For “BoJack Horseman” episode “The Dog Days Are Over,” indie musician Thao Nguyen of the band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down provided a Vietnamese-language rendition of Grouplove’s end credits song, “Back in the ’90s (BoJack’s Theme).” It’s one of five thematic covers this season, and caps the episode in which BoJack’s writer pal Diane traveled to Vietnam to reconnect with her roots after a soul-crushing divorce.
Nguyen said she immediately responded to the episode’s contemplative and melancholy sensibilities. “As I watched it, I loved the darkness of it. I love the dark humor and the humanity of it,” she said. “It’s a really complex, nuanced thing, the essence of human behavior. Just in that one episode I could tell the thoughtfulness and the consideration in the writing is really impressive. I was very heartened that they wanted to take the time and effort and expense to explore this little bit of Vietnamese representation.”
A few years ago, the Virgina-born Nguyen toured Vietnam, traveling with her mother, who hadn’t returned to her home country since the war ended. This emotional experience, seen in the documentary “Nobody Dies: A Film About a Musician, Her Mom, and Vietnam,” helped her identify with Diane’s feeling of displacement in a country full of people who looked like her but didn’t sound like her.
“The way ‘BoJack’ approached and rendered that experience of feeling like you don’t quite belong anywhere, I related to,” said Nguyen. “The people knew immediately that I was not born in Vietnam, not raised there. I am conversationally fluent, but they could tell immediately that I wasn’t a true native speaker.”
Translating the Lyrics
Initially, singing the song in Vietnamese seemed like a straightforward task; the show requested a fairly literal translation of Grouplove’s lyrics. See below:
Back in the ’90s, I was in a very famous TV show
I’m BoJack the Horse (BoJack!), BoJack the Horse
Don’t act like you don’t know
And I’m trying to hold on to my past
It’s been so long
I don’t think I’m gonna last
I guess I’ll just try
And make you understand
That I’m more horse than a man
Or I’m more man than a horse
While Nguyen knows conversational Vietnamese, the language changes in more formal situations, especially in addressing or introducing people. In the song, BoJack introduces himself as a former television star. Although Nguyen asked her mother for help, she also turned to the most culturally relevant entertainment product of the Vietnamese diaspora: “Paris By Night.” The ongoing direct-to-video series, which features an elaborate cabaret show of songs, dances, and comedy sketches, is a staple in any self-respecting Vietnamese-American household.
“I was like, ‘How are they introducing the television star on “Paris by Night”?’ That actually was my line of thinking,” said Nguyen. “I remember watching and not knowing at least half the things that the presenters were saying because that vocabulary is sort of different.”
Nguyen also said Vietnamese music often contains poignant themes of loss and reminiscing, which resonated with the BoJack theme. “There’s a couple of very small moments of a more introspective philosophical, existential bent within those lyrics, especially when you consider the character of BoJack,” she said. “I remember channeling a wistfulness or some notion of regret that is actually very prevalent in the Vietnamese music I was exposed to growing up. Vietnam’s always been entrenched in some kind of war, some kind of loss of land and freedom. There’s a melancholy that I’m very familiar with in Vietnamese music.”
Forging the Right Tones
Also, Vietnamese is a tonal language, and a word’s meaning changes depending on the tone given to each word. In order to follow a Vietnamese song’s melody, the tones are often evened out, which sometimes renders their meanings difficult to comprehend.
“What was really fascinating was to make a decision whether or not I would just forsake the total accuracy of the word or melody for the actual melody of the song,” said Nguyen. “It was a mind bender. I had to call my mom and tried to ask her even, ’Is it okay that I’m doing this?’ But to explain it in Vietnamese was like doing a crossword puzzle. I felt like there were a lot of acrobatics happening that I typically don’t do.”
Nguyen went solo for the project, recording her own vocals, percussion, guitar, and banjo while she was on a residency. “I just needed to turn it around faster than it would have made sense to book the studio or anything,” she said. “There was another version that you can hear more of the Vietnamese traditional instruments. I had slowed it down and I had used the banjo more like a kind of a đàn sến (two-stringed lute) or a đàn bầu (monochord zither). It was just more of a traditional folk Vietnamese quality to it, but then it sounded less and less like the original (song) and then it would be hard to understand that this is the theme song in Vietnamese.”
She instead opted for a more original interpretation closer to the theme song’s tempo. She found the process gratifying, but her mother still hasn’t seen the episode or heard the cover.
“I’ve been out on tour,” said Nguyen, who had just finished performing solo on Neko Case’s tour. “I haven’t shown it to her. She did appreciate that people wanted it in Vietnamese. I think she will be mildly amused.”
Listen to Nguyen’s cover of Grouplove’s “Back in the ’90s (BoJack’s Theme)”:
”BoJack Horseman” Season 5 is currently available to stream on Netflix. Thao Nguyen is currently working on her next album.