Tag Archives: APA music

performance research

The Sound of Racial Melancholia: Listening to and Performing Indie Rock in Asian America

[I presented this paper at the Inter-Asia Pop Music Studies Conference, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-Asia) chapter meeting, at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei on July 15, 2012.]

Early in my explorations of Asian American experiences of rock music, I encountered a peculiar song. “Oriental American” is a hidden track on the 1998 album Two Cents Plus Tax, by indie rock band Versus. Unlike the other hidden tracks of this era, the song only surfaces when the listener manually rewinds from the beginning position of track one on the CD for 4 minutes and 36 seconds. This song’s physical position on the album makes it almost impossible to listen to it. It’s like a ghost that hovers between the front edge of the plastic Compact Disc and its programmed tracks. It lives behind the digital codes that store sounds. I kept it as a secret, until I confronted with “racial melancholia”—both as an intellectual concept and a lived experience—a few years later.

I read an article co-written by David Eng, a Chinese-American literary scholar, and Shinhee Han, a Korean-American clinical psychoanalyst. In this article, Eng and Han offer a productive reading of their clinical observations of the patterns of depression among significant and growing number of Asian American college students. The authors deploy the logic of “melancholia,” first defined by Freud, and apply it to understand the racial dynamics in the United States from the minority perspective [slide: concept]. They posit that “racial melancholia” occurs when a racial minority individual, while holding on to the democratic ideal of equality, experiences an interminable grief over the loss of being and feeling fully integrated into the society. These feelings, in the case of Asian Americans, are rooted in a perpetual loss of the sense of “social comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” (Eng and Han 2003: 349)[1]. These feelings can be both experienced broadly in their social lives, and more specifically inherited from their immigrant parents, in the case of the second- or 1.5-generation Asian Americans [slide: concept]. To put it simply, we can’t seem to ever “get over” the conflicts, ambivalences, and other feelings of loss associated the difficulties of immigration and assimilation (Eng and Han 2003:345).

Following from Eng and Han’s activist scholarship, in this paper, I intend to make audible the sound of racial melancholia—projecting the under-heard voices of Asian American minority individuals who withstand societal pressures of conformity and self-erasure. This paper stems from my personal empathy and struggle with the social state of melancholia. Today, I will animate the sounds of racial melancholia from two distinct angles. First, I will offer an extended close reading of the song “Oriental American.” I argue that this song articulates the ghostly presence of the Asian American melancholic subject position in the U.S.-based indie rock music canon. In the second part of the paper, I will move into a reflexive rhetorical position to explore the psychosocial processes of the performing agent. I ask: How I, as an Asian and Taiwanese American artist, have engaged with the personal and social condition of melancholia through performing vintage Taiwanese pop music.

Unleashing the Ghost in the Machine

The indie rock band Versus formed in New York City in 1990. The ethnic membership of Versus has been predominately Filipino-American. The Wikipedia entry on the band describes it as a “prominent example of American indie bands emerging in the 1990s which featured Asian American members.”[2] Despite their visibly Asian American identity, members of the band rarely mention their Asian or Filipino heritage in their songs, with the exception of their song “Oriental American.”

In the studio version of the song, guest vocalist Asako Fujimoto (of Japanese descent) repeatedly speaks the line “I am Oriental-American.” She notably swallows while obscuring the word “American.” Her vocal delivery sounds like a stutter. A looped tape-delayed sample foreshadows Fujimoto’s stuttering vocalization, sandwiched between a guitar riff in the foreground and a programmed drum beat in the background. With an addition of reverb, Fujimoto’s vocals carry an ethereal quality as they drift in and out of the sonic texture.

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The song ends with these lines spoken by Fujimoto: “Did they tell you what kind of thing just this is / Just say the word what kind of you wanted anything / Something that’s funny / Cute / Something dark / Something serious.” Now placed in the foreground of the mix, these lines are delivered with even more reverberation than previously. Further obscured by the effect of tape delay, the first line of this section ends with an audio overlay of two words “just” and “this is,” resulting in the stuttering of a word that sounds like “justice.” Similarly, the delay effect obscures the words “you wanted” resulting in a synthesized voice stammering “nuance.”

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I refuse to read the studio effect of stuttering as a literal reflection of the loss of language that immigrants experience after arriving in a new country. Instead, I’m interested in reading the stuttering a cultural product of racial melancholia. This opaque utterance resonates with the ghostly subject position as occupied by Asian Americans in rock music discourse. New York Times writer Neil Strauss comments in a 1995 review of The Ear of the Dragon tour, a series of performances that feature bands with Asian American members, including Versus. Strauss commends the bands for reclaiming their ethnic identity within the hegemonic mainstream rock music scenes. He notes, “It’s a brave move for groups that want their music to be considered on its own terms within the broader context of rock instead of as outsider rock made from an Asian-American perspective” (1995: 17).

Strauss’s remark not only points to the risk of race-based ghettoization in labeling oneself as “Asian American.” It also indirectly brings into relief a double standard within the ostensibly liberal colorblindness that is embedded in the ways in which people act and talk about rock music in the U.S.. Within this ideological structure of colorblind liberalism, Asian Americans, as well as other minority artists, are made to feel included, in spite of the unspoken norms within the scenes that rule out or stigmatize their experiences. I argue that this covert, racially determined double standard manifests as an instance of “American exceptionalism and democratic myths of liberty, individualism, and inclusion” (Eng and Han 2003: 347). Dominant discourses “force(s) a misremembering of these exclusions, an enforced psychic amnesia that can return only as a type of repetitive national haunting—a type of negative or absent presence” (Eng and Han 2003: 347; my emphasis). Rock music discourse in the United States can be repressive of minority voices. But these voices can return ghosts.

I let the uncanny stuttering ring in my head and infuse this writing. I work while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals, in spite of the erasure of these voices. Inspired by the song, I work throughout my dissertation research while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals. I became interested in unearthing the marginal voices of Asian American artists working on the fringes of American rock music. I began digging through CD bins, music blogs, mp3 download sites, and online social media hubs while looking for friendly ghosts of my kind. A few years of research on this topic inspired me to begin to engage with this sonic haunting in personal and performative ways.

A Performance Engagement: Dzian!

Near the end of my fieldwork, I started a band (if you saw our performance at the Underworld on Friday, then you got a taste of the full band, a six-piece band). I consider my band a post-fieldwork project of public scholarship: a playground to experiment critically with concepts of race, ethnicity, and postcolonialism formulated in my research. The band is my performative response to the persistent questioning regarding my research by academic and non-academic outsiders: “Is there rock music in Asia?” “Who are the rock musicians of Asian descent?” “Which bands are you talking about?” Alongside my band-mates, I perform to inscribe Asia and Asian America into rock music discourses. And our performance, as a form of cultural work, is aimed to resolve the feelings of loss of a sense of heritage and social comfort for Asian American individuals.

We call ourselves “Dzian!” – borrowing the Taiwanese idiom of “supercool” to evoke our solidarity with Taiwan. The band officially got together for a benefit concert in the wake of Typhoon Morakot (88水災). I was moved by this surge of support for Taiwan generated by the Taiwanese American community. Using D.I.Y. social media and event organizing, these Taiwanese American artists reached their audiences across the U.S. and in Taiwan spreading their support for Taiwan. I decided to organize a similar event to join the efforts of many in the community across the U.S.. To bring the Charlottesville and the University of Virginia (UVa) communities together for Taiwan, I envisioned a live enactment of “Nakashi”, sometimes spelled as “Naaski” (那卡西) , an iconic itinerant music performance style that emerged in Taiwan in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation era. I gathered a number of musician friends from the UVa music department to learn a hand-picked selection of some of my grandparents’ favorite Taiwanese enka songs, as well as surf and garage rock songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan and its neighboring countries such as Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia . I also enlisted a number of dancer-friends who choreographed specifically for the performance to complete the theatrical aspects of the Nakashi performance. Joining efforts with the Taiwanese Student Association at UVa and a local Taiwanese café, we raised almost $1000 from the evening’s festivities.

