Wow. What a remarkably pretentious (and incomprehensible) blog entry title, hahah… Last night my buddy PL and I caught Hank Kim perform at Parkside Lounge off of Houston (yes, it’s pronounced How-sten, not Huoo-sten – lived in and around New York City my whole life – still no idea why). I’ve been a big fan of Hank’s work ever since hearing his version of “Candy Bar Killer” from his “Blue Alibi” album on Luna Lounge’s internet radio station. He has a singing style that reminds me of They Might Be Giants mixed with the arrangement styles of The Postal Service. And he weaves some great noir. His live performance is a bit more rough around the edges, but that plus his self-depricating humor make for a great performance.
As he launched into his song “Saratoga,” PL leaned over and jokingly said “Well, he’s definitely no Kevin So. You don’t get whiter than Saratoga! What a sell out, haha!” PL’s comment reminded me of the challenges of being an Asian-American performer in the white-dominated singer-songwriter market. Beyond the regular “getting your music out there,” you’re often going to be perceived by someone as either “too white” or “too Asian.”
For years, I’ve peripherally struggled with retaining cultural authenticity in my songwriting, though I suppose that being a Japanese/Jewish gay guy, that comes with the territory (ha!) Fortunately, I think, my songwriting has gone beyond the overtly identity-politics crap of my college years, e.g. “Look at my half-almond eyes/Look at my smooth semi-Asian thighs/When u see me out and proud/with my boyfriend in the crowd…”
Yeah. That bad. Or worse, if you can imagine. With lyrics like that I ran the risk of niche-marketing myself to death! And while I still see the value in personal-is-political songwriting, I gravitate towards songs that bring people into a shared experience. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there’s a Japanese/Jewish gay community just waiting to make me their poster boy. 😉
Perhaps I’ve sold out. Or at least am trying to, haha, since no one’s offered me a good price for my soul. C’mon – it’s a nice one, covered in fabulous sequins. Right. See? Erasure IS a big influence on me.
I’ve found I’m most comfortable in the pop song medium, and introducing Japanese instrumentation through my use of the shamisen is a way to pay homage to my cultural upbringing without letting it suffocate me or alienate audiences and fans. But the whole issue of authenticity and the risks of “playing to your own insular crowd” come to mind whenever I attend and/or perform at Asian-American music events. While most are chill and inclusive, I wonder if shows that use Asian-American-ness (the definition of which can be remarkably subjective) as the organizing theme run the risk of keeping their performers in a cultural ghetto, albeit one with many rich stories to tell, but an insular one nonetheless.
Last year, I performed at Ramapo College’s Asian Expo event (a night of Asian-American song, dance and poetry). The audience was almost exclusively Asian/Asian-American. That was… until the last act took the stage. Fronted by Jack Hsu, who plays Er-Hu, Hsu-Nami does this awesome fusion of (at the risk of sounding like a ridonkulously cheesy suburban buffet) East meets West. But it works well because the musicians have the chops to back up the concept.
I believe Jack is the only non-white guy in the band (though I could be wrong). I mention this because when Hsu-Nami started playing, suddenly all these white kids showed up, dancing along and cheering loudly. It was straight out of a Staind or Dave Mathews live concert shoot. And all I could think coming out of that event is that if you’re an Asian-American fronted band, you better have some white band mates or else you’ll never make it mainstream, and you’ll be stuck with a limited audience of Asian-Americans. Which is not to say the Asian-American fans won’t benefit from seeing you do your thing but still… perhaps I’m totally wrong but it’s hard to shake that impression.
And the thing that gets to me is that the dearth of Asian-American pop stars is definitely not from lack of talent, as my experiences at Sulu, TeaBag/Five Points and watching vids on YouTube have shown me. But unless American demographics shift I can’t imagine any Asian-American, beyond the token 1-2, “making it mainstream.”
Perhaps I’m a touch pessimistic about it. And no doubt some of my perception on this stems from my own multicultural upbringing, and being part of several communities’ shared expriences. And while it’s possible that some might say things like “Danny Katz’ songs aren’t gay/Jewish/Japanese enough” I’d like to think that the quality of my songwriting is not limited to the gays, the Jews, the Japanese and all those that fall in between. Good grief, I should start my own club! Membership… 1?
This is an ongoing theme thought that I’ll no doubt refer to in future blogs. But I did forward an article in
ImagiNation (a newsletter about Asian-American music and arts) about Hank Kim to PL, saying something along the lines of “Little did we know. Apparently Saratoga is an Asian-American hotspot 😛 Or something.”