Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where are the Asian Americans in pop culture?

I'm having this conversation on Twitter as we speak, but for those of you who don't do the tweet: Can you think of any Asian-American pop stars? So far the closest we've come, feels like, is Yoko Ono and William Hung (ouch). People named a string of Asians and part Asians in indie bands and whatnot (e.g., Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) plus some solo artists (e.g., Rachel Yamagata), but nobody who really crosses the fame threshold to qualify as a "pop star" per se. I'm thinking high-profile solo artists especially, like a Kelly Clarkson or even an M.I.A. (who, being South Asian, at least comes close). There are plenty of white pop stars (obvs), lots of black pop stars, even openly gay pop stars. But I can't think of any Asian American pop stars, like Chinese or Japanese or Korean men or women born in America. It ain't 'cause Asians don't like pop, or aren't musically inclined. What gives?

In general I think Asian Americans are weirdly underrepresented in U.S. pop culture. In college like, 30% of my friends & Romantic interests were Asian. I don't get why they're so frequently tokenized or missing completely from the landscape in TV, movies, etc.


  1. The only one I can think of is Asian Correspondent Trisha Takanawa (sp?) in Family Guy.

  2. i like how you capitalized Romantic for some reason:)

  3. Yeah I meant like the movement.

    Actually it was totally accidental.

  4. are you making music puns now? ;) (movement, accidental)

  5. Is accidental a music pun? I'm punning and I don't even know it, figures.

  6. accidentals are sharps and flats.

  7. There are a lot of people (like me) that listen to Jpop - in fact there are internet radio stations devoted to nothing but!
    One of my fave Jpop bands is The Pillows.
    Also, we were a generation raised on Japanese anime - so that has to have filtered into our psyches by now, right?

  8. You would think! So odd how Asians seem kept at the periphery. I feel like the mainstream treats anime as a fetish.

  9. Like the horrible recasting of Asian characters into Caucasians in "live action" verison of The Last Airbender...oof! Why?
    Here are some more:
    Senior Chang on Community - played by hilarious Ken Jeong.
    The beautiful couple on Lost - Sun and Jin! (Probably the best actors on the show besides my beloved Hurley!)
    Amy Wong on Futurama.

  10. I suppose it depends a little on how broadly or narrowly you define "pop culture," and how famous you're looking for. Some names that come to mind:

    Sandra Oh
    Daniel Dae Kim
    Grace Park
    Kam Fong
    George Takei
    Bruce Lee
    Margaret Cho
    Julie Chen
    Pat Morita
    Ang Lee
    Yo-Yo Ma
    Keye Luke

    I did have to think a little. I probably could name more Asian-American poets, without thinking a long time, than pop culture people as such. Off the top of my head (naming poets here):

    Janice Mirikitani
    Nellie Wong
    Russell Leong
    Shirley Geok-lin Lim
    Sesshu Foster
    Mira Shimabukuro
    Jessica Hagedorn
    Lee Herrick
    Barbara Jane Reyes
    Mitsuye Yamada
    Amy Uyematsu
    Brian Thao Worra
    Sun Yung Shin
    Marilyn Chin
    Kimiko Hahn
    Carlos Bulosan
    Sadakichi Hartmann
    Mei Mei Berssenbrugge

    And I know there are a bunch of poets I'm not thinking of right offhand.

  11. I do think it's easier to come up with actors than pop stars, though a lot of the people you named don't exactly get offered great or diverse roles, or roles that don't require someone Asian.

    I definitely DON'T think of poetry as pop culture. :)

  12. I thought of her! But of course she's one of the nerd/outsiders. In the US Asians = geeks.

  13. Michelle Branch is part Asian.


  14. Mixed Race America includes Norah Jones:


  15. I own CDs by both Shonen Knife and Puffy Ami Yumi. Does it count if they are are/were huge in Japan but only played on U.S. college radio stations once in a while?

  16. to some extent, i'd say it's true across the board for minorities. there are more black/hispanic pop stars, but typically their stardom inherits significantly (if not primarily) from their culture (eg rap stars, ricky martin, shakira, etc). denzel is not an "american star who happens to be black." note also blacks/hispanics significantly outnumber asians in the us.

    to some extent, i'd say it's also cultural. east asian culture and temperament seems less compatible with pop-starriness, although it's pretty hard to disentangle this from everything else. we're probably overrepresented at med schools. hahaha

  17. Agree there's stereotyping no matter what, but at least in pop music those populations are represented, whereas Asians seem conspicuously absent. (I still think the vast majority of examples are too fringe to qualify.)

