In Risque Music, Meaning Left Up to Listener

When pop singer Sokun Therayu asks his shy female classmate “How big is your mattress?” in the popular song of the same name, it’s ostensibly out of concern for her repeated falls from bed.

“In this class, I see that you are the most careless, spraining your neck and wrist all the time, so in my heart I worry,” the singer croons. “I have the strength, and I want to take this time to go and help.”

“I want to go to the girl’s house, enter her room and ask to see her mattress,” he continues. “I want to bend down and measure it—how big is it? Turn on the lights in order to see clearly what the problem is.”

“How big is your mattress?” begins the refrain.

Released in 2014, the song could seem somewhat innocent, if not for the possibility that a listener might mishear the Cambodian word for mattress—“pouk”—as “pok,” a crude term for a vagina, and the word for help—“chuoy”—as “choy,” a word for sex.

It’s part of a long tradition of wordplay in some Cambodian songs—especially those often heard during Khmer New Year—that has proven unpopular among more puritan quarters of society. But the form comes with a built-in defense against critics.

“I accept that some people have criticized my song, but in fact these double meanings depend only on what people understand or read into them,” said Yem Tasrong, who wrote “How Big Is Your Mattress?”

“People spend too long thinking about these meanings, but it is they who change the words from what we wrote,” he said. “It’s for enjoyment.”

Mr. Tasrong said the use of double meanings as jokes was popularized by the Khmer Surin—Cambodians living in a northeastern region of Thailand that once formed part of Cambodia.

“These double meanings, they’re a part of Khmer music because people like to listen to songs when there are jokes in them, but I think the Khmer Surin songs have more double meaning than ours,” he said.

One such song is Khmer Surin singer Khong Khoy’s iconic “You Wear a Shirt and I Never See You Remove It,” which became popular in the 2000s.

“You have one shirt you wear, and I never see you remove it. Do you only have one or what, Srey Nga?” Mr. Khoy asks his muse. “I see it every time, and I’m not talking about what day, I’m not talking about what place, but I just always see you wearing that same old shirt.”

“That white shirt is your favorite…. How many days already, girl? When will you remove it?” he sings.

“It’s the same shirt, and there’s a rash starting, girl. Change that shirt, it’s enough already, Srey Nga.”

The song seems to express concern for Srey Nga’s unhygienic clothing habits, except that the Cambodian word for remove—“dos”—is the same as that for breasts, while personal pronouns are often dropped in casual conversation.

This leaves an alternate interpretation for the song’s title and refrain: “You wear a shirt and I never see your breasts”—a meaning accentuated by Mr. Khoy’s mischievous facial expressions in an accompanying music video.

Yet the possibility for such a sexually suggestive interpretation has not stopped the opposition CNRP from using the song both during its campaign for the 2013 national election, and in the months of demonstrations that followed as it protested the ruling CPP’s victory.

“I personally like that song because it’s funny and meaningful. We all periodically need to change what we have on us, whether it be shirts, ideas or regimes,” opposition leader Sam Rainsy explained on Monday. “The other possible meaning of the word ‘dos’ just adds a little bit of pepper to the recommendation.”

Risque double meanings also dominated the pre-Khmer Rouge “golden era” of Cambodian music—as well as most traditional art forms before that—said Chhang Song, who edited the state culture magazine under Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.

“I’ve used all the time of my life to think about the double meanings in Khmer songs from the 50s and 60s, but also in all the stories: in the Ayai, in the Chapei, in folklore, etc.—in short, in anything that the Khmer utter,” he said in a message.

In fact, explained Mr. Song, who also served as Lon Nol’s information minister, the playful use of dueling meanings has been so common in Cambodian art that Keng Vannsak, one of the country’s two linguistic authorities in the 20th century, “argued that the double-tongued reptile was the origin of the Khmer.”

“In my time, a Cambodian could never confess their love to a woman,” Mr. Song said.

“I like to say that the great skill of a songwriter is in using the double meaning of a word, of syntax…or experience to convey a more subtle meaning of love, or of sexuality or of any other meaningful relationship.”

While golden era music tended less toward exploiting similarities in words and more toward metaphors with greater plausible deniability, they were no less salacious to a listener with an indecorous mind.

In a song titled “Itchy Back,” Pan Ron, second only to Ros Sereysothea among the most famous female singers of the 1970s, directs her lover in ridding her of an itch she cannot scratch on her own.

“Today was so hot, and my back itches. Move over here, dear, and scratch me, my lover. I turn my back to you,” Pan Ron begins.

“That scratching feels not good at all, you’re scratching the wrong places,” she continues.

“Move up—move down. To the right—oh, to the left. Yes, that’s the spot, right there.”

“Scratch it, dear, scratch it and don’t stop. That scratching is right on the spot, but dear, why is it so exciting? Your scratch is tickling me. Oy, I’m having goosebumps.”

Ros Sereysothea herself was fond of referring to the scent of “the flower outside the garden fence” to indicate the exotic allure of a woman outside a man’s home or—depending on the interpretation—a woman who blooms outside the constraints of social mores.

While earlier metaphors may pale in comparison to the lewdness of songs like “How Big Is Your Mattress,” the songwriter Mr. Tasrong said critics should understand that he is in the entertainment business.

“Why do some people not like it?” he asked. “The double meanings are there to be enjoyed.”

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