Tag Archives: melancholia

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).