Sunday, April 27, 2008

Asian American Musicians, American Music, and JJ Chinois

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.


Melissa said...

While I agree that it remains unclear what "Asian American" music actually is and whether or not it is useful to categorize music in this way, I am troubled by your analysis of why there are so few Asian American musicians who have achieved mainstream success. I agree that many of the musicians we looked at in class left something to be desired, but you seem to be arguing that the music produced by Asian Americans as a whole is not good, and that is why none of it has reached the mainstream. You even assert that you personally could not find a single Asian American artist you respected to post about. Do you mean to imply that this is because Asian Americans are somehow inherently less capable of producing good music, because I firmly believe that this is not true. If not, then what alternate reason do you posit for why it's so hard to name any popular mainstream Asian American musicians? Do you think that Asian Americans are just not entering the music field in as large numbers, and if so, why? I'm genuinely interested to hear why you think it is that more "talented" Asian American musicians haven't shown up.

Finally, and on a different note, while I also question whether music should be categorized with race, I think that in many instances it still is. You assert, "Should music be categorized with race? Doesn't that contradict with what Motown and R&B accomplished during the civil rights era?" Personally I would argue that Motown and R&B, while enjoyed by audiences of all races and ethnicities, are still viewed by many as "black music," not in terms of who they appeal to, but in terms of who produces them and of their cultural significance. So what do we make of this? Why are these genres associated with African Americans? Why should we care? Is there anything actually inherently African American about them? These are all valid questions, and I think they are worth thinking about. As to how this relates to Asian American music, whatever that is (because it is still unclear to me if there is such a thing), I'm not sure, but I do think it's worth noting.

Chris Suh said...


I do understand your frustration with my take on the Asian American music as a whole, and I really appreciate your input into this discussion. To boldly state what I believe, I think that the niche market music that is popular within the Asian American community hasn't reached the mainstream because of the music's inability to appeal to the general audience. But I do want to emphasize here that just because the music isn't good, that doesn't mean the artists are incapable to produce good music. I do agree with you on the point that it is a fallacy to say that Asian Americans are inherently incapable of producing good music. There are many many Asian American musicians who have demonstrated their talents-like Yo-Yo Ma and Norah Jones, whom I talked about in my blog. But what I am trying to do here is to extricate the music from its musicians. I want you to think about a song without thinking about the performer of the music. Once you do that, I think you'll see what I mean.

For example, let's say you listen to two different recordings of an identical cello piece (classical music isn't exactly mainstream, but we'll use it for this case). The same song was recorded by two different artists; they are playing the same notes, but they have their own takes and interpretations.
Let's say you prefer the first recording to the second, but you don't know who the artists are. Before the names of the two artists are revealed, you've made a judgement on which recording is more appealing to you. It turns out that the first one was done by Yo Yo Ma and the other by a non-Asian artist. Cool! But did you like the first recording because it was done by Yo Yo Ma, because it was done by an Asian, or because the music had identifiable Asian qualities? I don't think so. You liked the first recording because of its auditory appeal, regardless of who performed that music. And that's a very similar case with Motown music:

Yes, you are right when you say that regardless of Motown's crossover success, people identified their music with blacks. I do want to point out though, that people were initially attracted to that music not realizing that it was done by blacks. When people were listening to Motown music in the late 50s, they simply had their radios turned on and enjoyed the music that flowed out from them. The lyrics didn't talk about being black or social injustices. Until the late 60s, Motown refused to release anything that was politically charged because it had gain a foothold before it wanted to bring about social change. Motown's crossover success was symbolic of black achievement, and it is impossible to ignore that the music was deeply rooted in the African American community. But I want to make it clear that the national audience listened to this music primarily for its auditory appeal, not because it was performed by blacks. I don't want to be repetitive, but it is important to note that music as a life of its own holds the power to attract the audience.

So I want to clarify what I said about the Asian American musicians. I've said that Asian American musicians in the niche market as a whole have not produced things that are as good as what's out there in the mainstream. Those who did succeed in the mainstream or have established himself/herself as one of the best in the field have done so with music that's not really identifiable as "Asian." Of course Asian Americans just as capable of producing good music as other races. The idea that Asians are inherently incapable of making good music is a fallacy. No one should believe in such idea. But a musician's talent doesn't always translate into great music.

Think about how many great bands disappointed their fans by putting out a bad album. Take Weezer, for example. They garnered popularity and praises from music critics when they released their first album. Then when the second album, Pinkerton (1997), was released, people hated it and therefore it did not sell. It took Weezer 3 years to reestablish themselves as great musicians when they made a come back in 2000. One's musical talent doesn't exactly always produce great products.

There are as many talented Asian musicians as there are of other race. However, I haven't really listened to any musical products (songs, albums, etc) that have left a huge impression on me or on most people in this country. Of course there are Asian American musicians who are at the top in their fields, but their music can be only identified as American music, not Asian American music.

The future needs an Asian American artist who draws sounds from his/her Asian roots (beats, instruments, melodies, etc) and producing something that is simply good music, something that appeals to the ears of audiences across the color line. It took African American R&B almost a century to reach the mainstream-the music began to take shape during the Reconstruction Era New Orleans and became nationally popular during the Civil Rights Era. I think there's hope for Asian American artists to produce good music that is undoubtedly identifiable as Asian, in the future. However, as of now, I am having difficulty finding one and so are audiences across the nation. I'd love to listen to "Asian American music" (note: this is different from "American music" done by Asian American musicians) that is simply just good music.

Michael Teruya said...

I agree wit Chris. I am working on an Asian American Roots music movement. It is not mainstream, consciously so. Having experienced what Chris did in searching out the music, I grew tired. My response was to listen to some current mainstream hits, and what a difference!
First of all, as a musician like Chris, we understand how American music evolved both artistically and economically, and the resulting industry deliverance of its product is very standard now.
It is the music and the production. In Asian American music, the ones on You Tube, the talent seems to imply itself, but not enough work, not enough critical thinking, and not enough of the elements that make for good music. managers, agents, producers , etch. When an artist come into the picture, there has to be commitment to the whole team. It is a team effort. The independent Asian American musicians tend to be loners and even when signed to record companies or managers, they do not grow as artists, and many give up too soon, unwilling to make the growth, to perfect the art and even perfect the image. I can go one and on, but only to say, Chris is right and can make a good manager producer, if he can find someone worthwhile enough.