"Dumb It Down" - A Reevaluation of A “Dead” Art - By Whitney Wilcher and Brittany Gonzalez

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

What began as an avenue of expression, hip-hop quickly became a commercialized product that fell victim to media-enticed stereotypes and materialism. As a means of capitalizing on the hottest trends in entertainment, record labels began to urge artists to reinforce images of black male hyper-masculinity and unruliness, marginalization and objectification of women’s sexuality, and the sub-par educational standards of the inner city within the confines of their music. This then ushered in a new phase of hip-hop that appeared to have lost sight of its historical roots as a mouthpiece for the community to the larger world. This has aided in the coining of the common saying/ belief that “hip-hop is dead”.

While many agree that in a larger sense, hip-hop has lost its way, there are many popular hip-hop artists including Common, Lupe Fiasco, Jay-Z, Nas, and Outkast who have successfully injected the original essence of hip hop into their music while maintaining their monetary longevity within the mainstream arena. In other words, they have been able to produce chart-topping hits that are embedded with commentaries on the issues facing their communities. However, in order to do so, these artists have created an illusion of adhering to the stereotypes of the industry but through their use of metaphors/ personification, manipulation of the beat and background aesthetics, and carefully crafted lyrics, they have been able to defy those stereotypes. This is due to the fact that artists have traditionally been forced to choose between success and protest as “cultural expressions of discontent are no longer protected by the insulated social sites historically encouraged the resistive transcript…particularly when it contradicts and subverts dominant ideological positions.” (Rose, 101)

Before a single word is uttered, the listener is being fed clues as to the “hidden transcript” embedded in the song. The beat is preceded by a series of dog barks that continue throughout the entire track. While, aesthetically, one might attribute that to the seemingly violent lyrics that are to follow, there appears to be more at stake here. Traditionally, dogs are symbols of violence and carry a notion of being unruly, which is one way of interpreting this feature of the song. Additionally, one might also consider the fact that the voice of the dog, the bark, is too considered to be untamable, much like the beast making the noise, as it resonates continuously and rather uncontrollably and sporadically. This can be seen as sending Nas’ way of sending a message to not only his listener but to the media that one can “attempt to contain the beast but not control his cry” (Saddick, 111). Other songs including Lupe Fiasco’s “Put You On Game” send similar messages with his use of repeated gun shots throughout the song and ending in a resounding single shot at the very end and appearing to cut off the last word of the song. Fiasco here appears to be sending a very strong message of violence but juxtaposes that with the “cutting off” of ones voice by the supposed violence he is portraying via the gunshots.

To help the audience decode the “hidden transcript”, artists have been forced to be creative with their delivery tactics as well in order to assist in the decoding process. Additional features of the coded protest embedded in “One Mic” include a very noticeable increase in volume around the middle of the first and second verses juxtaposed with a soft and mellow repetition of “all I need is one mic”. While this can easily be interpreted as a display of anger and a sense of hyper-masculinity that is said to be stereotypical of black males, it is critical to examine the moments of vocal elevation in each verse. A noticeable switch occurs when Nas begins to reference a need to acknowledge “hood politics” in the first verse, the fact that “bullets tear through the innocent” in the second verse, and when he begins the third verse he speaks of his ability to be that “one life… one man” to affect change and stand for something better. Consistently, Nas appears to raise his voice when speaking of issues concerning the issues in the “hood” and lowers his voice when is reflecting on his own life. Additionally, he ends each moment of “rage” with a famous quote from many activists of the Civil Rights Movement: “the time is now.” In doing so, Nas makes it clear that this song, while blatantly angry and upset, is calling on the oppressed to act now and encourages other artists to use their one mic for good. He furthers his message to his fellow artists when he concludes his final chorus with commentaries like “f*** the car, the jewelry/ all I need is one mic to spread my voice to the world.”

“One of the central reasons that hip hop artists, music, and culture as a whole have been criticized as “dangerous” lies in the power of the performing body to subvert traditional, hence safe, modes of representation in America, even as it embraces the commodity capitalism of the American Dream.” (Saddick, 113) In other words, hip-hop has been kept on a tight leash by the music industry in an effort to curtail any notions of disrupting social order, even as it relates to this notion of the American Dream. The Saddick article goes on to speak of the ways in which a double standard exists as it relates to hip-hop and the rest of the world. According to Ice Cube, “To be American is to flaunt what you got [...] and to try to have a little more than the next man” (Saddick, 110). If this is true, then it becomes difficult to justify society’s criticism of hip-hop as being egotistical.

Songs like Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” and Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High” are littered with the personal pronouns and references to monetary success; however, they provide various lyrical clues that their intent is to either mock those in “power” in the industry or to personify an issue facing the community. Fiasco’s “Superstar” presents metaphorically speaks about the industry as being like a party with a guestlist, only the “more famous people… and the sexy lady next to you” can get in. He goes on repeat “If you are…a superstar, then have no fear, the camera’s here/ [the crowd is here] and they want a show…” as if to mock those artists who make egotistical claims, put present nothing on stage. He later says, “the audience ain’t phased and they ain’t gone clap and they ain't get gone praise” as if to suggest that consumers and listeners are not impressed with these claims. Additionally, the last verse frames a scenario where the artist that waited in line for “tickets” to the industry, got to the front, and they had ran out of tickets. He then begs to be taken back to him home. This can be read to correlate with a need for artists to “come back home” much like in West’s “Homecoming” representing a return to their foundations.

An issue that has recently received significant amount of attention from scholars is hip-hop’s blatant objectification of women’s sexuality. Rooted in the statistically proven notion that “sex sells”, plenty of artists have jumped at the opportunity to sell more records at the expense of the image of minority women at large. Some artists, however, have creatively found ways to embed a larger message underneath lyrics that appear to objectify women. A famous example of such a metaphor can be seen in Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and in Kanye West’s “Homecoming”. Common, specifically personifies the development of hip-hop as a woman he met when he was young that he has watched grow into a commercialized “tragedy”. He metaphorically speaks of hip-hop’s selling out as being like this girl he loved in his youth that has been “turned out” by people that took advantage of “her” and enticed her with promises of money and diamonds.

