A Reflective Piece By Enoch Chuang
Four years ago, I heard a song called “Everybody Wants to Love You” on my Spotify Discover Weekly and added it to one of my playlists. I must have really loved the song (or was very hungry) because I googled Japanese Breakfast and found that the moniker belonged to Korean-American musician, Michelle Zauner.
Growing up as an Asian-American, there was never an Asian-American artist to look up to, especially in the emo and alternative scene. Learning that Michelle’s journey went from playing in emo/punk project Little Big League to solidifying her identity in Japanese Breakfast, brought me unprecedented excitement and curiosity - and instantly won me over as her fan.
Prior to this, I had little-to-no knowledge on Asian-American artists. For most of my life, I was a passive music listener; any music that was not directly marketed to me fell off my radar. The two big Asian-American music moments that I remember were Far East Movement’s record-breaking hit “Like A G6” and Steve Aoki’s signature of throwing cakes at his live crowds, neither of which fully encompass the richness and comprehensiveness of Asian-American history and culture.
While the scarcity in Asian-American music can be traced back to gatekeepers of the industry to some degree, I believe Asian-American culture, or immigrant culture, as a whole, was not constructed to succeed in popular culture in the first place.
Asian-American Families Valuing Extreme Work-Ethic Driven By Risk-Aversion
It took a lot for immigrants to come to the US to pursue their version of “the American Dream.” Many had to leave their families and experience destitution in the new country, possibly even having to learn a new language. For families that “made it” from having nothing - I’d define them as your average middle class family - their success formula was made up of an abundance of diligence and hard work. They did not have the luxury to pursue hobbies as their dream career, because their dream was to survive. Naturally, this mentality shaped their parenting, and their children were pushed to follow a similar path of survival.
Michelle briefly mentioned this in a Vice interview five years ago about how she was raised rather strictly and was “a workhorse” her whole life. She even went on to talk about her “mom in particular [being] really confused about [her] interests” and how she got a lot of “When are you going to grow out of [the arts]?” growing up.
As someone who had wanted to work in the music industry since Sophomore year of high school, I experienced a similar rhetoric at my family gatherings. It was really a passive-aggressive way of saying, “I don’t think you’re making the right decision and I want to engineer your life for you.” Relatives would urge me to choose specific majors during the college application process because it was the safe and secure thing to do. As infuriating as it got, I always knew it came from a place of love. They wanted what was best for me and didn’t want me to risk facing struggles that they faced when they moved to the US.
Since the majority of Asian-American children have parents with similar work values as Michelle and I, the arts get pushed aside and are labeled as a mere hobby. Most kids learn these values at a young age and follow their parents’ footsteps of getting a “real” job. What’s left is a small pool of rebels who become artists, awaiting to be discovered by the gatekeepers. However, from a pure numbers standpoint, the odds were never in our favor.
As one of the few Asian-Americans growing up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, I spent some of the formative years of childhood trying oh-so-desperately to assimilate myself into predominant (white) culture, a common phenomenon among second-generation ethnic-americans. Whether it was wanting the same physical features, attempting to unlearn my native language, or eating f*cking lunchables, I wanted to be like the other kids in school.
I recall the first day of preschool when my parents were dropping me off and hugging me goodbye - I rushed off to the classroom as soon as I could because I was embarrassed by the color of our skin. Then, in the first grade, my teacher asked us to bring our families to school one day to share about our culture. And again, I despised every second of it because I was ashamed of my parents’ thick accents, completely disregarding it as one of the hardships they had to overcome when immigrating to the US.
It is this same temptation of fitting in that has sparked little-to-no conversations about Asian cultures in the past decades, especially in the context of music and entertainment. Until today, I didn’t realize accomplished artists like Bruno Mars and Darren Criss are Asian-Americans. The narrative focus of these artists, for the most part, has been on their talent and accolades, not their cultural identity. And as someone who used to find assimilation appealing, these subtexts definitely convinced me otherwise.
Sidenote - I don’t think every Asian-American artist who succeeds in the industry is obligated to speak about their ethnic experience. However, the lack of explicit representation and ethnic pride can easily spiral into an unending loop of ethnic anonymity, like we’ve seen in past decades.
I guess this is why seeing Japanese Breakfast headline The Glass House in Pomona a few weeks ago filled my heart with newfound elation and pride. To put it simply, everything that Michelle did was ineffably cool. From ringing the gong with her mallet to dancing carefreely in her own element, the crowd reacted in joyous awe. That little boy who was once so ashamed and insecure of being Asian was reaffirmed that he could be his unapologetic self and take pride in his ethnic identity, an invaluable lesson that will follow me for the rest of my life.
Of course, as I am writing this, Michelle (and the Japanese Breakfast team) has been nominated for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album for the upcoming GRAMMYs, alongside fellow Asian-Americans H.E.R. and Olivia Rodrigo! Perhaps this is the big turning point for Asian-American representation in popular culture, and Asian boys and girls at home can start dreaming fearlessly of becoming an artist when they grow up.
Michelle, if you’re reading this - Huge congrats on the Grammy nominations! Thank you for everything you have done, said and created - and for representing Asian-American culture so well in the process of doing so. You are an amazing pioneer, and I can’t wait to see Asian-American artists in the next few decades list you as their musical influence.
Photos by Enoch Chuang: