The Defiant Sound of Asian American Women in Indie Rock
Artists like Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski are at the forefront of indie rock, creating space for Asian American women.
Collage by Lia Kantrowitz
It wasn't until someone made a comment that I looked like Karen O with my fringe bangs, red lipstick, and almond-shaped eyes that I realized she was like me—part Asian. While I'd already heard her slow seductive vocals and high-pitch screams on a mix CD a friend made me, at that point I'd never actually seen what the frontwoman for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs looked like. When I finally did, the revelation was transformative.
For most of my childhood, I tried to hide the fact that I was Filipino, because in my extremely white suburb I always felt like an outsider and being Asian only made that otherness worse. Even when I turned to rock 'n' roll, I didn't find many people who looked like me, which is why Karen O was so important. When I would watch her unapologetically slink across the stage and stuff microphones down her throat to make guttural squawks, I felt empowered. My girlfriends and I would spend hours with songs like "Art Star" and "Y Control" on repeat as we drove around the winding roads of our town, talking about how we would form a real rock band one day. Looking at the landscape of indie rock today, it's obvious I wasn't the only one Karen O had this effect on.
"Karen O was a role model to me, because she is also half Korean, and is basically everything an Asian parent tells you not to be," Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast recounted to me over the phone. "I remember seeing this amazing half-Korean woman spitting water all over herself and being like, Yeah, that is what I want to do."
I never fulfilled my dreams of starting a rock band and following in the footsteps of Karen O. I used the money I had been saving up for a drum set on a new wardrobe form Hot Topic. But Zauner did what I didn't do. The Oregon native started playing guitar and writing music at the age of 16, after years of piano lessons. Now she performs her experimental lo-fi tunes about love and life all over the world. As Japanese Breakfast, she is part of a broader wave of Asian American women from my generation who are now at the forefront of indie rock.
Zauner's sisters in arms are artists like Jay Som, a one-woman band by 22-year-old Melina Duterte from San Francisco's Bay Area who's pushing the boundaries of "bedroom pop" with her multi-instrumental work and dreamy vocals; Mitski, a renowned songwriter who pens passionate ballads and plays them with a ragged abandon; Leslie Bear of Long Beard, the singer who is building a buzz with her soft and haunting indie rock; and Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, the frontwoman whose powerful genre-defying songs can be personal and political at the same time. All of these musicians, along with several other up-and-coming artists across the nation, are making room for Asian American women in a genre that has long been dominated by white dudes.
While it's not often talked about, Asian American women have been involved in rock 'n' roll for decades. Fanny, one of the first all-girl rock groups to sign to a major label in 1969, was fronted by two Filipino women, June and Jean Millington. The band earned two top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and went on a world tour, performing its unique blend of funky, soulful rock music.
In a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone, David Bowie called them "one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time..." He went on to say, "They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody's ever mentioned them. They're as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever; it just wasn't their time."
In 1970, Japanese immigrant Yoko Ono also released her debut album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. At the time, the influential avant-garde rock album, which incorporated a Japanese vocal technique called hetai, was overshadowed by her involvement with John Lennon, but it has been credited for influencing dozens of female rockers like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley.
When the riot grrrl movement formed in the 1990s, Emily's Sassy Lime, an all-girl group from Southern California, was one of the first bands comprised of all Asian American women. The teens came up in 1993 and disbanded before the decade was over. Other bands led by Asian women followed, like Blonde Redhead and Deerhoof, having a significant impact on indie and alternative music. But until now, it never felt like the preeminence of Asian American women in rock could break through novelty and create a new normal within mainstream rock.
"By and large, the music industry hasn't done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent," music critic Jon Caramanica explained to the New York Times in 2007. "Because there's no significant tradition in the mainstream, it becomes that much harder to become that breakthrough artist."
It's also been hard for Asian American women because cultural expectations for them don't often include joining a rock band. Along with the traditional roles often pushed on women by Asian parents, society is quick to typecast us as quiet and submissive.
