When I speak of “Asian-American Music,” you may get the impression that I’m talking about a musical style or genre that is related in some way to Asian-American culture or history. That’s a natural reaction given how Americans tend to think of music genres, I suppose. For instance, when we talk about “African-American Music” or “late 18th Century French music” people oftentimes refer to a specific musical style or genre, say jazz or impressionism, which they then relate to that specific culture and/or period of history.
Of course, if you talk to your average Joe on the street and ask them for the musical style or genre that corresponds to Asian-American culture or history, you will likely be told that there is none – a conclusion which puts many Asian-Americans in a bind. Without a musical genre or style of our own, the very performance of music is itself fraught with peril. Asian-Americans who do rap or hip-hop are accused of appropriation. Asian-Americans who do alternative rock or folk are accused of assimilation. Which might bring us to the question: How do we get to an Asian-American genre of music?
When it’s put in this way, the task seems fairly daunting. After all, we’re a very diverse people. Do we have to come to some kind of consensus on the style or genre? And how would we go about doing that? Even if we were to come to an agreement, how could we make sure to pick something that was recognized as a new genre? How could we make sure to pick something that was recognized as good music?
For instance, what would happen if we unfortunately coalesced around the combination of ballet and cowbell? And should Asian-American music have some strong connection to the music of Asia in order for it to be considered authentically Asian-American? Come to think of it, this task of creating a cultural music genre for Asian-Americans doesn’t just sounds daunting, it sounds nearly impossible. But there’s reason to suspect that something is amiss about the story I’ve told.
Note that we understand the sense in which some concepts are socially constructed – speaking very informally, you might say that quarks and molecules aren’t social constructs. They would be doing their thing and having effects on the world regardless of what society was doing. Other concepts are probably a mix.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 no doubt has parts which are socially constructed (brand name, serial numbers, etc…) but parts which are not. It is no accident that the design of the aircraft helps it to maintain flight, where its ability to stay aloft in the air is not a function of social construction, but of things independent of that. And of course, people sometimes talk about how gender and race are social constructs. though I won’t wade into that particular discussion right now.
What I will say is that music genres are definitely social constructs – or at least the vast majority of what we talk about when we talk about music genres are social constructs. After all, music is a language, and music as humans make it is a very specific human language. As we seem to talk about it these days, genres and musical styles can be roughly categorized as loose sets of conventions, whether this be chords, instruments, arrangements or procedures. So, standard Top-40 Pop is a fairly restrictive set of chords, with highly auto-tuned vocals, and a very specific type of production approach (though much of that has even changed over the past 30 years).
I won’t try and give a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for each and every genre in the history of American music – after all musical genres are social constructs which means that they are constructed by people, and so are not easily reducible to sets of clearly defined necessary and sufficient conditions. That’s just not how people work.
In any case, the way in which we delineate that space, however loosely, is a product of social construction. I bring this up, largely because it’s important to see how people play a role in constructing what counts as belonging to a genre and what doesn’t. Particularly when it comes to categorizing new music which by its very nature fits less exactly into our pre-existing socially-constructed conceptions of genre.
When we treat music genres as independently existing entities like quarks and molecules, it’s easy to see the categorization of music into genres as a passive result of our perceptive judgments. Viewed in this way, the burden for whether a piece of music is recognized as part of this or that genre or a new genre is entirely placed on the musicians who create music.
Musicians have to create music which hopefully pings on tastemakers in the right sort of way so as to register to them as belonging to one genre or another. And if musicians are not able to create music which tastemakers recognize as a new genre, well that is the fault of the musicians who evidently have not created the right kind of music.
In the context of an Asian-American music genre then, the reason why an Asian-American music genre doesn’t exist is because of Asian-American musicians, who just haven’t come up with music that is substantial enough to deserve genre recognition. This is a view I have heard stated by white music listeners fairly frequently in awkward hushed tones.
This conception is problematic on a few basic levels. For starters, it turns out tastemakers and critics actually do a fairly bad job of categorizing music into genres. I can’t tell you how often writers will categorize something as “jazzy” or “classical” simply based on whether a piece of music has a saxophone or violin. The idea then that tastemakers and critics are good objective indicators of genres, let alone new genres, is fairly implausible on its face.
In the case of Asian-American music, the problems are compounded when we recognize that the critics and tastemakers whose ears determine whether a new music genre has been created are predominantly non-Asian-American tastemakers and critics, or people who otherwise work in an industry that has demonstrated a systematic anti-Asian bias for the entirety of the history of American popular music. The idea that this institution would be able to recognize an Asian-American music genre, after so many decades of exclusion and bias, even if it stared them directly in the face, is deeply suspect.
Social construction helps to understand what has gone amiss. Music genres are socially constructed, which means they are created by people, and people have their own faults and prejudices that affect their perceptions. These are people whose faults and biases are in part affected by systemic and institutional forces that have been shaped by racial bias and prejudice for decades and decades.
So we should not expect people’s perceptions to at all be a useful guide for the categorization of genres or the determination of new genres. Because people’s perceptions do not objectively pick out independently existing genres from the ether.
When we think of music genres as more like social constructs, the burdens associated with genre creation shift in important ways. Musicians still have a burden of creating new music, but listeners – whether they be tastemakers or critics – also play an active role as well. As such, they can be blamed for failing to recognize a genre. This is a fairly frequent occurrence.
Consider for instance, a recent incident in which a white chef, David Schlosser, asserted that “Japanese restaurants don’t understand, appreciate, or care about promoting what Japanese cuisine is all about.” Obvious bigotry aside, one way of interpreting what’s happening here is that David Schlosser was attempting to socially construct Japanese-owned Japanese restaurants out of the genre of Japanese cuisine (and thereby supplanting them with his own restaurant, apparently).
Turning back to the original question – how do we get an Asian-American genre of music? I think the task is just a matter of two things: (1) having Asian-Americans create new music and (2) ensuring that Asian-Americans play a recognized role in creating that new music.
The first part is a creative issue that I’m not really worried about. Artists will create new art, and Asian-American artists are no exception to that rule. And they have already been in the process of creating new music and new genres of music as well. The second is a matter of institutional self-realization and will.
The fact of the matter is that most American music institutions do not believe that there is a problem with anti-Asian bias in the music industry, and a big part of making space for Asian-American music as a genre is getting American music institutions to realize the error of their ways.
When we look at things in this way, the task of creating an Asian-American genre of music doesn’t seem as daunting anymore. There’s no need to come to a consensus, or create a style of music that somehow pings in vaguely the right way off of the ears of a white tastemaker.
The idea that we, as Asian-Americans, haven’t earned genre-recognition, is in the end, an anxiety which stems from the internalization of racism inflicted by American music institutions. All that’s required really is that we continue making new music, and that we then allow ourselves to demand recognition for it when we do.