    Clearly my nerd school education didn't prepare me for the stunning lack of diversity I was to face later in life. It didn't dawn on my that once I started (over-) specializing I'd never talk to math and science people again.

  18. when did you know math and science people? i guess i knew a few in high school. (but everyone sort of knows each other in high school.)

  19. I had friends from all different "majors" in college. Then I went to grad school and now almost everyone I know is a writer.

  20. ah. "friends in college" is basically a foreign concept to me.

  21. i am a big believer in racism (or really, just "superficialism"), ie it is a ubiquitous and powerful force, but in the case of pop music i'd probably apportion the "blame" to factors besides racism. i think people are pretty open-minded when it comes to music, and if there is some good shit on the radio then people will listen. people love ravi shankar, pizzicato5, etc etc. if you listen to most mainstream chinese pop today, you may find there's a totally legitimate reason it's not on american radio stations hahaha

    yoyo ma is actually a really big star, i'd google it. he is everywhere

    dude you live in boston. you can't throw a rock without hitting a scientist/engineer/finance geek.

  22. Yo Yo Ma is a star, yes, but not pop.

    I'm not saying, why don't we listen to Chinese pop stars, I'm saying, why don't Chinese Americans go on to become pop stars? It's not *necessarily* racism, I just find it weird/surprising that they either don't pursue that path (they may pursue music, but not mainstream pop music) or are seen by record labels as unmarketable. Could be both.

  23. There are engineers at my company, obviously, but none of them work in the office. It is not as easy as it seems to mingle with people who work in different fields.

  24. * proportionally, there are very few asian americans
    * they are less interested in pursuing pop stardom, both by temperament and by cultural pressure
    * their cultural heritage provides less material/inspiration useful for pop music, and minorities usually become pop stars via their cultural heritage
    * they are less marketable

    the marketing thing i think is actually less important than one might think. for example beck is not exactly brad pitt, and he is huge. i love the race card but i ain't pulling it on this one.

    but anyway, why the fixation on music. how about pro sports, newscasters, politicians, doctors lawyers finance geeks and software engineers! hahahaha

  25. I'm skeptical about the "less interested" part simply because I think a decent number of Asians try out for American Idol.

    Also, Beck basically IS Brad Pitt, as far as I am concerned. And Brad Pitt is not actually the epitome of sexiness, Shania Twain be damned.

    Are you saying Asians do or do not dominate those areas? 'Cause pro sports? Unless you mean ping pong ...

  26. uh...baseball? not to mention yao ming in b-ball.

  27. I can't have this conversation anymore. Yao Ming? He's like widely accepted as freakish. Anyway, sports vary widely in terms of which races dominate.

    We clearly have no established understanding of the basic terms here.

  28. i wasn't saying they're pop stars, i was just saying that there are famous asian athletes in sports other than ping pong

  29. The logic of the list doesn't make sense to me though. Other than "pro sports" and politicians the implication seemed to be that Asians are kicking ass in these areas? Not clear to me what was intended.

    Anyway, I'm not the first to ask the question:

    "There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the 'Asian thing' is what Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars."

    Apparently in 2006 there was a contest to find "the first Asian American pop star."

    It's true that Asians only make up 4-5% of the US pop but they are concentrated in cultural centers (e.g. California), I think, so the effect should be lessened. Also there are more Hispanic Americans than black Americans, but more black pop stars, so population numbers alone don't account for everything.

    Basically, I still think it's a gap.

  30. i agree that it's a gap. i agree with your post. i was just going off on a tangent. :)

  31. James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins.

  32. Thao Nguyen from Thao with the Get Down Stay Down.

    Drummer Susie Ybarra.

    Dao Strom, folk singer.

    David Choi YouTube sensation.

    Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead.

    Sonya Westcott of Arthur & Yu.

  33. And also Vienna Teng and Jane Lui.

  34. This comment stream has become a great list of Asian Americans in the arts. I still find it a little odd that so few people have commented on the issue I initially raised, which has nothing to do with talent or success but rather mainstream exposure and acceptance. It seems a little as though I asked "Why has the U.S. never had a woman president?" and the comments turned into a list of women in other political roles. It's relevant, I guess, but it feels like a dodge.

  35. i guess there's a difference between "pop music" and "popular music", pop being narrower than popular.

  36. OMG. Does she record music? What does she actually do, besides exist in "reality"?

  37. "a Playboy model who also sings" - CNN. critical track: "I Fucked the DJ" (with no protection)

    Apparently there was some Juggalo drama, too



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.