Pop Cult: On Exoticism and Asian Pop Music
Knee-jerk reactions (the best kind) to pop culture happenings all over the world.Posted by Allen Huang
Pop Cult: The Charlie Chan Blues – On Exoticism and Asian Pop Music
At first I thought I’d do this column all about Perfume‘s newest song, “Spending All My Time.” The summary? It’s them trying to break into Western markets by re-imagining their sound as a product of the west from the bottom up. What I mean by that is that they’re specifically Perfume, but with less Japanese new-wavey influence and more Eurobeat footholds. But they still sing in Japanese, and they still never forsake the melody, just like Perfume ought to do. But while watching the reactions to the song unfurl over the last few months, and just reading a lot of western reactions to Asian pop in general, I (and it seems like a few other writers) reached a threshold with the amount of passive-aggressive, somewhat racist reactions to Asian pop in general. I don’t mean like Japanese Internment Camp racism, but something a little more subtle.
I remember this article coming out during high school and just laughing and laughing and laughing. I brought the magazine in to school and posted it inside my locker door so I could have a good chuckle between classes. It just felt like some sort of tossed off thing to prove that the American media hadn’t forgotten about us. Like, “Hey! We know you’re around. And a lot of our more unhappy, older Caucasian populace consider you a respectable consolation prize in the game of life. Also we like that Chow Yun Fat guy.”
So even though in print there was this vaguely positive thing written about my race, still there were all the jokes about my last name being very close to a commonly ridiculed body part, and some eye pulling and some of the oh so classic l-r conflation that were usually tossed off “in good nature” but still uniquely aimed at me and my other Asian friends. That was the modern condition I grew up with, and that was what I resigned myself to in my future.
Nothing was more indicative of the feebleness of the Asian stereotype than how we were just never on the screen. From the Yellow-face of Charlie Chan and Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, to comic foils Long Duk Dong and Short Round, up until about the year 2000 these were our most famous media representatives. Yes there was Bruce Lee, but even though I idolized him as a young person there was no way I would ever relate to him. He’s a physical freak. Long Duk Dong was a more realistic representation of my future than Bruce Lee.
Flash forward to 2012. Asian characters on Lost. Jet Li is an Expendable. Tiger Woods is half-Chinese. Jeremy Lin’s a pretty decent basketball player. Did I get them all? Meanwhile, a lot of kids love to go to Anime conventions and dress up like our cartoons. And while that’s very flattering, guys, a lot of it is because kids these days feel abandoned by American culture as well. I mean it’s not everyone’s reaction to go buy a kimono when they’re picked on at school, but a decent portion of non-Asian people are into modern Asian culture because for whatever reason they really dislike their own culture. And a lot of the product that comes out of Japan/Korea/Taiwan/China caters to that notion too.
But now there’s this K-Pop/J-Pop thing and it’s getting big, which I love, but it is also bringing back some of the old high school feelings again. But instead of eye-pulling and buckteeth and bad driver stereotypes (ok that one’s true), it’s all about “exoticism” and whatnot. They say, ‘People like this stuff not because it is good but because it is different. But it’s also too much the same which weird’s me out,’ in so many words. So I guess Asians are weird when they’re being themselves, and they’re worthless when they’re aping Western trends, apparently. Bummer.
I mean in the beginning of the movement it was all sexual objectification: People paid attention to Girls Generation and Hyuna because they are, for lack of a better phrase, hott-as-fu**. But then Kyary Pamyu Pamyu came out with “PONPONPON,” and people were like WHOAAA check this out it’s WEEEEIRD. Which it was! But it was also subjectively catchy and poppy and enjoyable and did interesting things within the frame of Pop Music that hadn’t have been done for a while. No matter, cue the idiots doing things like “Porn Porn Porn!” and other l-r stuff.
Now PSY has made it big, and I continue to feel at times excited and at times conflicted. Excited because I turn on CNN and see a big, Asian guy on the screen. And then I see the video of him at Dodger’s Stadium and I see, at the same time, people who are entertained by this man’s music and choreography, not simply by the fact that he is Asian and has the gall to attempt to entertain more than just his small country. Then I see people online, people obsessed with Asian culture, disliking the song because it is annoying and they’d rather listen to Skrillex. And that is good too! They are making a judgement on the content of the entertainment, rather than its happenstance appearance.
But yes, there is always the social critic throwing out the “You only respond to this because it’s Asian,” and with it comes the (admittedly hyperbolic) connotation that this song, “Open Condom Style,” and all its derivative brethren, will not ever have any cultural worth, at least to the True Western Audience. For such reductionists, the things that Koreans are doing over there cannot be taken seriously on a global level, unlike say LMFAO which we can freely give critical analysis to. You just say “This just sounds like stuff in the West,” and then you toss it away.
But why not try to understand what they are doing by aping the West? Maybe, culturally, musically, youth-life-wise, there is not that much distance between teens in Korea and teens in America. Maybe K-Pop is offering you, not just a window, but a bridge to their culture, a party beat that transcends language. And they’re giving it to you for free. But no, it’s Asian so there’s no point in taking it seriously. Not when there’s new Taylor Swift songs to discuss.
And personally for me, maybe the winning fact is that yes, they aren’t white people. They aren’t black people either. K-Pop stars aren’t people typically considered visual entertainers; not in America at least. Maybe I do like it better because I enjoy PSY’s character more than Redfoo’s, because to me, Redfoo is the guy who would do the l-r thing to me and Psy would definitely not. Maybe he’d say something disparaging about Korean-Taiwan relations, but it would probably go over my head.
I’m sure it’d all be in good nature.