Surface vs. Tension in Asian American Music

Expos, Writing

by Emma Trone

On Mitksi’s fourth studio album, Puberty 2, critical favorite “Your Best American Girl” is a standout in part because it’s the rare, empowering, Mitski song. While the seething anger that drives most of the album usually ends in despair, “Your Best American Girl” subverts that anger into Alanis Morissette-esque empowerment. Quiet strumming and a meek expression of pained love gives way to an unexpected swell of electric guitar, and a defiant statement: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I finally do”. The internet went wild, declaring that the song was an attack on the patriarchy, institutional racism, the fetishization of white indie rock, and the permanent “otherness” of Asian-Americans. 

Mitski, however, has downplayed these interpretations. On Facebook, she posted: 

A lot of reviews have agreed on the narrative that ‘she wrote this song to stick it to the white boy indie rock world!’ but I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it…I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love.

Mitski’s reluctance to make herself a symbol of a larger cultural shift in the music industry is understandable. In an era where young women like boygenius and Snail Mail are at the forefront of indie rock, there is still an expectation that women are merely the musical vessels for forces larger than themselves, rather than the authoritative tellers of their own stories. But the fact that the idea of a Japanese-American woman “sticking it to the white boy indie rock world” appealed to so many can partly be attributed to a renewed desire for Asian media representation. 

In recent years, representation has been, arguably, the most visible Asian American issue. The biggest success story in recent years, both in terms of social impact and ticket sales, is indisputably Crazy Rich Asians. But for many, the movie was merely a shallow victory for representation. Mark Tseng-Putterman, in The Atlantic, lamented that the movie stages “a certain kind of respectability politics for a presumed white audience,” by simply transposing Asian faces on a white American story. In another vein, Singaporean activist Sangeetha Thanapal criticized the erasure of non-Chinese Singaporeans, noting that the only “Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese.” 

These criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians also apply to many of the Asian representation “success stories” of the past few years, like Searching, Fresh Off the Boat, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which all feature East Asians in stories that are familiar to white audiences. Each of these projects individually aren’t responsible for telling every kind of Asian story. But it’s painfully obvious that the multitude of stories contained within the Asian experience still aren’t being told on screen, even as people celebrate recent gains.

Asian musicians are often considered only peripherally in these conversations about representation, despite the attention that Mitski attracted with “Your Best American Girl”. In many ways, the focus on on-screen representation makes sense; both underrepresentation and representation based on stereotypes on TV and in movies can have lifelong impact on the self-perceptions of Asian Americans (Sun et al. 305). However, despite the effort and attention that many in the Asian community give solely to representation in Hollywood, the emerging Asian music scene is actually far more representative of the breadth of the Asian, and Asian American, experience. These musicians deserve far more credit for producing work with the diversity, nuance, and depth that still eludes Asian stories in film and TV.

Puberty 2 is one of the most prominent examples of how effectively musicians can articulate their stories in the context of Asianness. Much of the power in Mitski’s music stems from her ability to express universal feelings; shame, pain, love, and alienation. At the same time, her Japanese background intrinsically shapes the way she approaches those feelings in her music. Beyond “Your Best American Girl”, much of Puberty 2 is evocative of classic Americana; gazing at a secret lover through a rearview window, the lilting 60s-era style of Timi Yuro and Bernadette Carroll in “Once More to See You,” fireworks filling the sky on a warm summer’s evening. But embedded in each of these images is the repeated reminder that Mitski’s participation in this culture is at best marginal, and at worst destructive. The “all-American boys” she chases ignore or sideline her, and by the end of the album in “A Burning Hill,” she has no choice but give up the chase, and simply “love the littler things.” While “Your Best American Girl” is a momentary, bittersweet victory, she ultimately comes to the conclusion that “how [her] mother raised [her]” has formed a cultural gap that will never be fully bridged.

For Raveena Aurora, an Indian-American R&B singer, the melding of cultures is a more celebratory process. In the legacy of genre- and culture-mixing jazz-pop singer Asha Puthli, Raveena confidently balances her roots with new narratives. In the music video for “Temptation,” she evokes the lushness and romanticism of Bollywood movies, while adding a twist of her own; a queer romance, that she used to come out as bisexual to family members and fans. In an Instagram post announcing “Temptation,” she wrote, “Growing up, South Asian culture and queer culture felt like oil and water.” Yet, with “Temptation”, she presents a world where both are compatible. With her music, Raveena illustrates the process of both embracing and challenging cultural norms, and how the Asian American experience is often one of balance.

Indonesian rapper Rich Brian is producing some of the most explicitly Asian identity-centric music. His earlier, meme-ier work often strayed into problematic territory, most controversially with his use of the n-word. But with his two studio albums, particularly his most recent, The Sailor, he’s turned jokes into a serious exploration of his identity and his immigration story. In “Yellow,” he raps, with a Young Thug-like flow, about his aimlessness and anxiety after immigrating to the U.S. when he was seventeen. In the emotional climax of the song, he challenges the listener not to “fight the feeling because I’m yellow,” both a reclamation of a derogatory term, and an embracement of his outsider status. Rather than avoid the tension that his race poses to his career, Rich Brian has chosen to centralize it.

It’s hard to picture the Hollywood of the current moment depicting any of these stories, at least not with the same nuance that Mitski, Raveena, and Rich Brian, and countless other musicians have given them. It would be unfair to fault the hardworking actors, directors, and writers who are still fighting to increase representation in Hollywood for these deficits. After all, the structural barriers to getting a primetime TV show or a big-budget studio film are considerably higher than independently releasing an album. 

Regardless, today’s Asian musicians are undeniably at the forefront of depicting the tensions of the Asian American experience; shame and pride, alienation and celebration, respecting tradition and forging ahead as an individual. It’s about time that we listen.