Dzian! has imprinted itself in heritage communities locally and regionally in the Unite States. The band has performed at several heritage celebration events organized by various Taiwanese and Chinese American organizations in Los Angeles, New York, and Virginia. After performing at the Passport to Taiwan Festival, we were invited to perform at the Hello! Taiwan Rocks concert at the Taiwan Center.

“We don’t care if it’s uncool to be F.O.B., “fresh off the boat.” We have unleashed all of our foreignness, defying the social norms of assimilating. We are back on the boat! No shame, no ambivalence!”

At a more personal level, my performances with Dzian! have mediated my own struggle with racial melancholia. In particular, these performances have offered a fruitful ground to ameliorate a fraught relationship with my mother. Eng and Han note that immigrants themselves experience grief over the “losses of cultural comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” in the process of immigration and over time. And these feelings of unresolved feelings of loss can be inherited by the children of these immigrants (2003: 352). My mother, for a while, held onto the notion of having a physician daughter, long after I confronted her with my desire to pursue a degree as not as a medical doctor, but as a musicological doctor. During my fieldwork, I discovered that this particular parental expectation is, in fact, is a recurring trope among many of my musician-colleagues. We have commiserated over how we have struggled with the inter-generational melancholic manifestation in the sense of guilt, usually articulated as the following in their parents’ voices: “We’ve lost everything to come here to start afresh just so that you will have a better future.” Choosing a career path (in the arts) against a stable profession would seem like an act of denial and could sometimes cause relationship severance.

With my new interest in songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan, I began to approach my mom as a source of knowledge regarding the music of “her era.” We have had a number of exchanges about the lyrical content of the songs, while sharing Youtube performances to discuss our stylistic preferences. Since the very first performance of Dzian!, my mom has been a frequent guest performer in the band. In particular, I have asked my mom to perform a Taiwanese A-Go-Go song entitled “Mama Give Me A Guitar” (媽媽送我一個吉他) with me. During the performance of this song, my mom and I exchange lines in a call and response, enacting the story depicted in the song lyrics about a young girl pleading her mother to buy her a guitar. The song describes the girl’s desire to sing and dance alongside her mother. In performance, we enact our aspiration for keeping each other company. I put a boa feather around her and we sing arm in arm. Through the power of musical performance, we convince not only the audience but also ourselves of our close relationship. The crowd cheers on. We hug each other, both feather boa-clad , forging a musical harmony that seeps into our relationship offstage. And I know, to an extent, I have fulfilled the rock star dream that my mother probably has always had.

Conclusion: A Post-Fieldwork Cultural Work

My goal in this paper was to address, perhaps ambitiously, the practice of public scholarship as a scholar-performer, and to add to the theoretical conversation about critical positionality in ethnography (Kisliuk 1998; Wong 2008). I have offered a set of narratives that illustrate my involvement as a scholar-performer in rock music performance. I have explained how my music analysis and performance can act as a kind of post-fieldwork cultural work.

This is beginning of my effort to depathologize racial melancholia, recontexualizing its association with the personal to consider it as a collective, social phenomenon. Racial melancholia is a structure of feeling and cultural impediments that have loomed over our existence. If the cycle of performing, ethnographic writing, and then back to performing can relieve us from this matrix, let us continue to do so.

[1] For more on Eng and Han’s conception of racial melancholia, read “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley and Los Angeles, C.A.: University of California Press.

[2] The most complete biography of the band Versus is found on Wikipedia. More, read: Wikipedia contributors, “Versus (band),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Versus_(band)&oldid=418761492 (accessed March 22, 2011).


research teaching

Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.


Magazine Interview about Asian Pacific American (APA) Music

I recently participated in an interview conducted by Inkstone, a UVa-based, student-run magazine devoted to Asian Pacific American (APA) literary arts and culture. The coming issue will feature a few UVa scholars (faculty and graduate student) who research APA arts. The issue will be released in late Spring this year. Below are contents most relevant to Yellow Buzz:

// What is Asian-Pacific-American music the way you understand it? //
Oh gees. This sounds like one of the questions on my comprehensive exams! APA music has yet to be canonized, although a number of academics and record labels have attempted to do so. For instance, Itchy Korean Recordings, based out of Houston, TX, released a compilation titled Wok and Roll featuring 14 multiethnic or Asian American punk and hardcore rock bands. Similarly, New York-based label Born in Chinese put out a compilation titled CompilAsian: A Collection of Asian American music, featuring 12 Asian American recording artists and groups of rock, pop, soul, and R&B. These recordings, in part, seek to shatter the silence or invisibility of Asian American representation in mainstream media. Also, MTVchi, an offshoot of the MTV network that broadcast program featuring Chinese American and other Asian American artists and VJ’s in order to cater to and create an Asian American audience, is another example of an institutional attempt to define APA music. This network, however, went off-air in 2005.

In many ways, I think, we’re still struggling with the baggage that otherizes Asian (or Orientalizes) culture inherited from the historical structures of the U.S. music industry. Specifically, the oppressive black-and-white racial binary still to this day informs our commonsensical understanding of commercial musical genres. There are white music genres such as country (historically known as “hillbilly” records) and rock. And there are music categories associated with African American performers and listeners, for example, hip hop and R&B, or the historical genre of “race records.” The racial binary that governs music genre division leaves a conundrum or a dilemma with which Asian American musicians grapple in their everyday struggle to express themselves authentically through the idiom of music.

Contrasting the general lack of APA musical representation is the active presence of Asian American musical production (consumption) at the grass-roots level. The current musical heterogeneity in Asian America resonates with the social diversity of the community. This makes it difficult to derive any generalities about the sound or content of this music. I personally resist the notion of APA music because it has not had a prominent existence in practice. What’s undeniable is the presence of APA musicians, professional, amateur, performing in all musical genres. Part of my academic (and musical) effort is to conjure (however) truthful images and narratives about the lives – and music – of these below-visibility APA musicians. For now, my working definition of APA music is the music made and listened to by individuals of Asian descent in the U.S. The broadness of this definition marks the yet exploratory state of this research.

// What does a reader/listener of APA music have to look forward to? //
Some of the most interesting music in Asian America emerges from the creative ways in which musicians have played with genre conventions. Anime punk (rock) is an example of this. Anime punk is the general subculture of anime in North America. Anime punk bands, mostly based out of New York, LA, and Tokyo, make frequent appearances at anime conventions in the United States.. Many of these bands perform in “character” in ways to resonate existing characters in familiar works of anime or more abstractly, to represent the general aesthetics of anime fashion and imagery. Peelander-Z, a self-identified “Japanese Action Comic Punk” band from Brooklyn, usually dress up in costumes and combine the raw sounds of punk and the interactive techniques from Japanese (as well as Korean and Taiwanese) game shows in performance. Their interactivity with the audience is astounding. I went to their show in Richmond last November and had a blast banging on pots and pans and watching them do “human bowling” offstage. By the way, they are coming to Charlottesville on March 5.

There are many other APA musicians who are doing innovative genre-bending. Carol Bui from DC blends in elements of Vietnamese pop singer Khanh Ly’s vocal style in her Sonic-Youth-and-Riot-Grrrl-inspired post-punk songs. And on her new album Everyone Wore White, Carol covers a traditional Vietnamese folk song a capella. Also, indie experimental rock band Kite Operations, led by Korean American Joseph Kim, just recently covered a Korean pop song in a free-jazz, late-Coltrane style. And, the Korean members of the feminist art rock band Taigaa! from Brooklyn cite “bbong jjak”, a pre-80s style of Korean pop music, as one of their main influences.

Musicians sometimes use conventionally Asian instruments in the context of American pop or rock music. For example, Jack Hsu of the Hsu-Nami fronts a New Jersey-based hard rock band playing amplified erhu, a traditional Chinese 2-string bowed instrument. Jack plays the erhu standing up with it clipped to his waist. He even shreds on his erhu! His main influences include Steve Vai and Slash of Guns N’ Roses.

There are many musicians who consciously derive musical inspirations from contemporary popular music genres in Asia such as JPOP, CPOP (MandoPOP, CantoPOP, and TPOP) and KPOP. Of course, there are many musicians of other genres that are transgressing ethnic/national boundaries. Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project example is a well-known classical music example. Generally speaking, many of these musical links between US and Asia lead to or are products of actual transnational social connections between APA musicians and their Asian peers. This is especially made possible when APA musicians tour in Asia or when Asian groups tour in the U.S. This kind of transpacific social and musical connection – particularly the grassroots ones – is totally exciting to me.

// What will a reader/listener of APA music be disappointed with? //
I think the general lack of visibility of Asian Americans in music is disappointing. Hardly ever we see an Asian American person on mainstream TV network or on the cover of Rolling Stone, Spin or Vibe. There have been, of course, a few iconic Asian/Asian American figures in the U.S. cultural landscape: James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins, Joseph Hahn and Mike Shinoda in Linkin Park, Tony Kanal of No Doubt, Joey Santiago of the Pixies, Allen Pineda in Black Eyed Peas, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Lyrics Born, etc.

One thing that I find quite disappointing is there is much Asian American internal solidarity in music. While there are hip hop groups comprised of all Asian American members, such as the Mountain Brothers, most Asian American musicians perform and collaborate with white American musicians. So far I’ve only encountered a few bands composed of all Asian American members. I would like to see more of that.

// Describe the great and not-so-great moments of APA music history. //
One great moment in APA music history has to be Yoko Ono’s 2007 album release of Yes, I’m a Witch. Ono has unfortunately bore the onus for breaking up the Beatles for the last 35 years (which by the way was constructed mostly by media rumors and gossips). The vast and stimulating works of art and music has yet to be received much positive attention. This 2007 release consists of recordings of Ono’s music re-rendered and re-produced by leading indie rock, hip hop, and electronica figures including Cat Power, DJ Spooky, Le Tigre, Peaches, Flaming Lips, Antony (of Antony and The Johnsons), and many more. This album introduced Ono’s ahead-of-her-time songwriting skills and vocal style to a wide audience. And it has inspired listeners and critics to take Ono’s music and art seriously, possibly for the first time in history.

The appearance of William Hung on American Idol and subsequently in media marked a peculiar moment in APA music history. On the one hand, his performance yielded an array of responses. Some people uncritically embraced him for comic relief or commended him for being “clever” and achieving instant fame. Others vehemently censured his image and accused him of reinscribing the stereotype of the “Asian gook.” There were of course individuals who took his image literally thus perpetuating the Asian model minority myth. This was a very awkward moment for me. I felt like on the one hand, I had to come forward to assert my opinions about the William Hung “phenomenon”. On the other hand, I was intellectually curious about the complex construction and reception of his stardom. Politically, I would say, it was a not-so-great moment for Asian American representation in music.

Other than that, there are quite a few moments that scholars have discussed: the musical Flower Drum Song, with a mostly Asian cast, depicts the bicultural social life of Chinatown in San Francisco on Broadway and big screen first time in history; the Grain of Sand’s political folk songs that led and reflected the spirit of the Asian American identity politics movement in the early 1970s; and the Chinese American rapper Jin’s winning of “Freestyle Friday” on BET and his subsequent record deal with Ruff Ryders.


This entry was originally posted on February 24, 2008 on Yellowbuzz.