a parable about “living for today” and such. Plus, opportunity for sexytimes. Or could be, if it doesn’t turn out to be a total timesuck.

The best thing I read this week, though, has to be this post by Tavia Nyong’o, a (quoth Wikipedia) “Kenyan-American cultural critic, historian and performance studies scholar” whom I know through the EMP Pop Conference. (By the way, congratulations to Chris and me, among other friends, for having our proposals for the 2011 Pop Conf in L.A. accepted this week.) Tavia takes two unpromising, too-talked-about subjects of the week, Kanye West and “don’t touch my junk” fever (in which, as one editorial cartoon I saw pointed out, people who dismissed waterboarding as “not much more than a frat prank” are responding to security patdowns by crying rape). And then he synthesizes them via Jacques Lacan’s “discourse of the hysteric” into a complex consideration of the dance of authority, resistance and paranoia in contemporary American culture. Forget the intellectual chops that takes, and appreciate the effort to make them useful to everybody else – while never missing where the funny is.

By comparison this last bag of tea is an indulgence, a cup too far, but two young women in Toronto who are Halbwahrerfreunde of mine just launched a new web magazine of sumptuous pictures of their own friends creating beautiful things, or just being beautiful, and that’s a beautiful way to waste some precious time.

Chris: Sheila Fitzpatrick, a highlight of my university’s Soviet Cultural History course, wrote this London Review of Books essay describing her experiences as a young researcher in 1960s Moscow. (Europe’s endemic spy-paranoia back then makes one wonder how much of Harry Mathews’ ludicrous non-memoir My Life in CIA was actually made up.) She befriends an irreverent Jewish Bolshevik named Igor who somehow managed to outlive Stalin: “The best option in time of purges, according to Igor, was simply to vanish without telling anyone where you were going, like the friend who went south, got himself arrested for stealing chickens and sat out the Great Purges safely in jail. But Igor himself had sat them out in Moscow, keeping his head down. It was a great relief when the Second World War came and he could volunteer for active service, hoping (as I gathered) to be killed.” Fitzpatrick’s article includes a vintage photo of them. She looks girlish, chic, excited about everything; he seems to be bemused by the fact that he’s still alive.

Confidential to Kat: “My morning began with the fascinating story of Kurt, a forgotten Nazi weather station installed on the coast of Labrador during World War II that was only rediscovered in 1981.”

Margaux: I just read this article “The Countertraffickers” by William Finnegan that looks at the people who fight for those tricked or captured and sold as slaves – a more gentle entry into this topic than normal. The article mentions the movie Lilya-4-Ever. Lilya-4-Ever, based on a true story, is just as good as the article but it has less information and is more painful.

On this Wikipedia page, you can see a world map of the countries around the world who comply with the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children” guidelines established by the UN in 2000 and those who don’t.

Not sure what to do now. Micro-credit loans for Christmas presents?

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