I didn't post a blog last week because, well...I simply didn't know what to say. But after watching/listening to JJ Chinois, I've realized why I couldn't say much last week. Aside from Norah Jones, none of the artists mentioned last week were familiar to me, and when I did attempted to seek out Asian American musicians I found myself browsing through countless youtube videos that contained music that were, in my personal opinion, simply bad. The vast majority of these artists and their music belonged to niche markets, and perhaps that's why I didn't know any of them. And at the same time, I didn't really want to listen to them, not because they were not mainstream but because there was a good reason why they couldn't achieve "crossover" success.
The word "crossover" denotes a process in which music belonging to a niche market becomes part of mainstream culture. Music critics first used this term to describe what was happening with African American music--Rhythm and Blues, which had been dismissed as "race music" for a very long time, became popular with the national audience regardless of color in the late 50s. In fact, the Billboards integrated "R&B" into the "Pop" category in 1963, when a 13 year old Motown product named Stevie Wonder reached #1 in both charts. It was an astonishing milestone for African American artists, and at the same time it was an important moment for African American music. The music dissolved the barrier between white and black audiences across the nation, and for the first time, black musicians could stand on a national TV stage performing their songs. Before then, black music only could become popular when it was covered or reinterpreted by white artists like Elvis Presley. But it is important to realize that black music like R&B became part of the mainstream in the late 50s and 60s, not because the performers were black but because their music was simply good.
I bring up this topic of "crossover" success because I think it is relevant to the Asian American musicians that we have discussed for this class. The musicians belonging to niche markets have not reached the mainstream simply because their music isn't very good and therefore not appealing to many people. I do admit I'm being very harsh, but the niche market music, separate from its performers, simply does not have the strength to compete with some of the best music that's out there in the market. Of course there are many songs that are popular within niche markets (the so called "indie" music scene) that demonstrate great musical values, but I am a firm believer in the idea that if the music is truly great, eventually it will be picked up by a much wider audience, just as R&B music became mainstream in the 60s. I don't mean to offend those who are fans of K-Pop and J-Pop, but they don't exactly have the same musical power that R&B does. Norah Jones is probably the most successful musician among the Asian American artist discussed in this blog, and for a very good reason. Her music is simply better than the others'.
But at the same time, I wonder how much emphasis should be placed on the fact that she is half Asian. She is Asian American, however, her music (in my personal opinion) has nothing to do with the fact that she is half Asian. She is a very good jazz pianist and is a wonderful blues/pop/jazz singer. Listening to her music, I can't really find elements that make her songs distinctively Asian American. What I want to say is that, music has a life of its own, separate from its performer, although it might take its origin from the artist's ethnic background. And the foremost reason why the national audience listens is that the music appeals to them, not necessarily how the performer appeals to them. Although we are at the age of youtube and visual emphasis at music concerts, I believe that music's foremost appeal is auditory. Music, by definition, is a combination of vocal and instrumental sounds that produce harmony, melody, and expressive content. If the music isn't good, I really don't care how great/interesting the performer is. (Think about how many times the so-called great musicians disappoint us with horrible new albums)
Now let's take a look at JJ Chinois. After reading Mimi Ngyen's essay, I do realize that he is a transgendered persona of a New York filmmaker and artist named Lynn Chan. But since we watched his music video I want to point out why his music doesn't appeal to me very much (and it seems like it doesn't really appeal to others either). First of all, I think JJ Chinois does a lot of things for the sake of becoming a star, not necessarily because he is so "talented," as he claims himself to be. Ngyen talks about how JJ Chinois, like Bruce Lee, attempts to create a new image of an Asian male body, but I think there is a huge difference between the two people. Bruce Lee's masculine image is a byproduct of his spectacular martial arts skills, as supposed to JJ Chinois's image that seeks to draw attention to itself so he can become a star. In other words, I don't think Bruce Lee created his image because he wanted to become a famous star, as much as he felt very passionate about martial arts, and during this pursuit of his passion he acquired the masculine image. It's the same case with true musicians: most of them simply pursue what they feel passionate about--making music--and then become nationally famous musicians. JJ Chinois, on the other hand, makes music and films because he simply wants to be famous. (If you take a look at his website, you can see how much attention he wants) In fact, his being Asian or transgender doesn't really make his music special at all. The song is only creepy and repetitive. I just don't think his music has enough appeal.
This is a very lengthy post, but I thought it was necessary to share what I think about Asian American music and address these questions:
How much emphasis should we place on the artist when we gauge the value of his/her music?
Does the fact that an Asian American performed the music render it Asian? Doesn't the reason why many Asian American musicians fail to achieve mainstream success point at the fact their music is simply not as good as what's out there in the mainstream? Should music be categorized with race? Doesn't that contradict with what Motown and R&B accomplished during the civil rights era?
As a serious musician, I can't really appreciate the Asian American music that's popular in the niche market. I'm sure there are some really good ones that I haven't been able to find yet, and maybe I should look harder to find something that appeals to me in that small market. But at the same time, do I really need to seek out specifically for Asian American musicians, when I just want to listen to some good music? I do realize that we are paying attention to race for the purpose of this class and we should do so. But at the same time paying our primary attention to the Asian American musicians, rather than the music itself, prevents us from appreciating the auditory art.