"It's so funny because I was just talking to Leslie [Bear] from Long Beard and was like, 'Isn't it funny that your Asian parents push you into learning an instrument when you are really young, and then when you are a teenager and want to do something creative with it, they are like, no, no, no,'" Zauner said to me with a laugh. "That was very much the case for me. My mom was just like, 'I am waiting for you to get over this.' But I never got over it."
Despite the past expectations for many Asian American women, more and more are breaking into the music industry. Last year, Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som joined Mitski on her North American tour, which was an important moment for Asian American women in indie music.
"I think that one thing that is really cool about that tour is that me, Jay Som, and Mitski are all very different," explained Zauner. "Melina plays every instrument on her record and puts her engineer and mixing hat on, one that Mitski and I don't wear so much. She has a phenomenal voice and classical composition training, and I'm just kind of flailing along. I think it is really cool to have a variety that young Asian American girls can look up to in a way that isn't just this one person—to see a bigger variety is exciting."
Understandably, Zauner isn't constantly contemplating her identity, or those of her bandmates. And though she identifies with her fellow Asian musicians, her shoegazy songs are more about love and loss than race.
Mitski feels similar. As she explained in an interview with the Line of Best Fit, "I write personal stories about relationships, and living in this world and being a human being… but I happen to live in a world which views me as an Asian American. So my experiences are tainted by that, even if I'm not conscious of it. Someone said 'the personal is political,' where it seems like me just being honest about my experiences as a human being and as a person translates as being political about being an Asian American person. I'm not in this to be political or a social activist, it just happens that my being honest is a very political thing."
Karen O wasn't especially outspoken about being half Korean. In fact, like me, many people weren't readily aware of it—in 2009 Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to her as a "white girl." But she didn't need to be explicitly political or race conscious. She did whatever the fuck she wanted to do, and for many Asian woman coming of age in the early 2000s like me, just seeing her be a total badass was more than enough.
But being a woman of color does not go ignored in a white and male-dominated industry.
"I think before I even had my foot in the music industry, I was already aware that you have to work ten times harder to be taken seriously as a woman or as a queer person, anyone who is marginalized," Duterte shared with me over the phone. "It is kind of like there are a lot of misconceptions that I still deal with to this day. I think it is just knowing that I don't have these opportunities handed to me verses like a regular indie white male band might."
With so few Asian American women in the scene, it's common for artists like Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and Jay Som to be compared to one another or grouped together. For example, in May, there was a month-long concert series held around Los Angeles aimed to highlight the sizable faction of Asian American–fronted bands like Wasi, Low Leaf, and King Kang. Efforts like this are done to increase representation of Asian Americans in rock, so that they will stop being viewed as a gimmick. But they can also have a reverse effect.
"I am really excited [by all that] is happening," Zauner said, "but I also don't want this new wave of Asian American women and people of color in music treated as something like this is the new chillwave, and next year it is going to be animals playing guitars. I don't want it to end up like that."
Valerie Moorhead of the band Enda shared the same concerns nearly two decades ago, writing, "In the beginning, I was afraid of being labeled as playing in 'that Asian band'... But in the end, the idea of exposing ourselves and performing in front of other Asian college students became far more important and exciting than worrying about whether or not we'd be seen as a 'novelty' rather than simply being a rock band."
A similar sentiment was shared by Zauner, when she reflected on the impact her playing rock has had on other people. "It was really amazing because after that [Mitski] tour, after every tour really, there are a lot of Asian American people who come up and like thank me for doing what I'm doing, which is totally crazy."
I know how annoying it is to constantly be reminded about your race—it's something I've tried to avoid most of my life. But it only took one badass Asian woman to help make me feel comfortable in my own skin. When I think about how musicians like Zauner and Duterte have the ability to impact girls like my younger sisters, it makes me excited.
"I think it is just the right time. We are living in a very political and urgent climate, and we need different voices to get different perspectives," explained Duterte. "People are just sick of hearing the same things be recycled. Just knowing that we need these new voices for a younger generation of people is so important."
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