Similarly, Kanye West’s “Homecoming” speaks of how his hometown too became plagued with issues facing other urban communities in America. He speaks of how he left and didn’t look back until now when things have changed. In his second verse he even states, “if you really cared for her then you would never hit the airport to follow your dream… I guess you never know what you got till it’s gone/ I guess this is why I’m here…”. On the one hand one might interpret this to be Kanye simply reminiscing on a childhood crush, but he sets the record straight, as does Common, by explicitly stating “I’m talkin’ bout Chi town” or Hip-hop for Common. While mapping their journey to discovery or destruction for the “women” in their songs, they are sending their respective communities a strong message/ warning about the direction in which they are moving and thus taking their communities with them.

While there appears to be an number of artists that fail to recognize any aspect of the historic culture of hip hop in their music, there is also a commendable number of artists that do. Concerning the population of artists that do attempt to speak on behalf of their communities, they are forced to code their message of protest behind the “public transcript” that packages hip-hop into boxes of stereotypes. In order for hip-hop to sell, the industry executives have set the precedent that sex, money, and violence will control this industry. Therefore, in order for artists to get signed and even get their voice heard, they are forced to give the impression that their music is “boxable” (fits a category of the stereotypes). This technique makes it difficult for a reader to reinterpret, but the artists provide various clues to aid in that process. The listener has to not only be open to alternative interpretations, but it often requires them to pay close attention to various artistic aesthetics that are often overshadowed by a need for a catchy beat and chorus.

Works Cited

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Saddik. Annette J. "Rap's Unruly Body: The Postmodern Performance of Black Male Identity on the American Stage." The Drama Review, Winter 2003, Vol. 47, No. 4, 110-27.


Iconic Minority Women in Music - By Nikia Crawford and Jonathan Lesko

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Media link: http://pocwomeninmusic.livejournal.com/

Throughout popular music history, minority women have predominantly fulfilled the role of the “center stage” singer, the object of desire and the “passive” receptacle of cultural projections of femininity. This phenomenon is largely the result of commercial constructions of conventional representations, set in stage by the popular music industry, emphasizing physical appearance, sexuality, public relations and non- or minimally musical aspects of performance and production. This has caused a racial and gender bias that refuses to acknowledge the creative “ownership” of minority female artists, and places an extraordinary burden on those that aspire to break the mold. Our paper then, seeks to deconstruct the representations of a survey of contemporary, iconic minority female singers in order to compare and contrast images of transgression and empowerment with the expectations of the commercial status quo.

Mathangi Arulpragasam, a British-born music artist of Sri Lankan descent known by her stage name M.I.A., has risen to mainstream stardom in recent years, particularly with her latest record, Kala. She has received much critical acclaim for her atypical vocal stylings, blending of diverse genres, fashion sense and lyrical and public political commentary. In breaking with the industry conventions for female minority singers, she has been intimately involved in the writing and production process of her music, represents a “global” image that refuses simplistic associations between ethnicity, geography and musical genre, and has confidently asserted a female perspective in her music.

In cooperation with UK producer Switch, she wrote and produced the single, “Boyz.” She also was involved in directing the video, effectively conceptualizing the flashy, vibrant, boisterous style that has since become emblematic of her commercial and artistic image. Instead of linking herself with a single geographical locale, such as Hip-hop’s celebratory use of New York City as its birthplace or cultural hub, M.I.A. transcends national boundaries, ushering in an era of musical and aesthetic “transnationalism.”

“Boyz” was filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, and its musical components recorded in multiple locales, including Chennai, India, Trinidad and Brooklyn. The video features the colors of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Trinidadian flag, as well as the Islamic crescent and star, used on various flags throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It stars an all-male crew of Jamaican dancers, and some of the choreography specifically speaks to contemporary dancehall trends. The lyrics incorporate Jamaican dance slang and Patois language. “Boyz” also brings to the fore striking female commentary about masculinity, exposing the aggressive, insecure, promiscuous and abusive nature that can be likened to what Kim Hester-Williams has described as the “possessive individualism” of masculinity within Hip-hop culture. She points out the foolishness of masculine rituals of binge drinking, “hustling,” and fighting, singing, “How many no money boyz are rowdy? How many start a war?” In doing so, a female voice decries the alpha male personality at the core of war-like political strife.

Karen Lee Orzolek, popularly known as Karen O, is the Korean-American lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a rock group based out of New York City. They have achieved reputable fame as a major label band, releasing several singles from two LPs, Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones. While they have made it “big,” they continue to cater to music fans with interest in “indie” rock and its anti-mainstream aesthetics.

The controversial video for their single, “Y Control,” directed by Spike Jonze, contains vivid, grotesque imagery depicting Karen O as a kind of perverse maternal figure among “orphan” street children. It is shot predominantly in a damp, dingy underground garage, suggested as the children’s home. The children commit criminal acts of vandalism and property destruction, wielding axes, golf clubs and hammers and bashing cars and pianos with bats. One scene flippantly depicts child mutilation. Another shows a child writing “We Are All Going to Hell” in graffiti. A motif of macabre is sustained in the video with a scene of a child vampire who bites Karen O’s neck, and children carrying and wrestling a dead dog.

What these characteristics amount to is a transgression of society’s conception of motherhood. Karen O explicitly betrays the social sensibility that a mother figure must create a healthy, safe and moral household, and discipline her children. Karen O’s indiscretion is thus a feminist social commentary challenging conventional “family” values, rejecting the singular and “natural” notion that a female must raise a family and fulfill the role of caretaker within the domestic sphere. Notably, the song’s title refers to the male “Y” chromosome and the oppressive “control” of patriarchy. Karen sings, “Well, I’m just a poor little baby, ‘cause well, I believe them all.” She seems to be emulating the personality of a female caught under the paternalistic arm of a patriarchic society, speaking to the way in which ideologies of male-dominance and heteronormativity become internalized, and even practiced by the oppressed.

African American hip-hop artist Missy Elliot is popularly known for her fashion sensibilities while refusing to conform to the demands of the music industry on the physical appearance of black female performers. Historically, African American females have been burdened by the expectation to sexualize the black female body, to “downplay” “blackness” (with the presupposition that it would alienate white listeners) and to obey the imposition of conventional “Hollywood” looks. Aside from developing her own independent sense of style, she has also openly declared her intention to present the “black” “roots” of Hip-hop, such as in the conceptualization of the record, The Cookbook. She says, “Whether they [African Americans] was on railroad tracks or cooking in somebody's kitchen, they was always singing.”

Elliot’s video for a single from the same record, “Lose Control,” celebrates black musical heritage and alludes to historical racial injustice. In one choreographed scene, Elliot, along with fellow performer, Ciara, recreate a setting fairly reminiscent of the video for “St. Louis Blues” by the eminent blues “queen,” Bessie Smith. It is shot in black and white and stars solely black performers. Females wear white dresses and males black pants with suspenders. However, instead of being filmed at the bar, like Smith’s video, it is filmed in the “back of the house,” seemingly in a storage area of a kitchen. This speaks to the nature of segregation and job discrimination against African Americans, who were often relegated to the aspects of service jobs that were “out of the sight” of white patrons and owners.

This survey of minority female singers provides a lens by which to view the status quo of popular music and the attempts to transgress it. These artists have broken with some of the impositions of physical appearance on minority females in the public eye. They have also actively participated in the creation and production of their music, music videos and artistic image. Furthermore, they show the way in which artistic vision and consciousness of racial and gender identity can be used to loosen the strictures of social inequality that in many ways are reflected in, fabricated and perpetuated by popular music.

Works cited

  1. Pytlik, Mark. “M.I.A.:Kala.” Pitchfork Media. http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/ record_review/44983-kala (accessed December 2, 2008).
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Boyz,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boyz_(song) (accessed December 2, 2008).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hester-Williams, Kim. “Eminem, Masculine Striving, and the Dangers of Possessive Individualism.” Genders 46 (2007): 1-39.
  5. M.I.A. “Boyz.” Kala. XL! Recordings, 2007.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, “Karen O.”
  7. Ibid., “Y Control.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Y Control.” Fever to Tell. Interscope Records, 2003.
  10. Reid, Shaheem. “Missy Elliot’s Greatest Challenge on The Cookbook: Getting Ciara to Rap.” MTV. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1505732/20050714/elliott_missy.jhtml (accessed December 2, 2008).
  11. Ibid


"Digital Credibility" in Field Research

I’m an ethnographer/blogger.

My dissertation research investigates the social and musical lives of American rock musicians of Asian descent. On the one hand, I follow the conventional methods of participant observation as I travel to ‘field sites’ such as nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops to witness live performances and hang out with musicians. On the other hand, I participate in the indie music scene by blogging on YellowBuzz.org about my field research experiences. My online participation, however disembodied and virtual, is significant due to the centrality of user-produced or independent media in the indie rock music scenes. For the most part, these research methods take on two distinct lives. Sometimes they intersect and yield interesting results.


Ethnographic work on performing arts can sometimes be logistically challenging in our intensely mediated worlds. Typically I carry a number of recording devices including a digital SLR camera, a mini-DV recorder, a handheld digital audio recorder, a laptop computer, and a notebook. This list can be extended or shortened depending on the nature of activities (interviews vs. live performances). Sometimes it is contingent upon whether I expect to make music during my visits.

Early this fall, I took a series of field research trips to New York City. On one of these trips, I doubled (well, actually tripled) my identity: field researcher, musician, and scholar. I was invited to perform and speak with students at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. I took the chance to double-dip this visit by scheduling some interviews and making plans to attend shows in New York. So I had a four-bag system: a backpack (my laptop, notebook, show flyers, The Village Voice, other paper products), a carry-on suitcase (audio-visual recording devices and clothes), an electric guitar case, and a guitar pedalboard (assorted guitar effect pedals).

After the mini-residency at Wheaton College, I took the Amtrak to New York City. Long story short, my case of guitar effect pedals (worth $1500!) got stolen on the train a few stops north of New York Penn Station. I frantically filed a report with the Amtrak Police. No recovery prevailed. Bummed out as I was, I dragged myself to a midtown bar for an interview with Johnnie Wang of the band A Black China. After I told Johnnie about my misfortunes, he offered to buy me a bear. That was the beginning of our friendship. We bonded over being musicians first, then being Americans of Taiwanese/Asian heritage.

My meeting with Johnnie invigorated me and reminded me of the purpose of my dissertation research. I went to a show the following night in New Jersey and had an interview meeting with Joe Kim of Kite Operations right before my flight back to Charlottesville, with one bag short.


It took me a while to figure out the educational values and perhaps the theoretical fruitfulness of this experience. This experience can be seen in light of a few issues: methodological approaches to technology, empathy (and relationship) with informants, and researcher’s ‘field identity.’ So, does technology enhance or hinder field research? Frankly, I didn’t end up using most of my recording devices on this trip. During interviews and other exchanges, my informants and I chatted away while I took mental notes. My field-note-taking took place only after the meetings ended.

But oddly, (the loss of) technology brought me closer to my informants. The story of losing my guitar gear generated a sense of empathy from my informants. I share with them an intimate engagement with music-making technology. They too often travel with gear for both music-making and recording purposes and some have encountered experiences, personally or vicariously, with gear problems. In many ways, it’s not strange at all that I carry so much gear with me. The physical and social attachment to technology is a central part of being and moving around in this media-blasted world. In this case, technological gear adorns me as a tech-media savvy researcher and blogger. This kind of ‘digital credibility’ has helped me earn not only access to, but also empathy and respect from my field informants.

Excess technological devices can weigh down users. But this is not only an academic concern specific to field research methods, as it is a more pervasive issue in the digital age. My responsibility is to figure out the best logistical and theoretical approaches to both online and offline interactions in my field research. I’m still working on it.


This entry was originally posted on UVa's Scholars' Lab Blog.


Book Reviews: Sensational Knowledge and Queering the Popular Pitch

Academic publications take a long time. I wrote a couple of book reviews last year. They just came out this fall.

My review of Tomie Hahn's award-winning book Sensational Knowledge finally got published in the November issue of Women and Music. Download the pdf here.

My review of Queering the Popular Pitch edited by Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga came out in Journal of Popular Music Studies. Download the pdf here.


Press on YellowBuzz!

A few weeks ago I was approached by Miyu Kataoka from Pacific Citizen Newspaper interested in writing about Asian American bloggers. The article just came out:


Thanks for your ongoing support!


Labels: Love Them or Hate Them - By Nancy Graves and Mia Stephens

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Robin Thicke and Cowboy Troy are two examples of contemporary artists seeking to redefine American music genres. Robin Thicke is a white American who refuses to accept musical labels based on race -- such as “blue-eyed soul.” He declares himself an R&B artist, not a white man composing and singing black music. Cowboy Troy, on the other hand, is a black American, playing country music, a traditionally white form of music. He has elected to create his own sub-genre of “Hick Hop” in country music in an effort to avoid criticism and discomfort, working as a black man in a white genre.

Robin Thicke's most popular hit entitled, “Lost Without U” has a signature R&B sound. It uses a low base backbeat and low piano riff in contrast to Thicke’s falsetto vocals. Falsetto is an artificial voice that allows singers, particularly men, to sing in an octave higher than he or she’s normal range. This vocal style is extremely popular in R&B music and is used by many other artists such as Prince, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and the Bee Gees. The song is written in 4/4 key signature what all western and popular music is based on and also contains a sample from Hip-Hop group Gangstarr’s song “Mass Appeal" (Thicke). The direct sampling of an R&B song and its 4/4 signature makes it hard to ignore the R&B sound in “Lost Without U.” The lyrics of the song refer to his relationship with a woman, both physically and emotionally. He expresses his love for her and dependency on her because he is “lost without” her. He surrenders himself to her powers presenting himself as a sweet, vulnerable man instead of a dominant macho figure. This softer side goes along with the tone and sound of R&B that offers another sensual and sensitive image of men.

Although the sound may vary slightly, a similar image is presented in all of Thicke’s songs. His hit “Magic” is more upbeat than “Lost Without U” using piano, violin, and horn in contrast to the emphasis on an acoustic guitar in “Lost Without U.” While the musical sound changes, his lyrics still present a similar image as he openly declares his love for this person. What he and his lover share he calls the “magic”, but makes a point to say that it is not just his magic or hers but that they share the magic. Again, this is an image of a man not afraid to openly express his feelings and emotions. Based solely on the titles in his list discography this theme is extremely apparent. This list includes titles such as: “I Need Love”, “Loverman”, “Wanna Love u Girl”, “The Sweetest Love”, “You’re my Baby”. Each title is extremely suggestive and alludes to sex and love, but in a soft, sensual way not in a forceful or crude manner. Many R&B artists use this style, but Thicke seems to have mastered it in his own unique way only furthering his individualism and success through his racial persona.

He grew up in a musical family with his father who composed the themes for hit shows “Different Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” and his mom as an actress. His dad was a Bruce Springsteen fan and his mother more of a Whitney Houston, soul fan giving him equal exposure to different types of music. As a teen he was immediately drawn to black music, began reading Ebony magazine and writing songs for an array of artists by 16 years old. . He knew that soul was traditionally black music, but did not limit his influences to only the artists of this genre. “I’m (Thicke) inspired by Jodeci. I’m inspired by Stevie Wonder. I’m inspired by Miles Davis. I’m inspired by John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and the Beatles also.” (Allen) He clearly does not limit himself and his list of influences, but rather embraces them all and acknowledges their excellence. These influences are evident in his attitude, style and song and are all incorporated to his overall image, but ultimately he is a white guy who looks like a white guy but sings black music (Allen). But while, many try to categorize his music as “Blue- eyed soul,” he would argue that he is just creating his own R&B music.

While charts and many fans and music scholars alike call Thicke’s music R&B, others need more labeling. They need to categorize him further, placing him into the sub- genre of “Blue-eyed soul.” Blue-eyed soul developed in the Southern United States during the 1960’s when white males began performing typically black male music because segregation laws prohibiting blacks to perform in white venues (Amorosi). This appropriation began even before in the 1950’s with artists like Elvis Presley who recreated blues singer, Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”. In the 60’s it was no longer just the appropriation of the songs, but it was the appropriation of the lyrics of soul and rhythm and blues. This is what is considered “blue eyed soul today”, soul or R & B music played by white musicians. The “blue” is a racial reference to white people and the Arian race because the majority have blue eyes. Robin Thicke’s music is often labeled as “blue-eyed soul,” but he repeatedly tells press that he does not want to be labeled. In the recent Washington Post article “Robin Thicke: Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” Thicke states, "I'm not a white guy who sells endless amounts of records to white people," he says. "Eighty or 90 percent of my fans are African Americans, mostly grown black women. That's who's at my shows, who's buying my music, who's listening to me on the radio. I think that's pretty interesting…I still haven't really been played on pop radio, not like R&B. " As he talks about the status of "Magic" the first single from his new album "Something Else" as it is in the Top 10 of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart but, has barely registered on the Billboard Hot 100 (Freedom du Lac).

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Troy Coleman, a.k.a. Cowboy Troy attended many rodeos and stock shows with his dad as a young boy. He was exposed to his dad’s musical favorites including Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, Jerry Reed and Kenny Rogers. In his teen years he found new influences in the rap and hip hop artist he through MTV. "That's where Run-DMC came in," he said. In college at University of Texas, Austin, artist like George Strait influenced him. "I was blown away…I remember telling myself that this is what I need to be listening to." So he listened to everything and assimilated it into his own style that he performed at Country dance clubs before he was signed (Fabian).

Each of Cowboy Troy’s songs includes these two elements of rap and country and combines them both lyrically and musically. The titles of his songs include the words like “chickens”, “trains”, “buffaloes” referring to farm and rural country life and typical country lingo like “yee-haw”, “ain’t” and “Mama”. His titles make his music seem one dimensional, but his lyrics open up another world that mix many political and racial references. In “I Play Chicken with the Train”, Cowboy Troy acknowledges that he is a black man in the country world and also explains how he has overcome such doubts from the industry. “Uh huh that’s what they said/ People said it’s impossible, / Not probable, too radical/ But I already been on the CMA’s/ Hell Tim McGraw said he like the change/ And he likes the way my hick-hop sounds (Lyrics.com).

What is most important to note about his music is that while his songs such as “I play Chicken With the Train” and “My Last Yee-haw,” include traditional country instrumentation like the banjo, dobro, fiddle, acoustic guitar and pedal steel, as well as, rock guitar riffs, his rap delivery makes the music different from traditional country. In traditional country lyrics are extraordinarily economical, using 150 or fewer words, and the compact result is often poetic and evocative. (Lomax) In Cowboy Troy’s Hick Hop songs, he uses upwards of 400 words. “I Play Chicken with the Train, there are 424 words and in “My Last Yee-Haw” there are 463 words. (lyrics.com) The number of words is doubled or tripled due to the fast paced nature of his rap delivery. While many think that hick hop is a way of merging the black artist into traditionally white music, it is not his race that defines the genre, but the vocals that make the genre what it is.

The origins of Hick Hop are still debated but many sources claim that it originated in Appalachia prisons as a way to cut tension between the white officials and black inmates. They used the combination of country music and hip-hop music to bring them together, finding common ground between the two cultures. Hick Hop is a country/rock sound with rap vocals. The first collaboration was between fiddler Dirk Powell and hip-hop artist Danjamowf in 1990s. Their creation was “ magical—an oil-and-water mystery that held together in spite of the perceived difference” (Berkes). Cowboy Troy has had similar success working with country superstars such as Big & Rich. His album Loco Motive debuted at #2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. The first single, "I Play Chicken with the Train," featuring Big & Rich peaked at #48 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart on April 9, 2005 and was a #1 country download at the iTunes Music Store on April 15, 2005. (CowboyTroy.com). His audience consists of mostly country music fans: southern white, middle class. He tells the Washington Times his fan base is unique because “the majority of my fans are the people that gravitate towards pro wrestling. They like heavy metal. People say I think outside the box” (Corey).

Both of these artists cross genres both musically and racially and are forced to either associate with one or forced into one: Blue-eyed soul for Robin Thicke and Hick Hop for Cowboy Troy. Each is unable to create their music without criticism, but Thicke and Troy manage to look past this criticism to something greater. Thicke and Troy both acknowledge their positions as racial outsiders among certain genres, but manage to establish themselves through sub-genres or major genres. They provide a glimpse of what will happen in the music industry as race and genre continue to be categorized. As music evolves and different genres and artist crossover, more labels will be implemented to make up for our necessity to find order.



Teaching @ UVa: Student Mixtape Project

This semester I taught a 100-level self-designed course titled Gender and Race in Popular Music in the Department of Studies in Women and Gender at University of Virginia. This course explores the relationship between popular music, gender, and race, with a focus on, but not excluded to, popular music emerged in 20th and 21st century in the United States. We spent the first half of the semester discussing historical (pre-1960s) musical genres and practices starting with blackface minstrelsy, pre-WWII racially segregated genres such as hillbilly music and race music. Then we spent some time talking about rhythm and blues of the 1940s and the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. We then spent about a month talking about the discursively rich genres of rock music and hip hop and ended with music subcultures such as punk (hardcore, Riot Grrrrl, and homocore), dance music in the South Asian diaspora, and queer musical representations like the rock musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Throughout the semester, we read scholarly articles that explore issues of gender and race through examining popular musical material. In class, we discussed how notions of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity shape the American experience of pop music, and vice versa. We had a blast examining mainstream and below-visible media in class exhausting our YouTube playback capability.

I designed a “mixtape project” as the final project of the course. Working in pairs, the students came up with a theme and a list of songs related to the theme. The assignment asked the students to critically engage with primary sources (they had the option of choosing to focus on either music recordings or music videos) while considering how these audio-visual materials resonate with course concepts. The final product of the project consists of an in-class presentation, a “mixtape” in the form of a CD-R or a list of video links, and an essay that comments on the historical and social aspects of the project theme and selected media material.

Some students focused their research on the career of particular artists: Jay-Z, Ani DiFranco, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliot were among their favorites. Some other student groups concentrated on musical genres such as gangster rap, protest songs, cover songs, indie music, girl groups, and boy bands, etc., and local music scenes in Seattle and Austin. Finally, a few groups based their project theme on identity categories such as women rock musicians and minority female musicians, or organized their music using concepts such as crossover and “hidden transcript” (James C. Scott cited by Tricia Rose). The breadth of these projects was impressive, and the depth of some was astounding.

For the next few posts on YellowBuzz, I will feature a series of student “mixtape projects.” I will select some of the best passages out of their papers while including related media whenever possible.

I'm very proud of my SWAG 144 class. Great work, everyone!


Pictures!!! Hsu-nami @ Don Hills Club, NYC

I received an invitation from Irene Chen to attend the Taiwanese Welcome Party at Don Hills Club in downtown Manhattan. This event was organized by Federation Taiwanese Student Association in New York (FTSANY). The event served as a mixer for all the overseas Taiwanese students of the New York metropolitan area.

Hsu-nami was the headliner of the evening. Here are some highlights captured by my new camera, given by my father and brother for my birthday.

Jack Hsu & Brent Bergholm



Tony Aichele and Jack.

Check out the rest of the album for the Hsu-nami set.


Prabir and the Substitutes Revinent Rock Music

Richmond-based Indie pop-rock band Prabir and the Substitutes showered us with a truckload of fun at Norfolk’s Taphouse on Saturday after Thanksgiving. They tricked the clock by performing with extreme energy. They danced unabashedly and knocked the Thanksgiving food lethargy out of some of us in the audience. Most impressively, Prabir and the Substitutes transformed familiar and vintage rock music tropes.

Prabir and the Substitutes aren’t really about the dark, somber aspects of the blues. Marked by a postmodernist split personality, their blues comfortably drifts among the transient references of American popular music. Most striking to my ear is their leaning toward the 1950s Rock n Roll reinventions of the blues, a kind of party blues that appealed to the mass market of white middle class youth in the United States. Their blues-on-speed comes and goes in a hurry. No preponderance and reverence, just sheer exhilaration. Prabir, the band’s lead singer, moves his hips while doing the “Twist”, part Elvis Presley, part James Brown.

Some critical sources have associated Prabir and the Substitutes with the Beatles. (And they have toured with some Beatles cover bands.) With great songwriting skills, Prabir and the Substitutes whip out songs of distinct characters. The band uses a Wilco-esque humor and boldness presenting the 12-bar structure of the blues into little discreet packages, readily identifiable yet refreshing. They jumble up these packages with other memorable moments in rock history by covering one of Talkings Heads' dance rock songs and doing 3 or 4-part harmony. During the set, they even abandoned their loud, amplified rock instruments and formed a circle to sing a capella in a four-part style of barbershop quartet for an entire number. Prabir and the Substitutes seemed secure of their stage identity that they let in silence and unamplified sounds with confidence.

Interesting reinventions of the blues are hard to come by these days. Using vintage rock instruments and some “roots” sounds like banjo picking, the Black Keys hit plentiful blue notes in their songs and exhibit a general inebriated aesthetic as imagined of the 1920s and 30s country blues guitarists of the Mississippi Delta. Unlike the Black Keys, Prabir and the Substitutes are not quite as concerned with the various notions of “authenticity” when it comes to the blues. Blatantly or self-consciously, they seem to peel away the centrality of country blues men of the American south in the rock music canon as constructed by the blues-rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jimmy Page of the 60s and 70s.

I am a sucker for well-studied and well-composed music. The only thing I could ask for more is a similar kind of attention to the lyrics. I have to say, I felt some RVA pride at this show. This is not because I went to school with Prabir. It was because Prabir and the Substitutes reminded me how many Richmond-based musicians strive on maximizing the use of their cultural, intellectual, and financial resources, regardless of the meagerness of environment, while being innovative.


Old Time Music + Popping + Youtubing for Obama

Some of my friends made a very "local" expressive gesture to support Obama in Charlottesville this weekend. Some old-time music, popping, and youtubing sweetness.


Southern bluegrass old-timer endorses Obama

With a heavy southwestern Virginian twang, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley pours out words that endorse Barak Obama over Stanley's nasal cry-breaks and metallic rapid banjo picking. Stanley's radio ad speaks to issues about class, education, and family. He seems genuine in belief in Obama as the solution to Bush's 8-year catastrophe.

How obfuscating: How many other classical bluegrass musicians have been outspoken about supporting the Democrats? Like all other southern states, Virginia has been a red state for god-knows-how-many past elections. Are we able to come through this time? Or is it not confusing at all?

Bluegrass music often gets associated with white southern (rural) conservatism. But bluegrass comes out of a modernist, progressive aesthetics. Bluegrass was born at the junction of this country's post-WWII economic boom, in the midst of a tension between progressive outlook and the antimodernist backlash to continuing trends of urbanization and industrialization. It was not always, and still isn't, the music of the past, at least not quite literally as what most would think. Despite of having been caricatured as being past-laden, bluegrass is a music that has been consciously constructed as being about pastness. Bluegrass' semi-ironic distance to the past, the south, and conservative values speak to the rupture of the connections among these associations that we assume as being 'natural' now.

Undoing the semiotic depth behind the bluegrass icon may be something that I can do here. Obama and his campaign team envisioned it first. Undoubtedly they are working hard to undo these decade-old social and ideological divides. I've noticed that the people working behind the Obama campaign have been savvy in reaching out into the racial and economic underclass. This ad surprised me as much as the campaign's outreach in Asian immigrant neighborhoods near DC and NY. I think Obama is really onto something. He's able to tap into while inspiring the post-civil-rights generation like no one has before. Obama's rhetoric yields an immense sense of conviction, making people believe that voters are not just living history, but making history.

An exciting time indeed. Go out and get registered to vote!


audio: Good Asian Drivers in Boston, 8/6/08

I just got a job as a graduate consultant at University of Virginia's Scholars Lab. I finally can process and manage all the media that I've collected from my field research using the high-processing-speed mac at the lab. Here's an audio recording of Good Asian Drivers' two-vignette performance at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, MA. This performance took place as a part of the event “Outspoken: A Queer People of Color Spoken-Word Artist Showcase”, co-produced by queer social and arts groups Queer Women of Color, Queer Asian Pacific Alliance, and Truth Serum Productions.

Check out the YellowBuzz review of the performance: "Good Asian Drivers Speak Out with Power".

Stay tuned for more YellowBuzz media!


Rocking Out Between the Global and the Local: Transnational Independent Music Industry in Taiwan

I recently co-authored an article with Carey Sargent, a sociologist PhD candidate about the transnational aspects of the Taiwanese indie music scene. This article, titled "Rocking Out Between the Global and the Local: Transnational Independent Music Industry in Taiwan," contains my case study of Freddy Lim and Chthonic as well as Carey's take on the role of western foreigners ("Waigoren") in the Taiwanese indie rock. We were invited to publish this article by Amalgam: The Virginia Interdisciplinary Review at University of Virginia.


Thao Nguyen on NPR - again!

Thao Nguyen just did really fun "Tiny Desk Concert" at the NPR studio in Washington, DC recently. The 18-minute video consists of solo performance (yes, just Thao!) of four songs from her album We Brave Bee Stings and All interspersed by short banters between songs. This is a real treat for those who enjoy Thao's eccentric laxness embedded in her slippery diction and pitch-bending.

Of course, I saw Thao last February in Charlottesville and absolutely loved her set!


Military Shoegaze: a preview of Aphasia's new album

Taiwanese shoegaze band Aphasia is releasing its first album The Crocodile Society of Aphasia on 9/12. Here's a sneak preview of a few of the tracks. I like it so far - a balance between sophistication and noise. Looking forward to hearing the rest of it.

Yellow Buzz reviewed Aphasia's performance along a silent film screening at the Taipei Film Festival this past July.


Rise up in midst of world politics: Hsu-nami @ the Beijing Olympics

Beside the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Hsu-nami is the next hottest topic of the moment. New-Jersey-based Hsu-nami’s track “Rising of the Sun” is featured at the Olympics to represent the Chinese men’s basketball team. At a festival organized CAPA (Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans) in New York's Union Square last summer, AZN Television picked up Hsu-nam’s performance. The broadcast impressed Jason Gilfillan, a NBA representative who later became the music coordinator for the Olympics. The band then signed over the rights to the Olympics allowing for airplay at the international event in Beijing this summer.

Jack Hsu and his band have since received tremendous media attention locally and internationally. On the surface, it may seem only “natural” that Hsu, the twenty-five-year-old Taiwanese-born American who now resides in Fort Lee, NJ, represents China. Jim Beckerman of northjersey.com assumes the ethnic similarity between Taiwan and China, claiming that Hsu will be “cheering on his countrymen” at the Beijing Olympics.

The story is far more complicated. China does not equate Taiwan, historically or presently. At least, not quite. The Kuomingtang (KMT) fled from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 after the communist takeover of China. KMT’s leader Chiang Kai-shek and his son ruled Taiwan under military dictatorship for fifty years. Ethnically, Taiwan’s heterogeneous population is majority Han, but is now divided into two large groups: “Taiwanese” (bengxengren, 本省人) and “Chinese” (waixengren, 外省人). Most individuals who identify as bengxengren strictly claim lineage prior to the 1949 KMT influx; and, waixengren refers to those who immigrated to the island with Chiang around 1949. The “Taiwanese-vs.-Chinese” distinction has been politicized since the beginning of the democratizing movement in Taiwan in the 1990s. Still, this is only the Taiwanese side of the story. Today, many citizens of Mainland China, including the governmental officials, consider Taiwan as a part of China.

Hsu-nami’s representation of China at the Olympics has stirred controversy among the anti-China Olympics-boycotters within the Taiwanese American community. Inadvertently perhaps, Hsu-nami’s fusion-ist aesthetics entraps the band in the polemical debate over Chinese-vs.-Taiwanese identity, treading the thin line that marks the boundaries among China, Taiwan, and the United States.


I recorded a segment featuring Jack Hsu and lead guitarist Brent Bergholm on LaGuardia radio on August 12, 2008. This show features a few tracks off of their first LP Entering the Mandala, including the Olympics hit, as well as live, acoustic in-studio performances of two songs by the duo.

Incidentally, one of the first Yellow Buzz posts is about a Hsu-nami show in New York last year around this time. The return to Hsu-nami in this post marks the one-year birthday of Yellow Buzz. I’m happy to share this congratulatory moment with Hsu-nami.


Good Asian Drivers Speak Out with Power

Words and music - spoken and sung – embraced the hearts of hundreds at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, MA on the unusually chilly, rainy night of August 6, 2008. The spoken-word/acoustic duo Good Asian Drivers opened and closed the event “Outspoken: A Queer People of Color Spoken-Word Artist Showcase”, co-produced by queer social and arts groups Queer Women of Color, Queer Asian Pacific Alliance, and Truth Serum Productions. The bill also featured queer activists/artists such as Ignacio Rivera, Judah Dorrington, Kay Barrett, and Letta Neely.

Good Asian Drivers’ pluralistic performance format brought out the best of transgenderd boi slam poet Kit Yan and lesbian singer/songwriter Melissa Li, individually and together. Li and Yan took turns performing solo first. Over rapid Ani-DiFranco-esque guitar strumming, Li sang unapologetically about her love, ideals, and personal stories, criticizing the media conglomeration and the under-representation of queer Asian America. She professed, “they say I ain’t loud enough to be a rock star / but hey ain’t you sitting there listening to this song / would you rather I grow up at the top of my class / running a business online myself and really liking math / working for microsoft and meeting my Chinese American boyfriend…and would you prefer that I go quietly and shed my friends / and shed my desires.” Li didn’t attempt to write the next queer or lesbian anthem. Her humble, earnest words trekked the rugged range enveloped by the oppressive American dream compounded Confucian values.

Kit Yan presented a new poem, reading and embodying it with charisma. Yan told a story about the female-to-male transitioning experience of an Asian American man. “I am not THE man / although I am an Asian man, demasculinized and desexualized by the society / I am an out trans man / sometimes marginalized by my own community / you don’t see the everyday / everyday I still tell them that my name is Laura / the bankers, airport security, police, bouncers, liquor store salesmen / I’m still afraid what would happen inside the graffiti-stained stalls / even when I whisper, ‘it’s alright. It’s alright, Kit. No one can tell.” Each line cut through the uncritical, celebratory sham of gender performativity and unraveled the pain, frustration, and inner triumph of Asian trans masculinity.

To me, a frequent stranger, sociality in Boston always seems repressed. A swarm of heat between bodies and minds struck the club that night. I never believe in art for art’s sake. I witnessed the efficacy of music as a vehicle for expressing social criticism. Clapping and laughing along the Obama-supporting crowd, consisting of queer individuals and allies of all different hues of the spectrum, I felt an air for change. I’m not sure, how is this moment a remnant transformed or recycled from the 1960s legacy of the Cambridge-bound, new-left-associated Joan Baez? Or is this a neon-purple Warholian screenprint of Bob Dylan whose perennial-ambivalence is again infused with social vibrancy?

Social consciousness - as an art or act - can be contagious. Good Asian Drivers meld conscious words with good tunes and grooves. The Drivers united only 8 months ago as a duo to tour the country with the mission to raise the visibility for queer Asian Americans. In September, the duo will relocate to New York City to continue their journey. They carry with them power and radiance. I wish them best.


Read, Hear & Squat

In September, I will start contributing as a music reviewer for Squat, an online magazine "conceived by and for the Chinese" worldwide. I intend to cover interesting music by Chinese and Asians in the world from the ground up, extending and redefining "Chinese music."

My Squat contribution will appear on YellowBuzz (with a slight delay). Look out!

channel knowledge=power

I've been browsing the Internet through intense googling last couple of days. I discovered only scarce information about Asian American music and culture. So I decided to post the syllabus that I've designed for courses offered in the music department at University of Virginia. I taught Music in Asian America last summer; Race and Ethnicity in Popular Music this year.

I assigned mostly academic journal articles or book chapters, along with some non-academic pieces. Please let me know if you come across anything relevant to my teaching interest in identity, music, and politics. I'm always looking for stimulating and provocative writing.

Also, I'm in the midst of designing a fall course called Gender and Race in Popular Music. Once it's done, I will post it.


Freddy Lim: Branding "Taiwanese" Sound and Identity

Below is a portion of an article that I'm co-writing with my sociologist friend Carey about indie music in Taiwan. My portion is based on my interview with and archival research on Freddy Lim, the leader and vocalist of Chthonic. The final version of the article will be published in Amalgam, a journal run by graduate students of University of Virginia.


Known as “Freddy” (in English) in Taiwanese media, Freddy Lim spearheads the independent music scene in Taiwan. I secured a spot in Freddy’s busy schedule with his agent using my convoluted New-Jersey connection. At The Wall, one of the most established “Live Houses” in Taipei, we sat down near the entrance of the White Wabbit indie music record store and began chatting about Taiwanese music and cultural industry. With his long hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Freddy seems amicable and earnest in person, quite contrary to his dark, intense stage persona in his metal band ChthoniC.

“The local idea”
Freddy leads ChthoniC (閃靈), an internationally recognized “extreme metal band.” In a typical ChthoniC song, one hears symphonic synthesizer, machine-gun guitar riffs, rapid firing on drums and bass, screaming vocals, and a crying erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string bowed instrument. The band utilizes form, length, modes, instrumentation, and the generally dark imagery from metal, while fusing these now universal pop music elements with a “local flavor.” The erhu accents the melody with its melancholic “Oriental” sound.

This “local idea”, according to Freddy, is ChthoniC’s winning ticket particularly in the international pop music arena. “The basic structure of metal is not going to change. Even if you use modern instruments and songwriting techniques, for example, 3-to-7-minute song length and verse-chorus-verse structure, you still need an idea. The bottom line is the idea. This is a way for others to enter your story. This is especially the case for metal since concept is important in this genre.”

Politicizing music / music-politicking
“ChthoniC” means “gods of the underworld” in Greek and has implications for the cultural and political underground. ChthoniC’s songs reference Taiwanese mythology and history. The band’s fourth album Seediq Bale (2005/6), for instance, is a concept album based on the story of the Japanese massacre of the Native Taiwanese group Seediq during the Japanese occupation in the first part of 20th century. The award-winning album Relentless Recurrence (2002/6) adapts the story of Na Tao Ji (林投姊), a ghost folktale that depicts the life of a woman who commits suicide to return as a ghost to revenge on a Chinese man after the latter raids her of wealth and sexuality and returns to China. This story, according to Freddy, reflects the fate of many Taiwanese women during historical influx of Han Chinese immigrants to Taiwan in the 17th century.

Freddy cites ChthoniC’s main influence as being black metal. Originated in Northern European countries such as Norway, the black metal movement uses pagan, Satanist, and other anti-christ imagery as a nativist effort to counter the hegemony of Christianity. Similarly, ChthoniC’s adapts black metal’s dark aesthetics and nationalist aim for the Taiwanese context. Freddy sings and writes lyrics in the Taiwanese dialect. This has political significance. From 1949 until late 1980s, Kuomintang (KMT) barred the use of Taiwanese in schools and media and instituted Mandarin as the official language. Since 1990s, the use Taiwanese over Mandarin has become a politicized symbol of the localization movement associated with Taiwanese independence known as “Taiwanization.”

Besides ChthoniC, Freddy fiercely creates and participates in public events. Most recently, a song he wrote for the Taiwanese baseball team was used to support the 2008 campaign of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate. Freddy also works as the Chief Operating Officer of TRA Music (The Running Ants Music, 螞蟻暴走音樂事業團隊, ) whose mission is to “develop a grounded environment for Taiwanese music while connect with industry in Japan, Europe, and North America through concert events, festivals, and recordings that showcase Taiwanese and international artists.” Many of the TRA events reflect the organization’s political leaning toward Taiwanese nationalism. The most politically explicit perhaps is Spirit of Taiwan, formerly known as Say Yes to Taiwan. The first of this festival series propagated messages of opposition to Chinese reunification in 2000. Each year the concert takes place on February 28 to commemorate the 228 Incident, symbolic of the violent military regime of the KMT in mid 20th century.

Representing Taiwan to the world
Freddy has become a self-designated spokesperson for Taiwanese independence internationally. Invited to perform at Ozzfest in the US and Wacken Open Air in Germany, ChthoniC toured US, Canada, and Europe, performing nearly 90 shows in 2007. The band named their tour as “UNlimited Taiwan”, a gesture to protest the exclusion of Taiwan as an independent nation since 1971.

At the press conference in New York, organized by the Taiwanese American Association, Freddy made a speech addressed to the U.S. government and citizens regarding the issue of the UN. Freddy asserted the United States as a symbol of freedom and democracy. He also criticized John Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, for the latter’s comment about Taiwan’s push for UN membership as being a ‘mistake.’ Freddy ended by appealing for U.S. support in recognizing Taiwan as a state of autonomous sovereignty apart from China. “I still have faith in your Country, please support a democratic Taiwan and let the Taiwanese citizens share the same rights as your citizens in the international community. Don’t let us down.” ChthoniC’s message of pro-Taiwan independence has drifted far and wide. At shows, Freddy rallied the crowd screaming “Fuck China.” Taiwanese living abroad and fans from all over the world have expressed sympathy and support for the cause.

Selling the brand of nationalism
Freddy’s feats have set deep roots in the indie music scene in Taiwan. Since 1990s, Freddy and TRA Music have worked consciously to develop an ecology that encourages structural growth in indie music scene domestically while increasing the contact between Taiwanese and international musicians. This is only one side of the story. Not all Taiwanese bands and citizens are pro-independence or DPP supporters. Backlash to Freddy and TRA-dominated industry has rippled, however, not in any organized effort. Most criticisms target him for politicizing music, dominating the scene, and using the industry to advance his own career. With persistence, Freddy’s personal political conviction continues to drive him to build a particular anti-reunification “local” identity and community, branding it as “Taiwanese” or “Asian” to the world.

The 2008 presidential election resulted in a political switchover from the DPP to the KMT. This has already prevented Freddy from wielding financial and political backing from the government to invest in cultural Taiwanization. I asked Freddy, “what next?” He expressed that the TRA-affiliates will undergo some organizational changes and concentrate on the business aspects of their work. For ChthoniC, this means orienting further outward into the global scene. The band is now working on a new album, produced by Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. Similar to the Seediq Bale (2005/6), there will be a Taiwanese as well as an English release distributed worldwide.

I find this to be a fascinating case of how indie music organizes a transnational social movement. Much of Freddy’s inspiration has derived from his experiences and imagination of the U.S. and Europe: ideals of freedom and democracy filtered through the Euro-American rock idiom, now practiced in Taiwan vis a vis the world. As ChthoniC gains global recognition and mobility through record distribution and performances, I wonder, what will become of “Taiwanese” identity and sound domestically and internationally? Further, how do Freddy and ChthoniC manage or challenge the First-World or Euro-American notions of “Asia” or “Asian music”?


1976 @ Riverside Cafe: How I Got Inducted into Taipei Indie Scene

I was told that 1976 is a quintessential indie rock band [獨立樂團] in Taiwan. With curiosity, I went to the Riverside Cafe, one of the most active underground/indie music venues near two major universities in Taipei, on Saturday night 7/5/08 to experience what is supposedly most representative of Taiwanese indie music scene.

Billed as a “mini concert”, the show featured only 1976, no other opening bands. Die-hard 1976 fans all came out to fulfill their ravenous appetite for their favorite band. No doubt, people were spilling out of small basement. I managed to squeeze into the “latecomers’ row” on the stairs at the entrance. Everyone knew every song and sang along to most songs [although singing along is not an unusual thing in Taipei’s indie music scene].

What seemed most striking musically was their lead vocalist’s Britpop, new-wave inflected style and bilingual lyrics. According to their wiki page, 1976 started out by covering songs by New Order, The Smiths, Pearl Jam. Like many Taiwanese bands, Ah-Kai [阿凱] leads 1976 with only vocals, not playing any other instruments. Ah-Kai’s thin voice is surely reminiscent of New Order, Pulp, and The Smiths. It carries an “untrained” quality (which, I’m sure, is deliberately expressed) ventures into off-key territories often. His performed fragility projects a sense of uncertainty and honesty making his vocal persona youthful and effeminate.

I totally got a kick out of watching guitarist Da-Ma [大麻, meaning “marijuana”] make his playful riffs. Da-Ma takes post-punk to its broadest definition. There was a little bit of grunge chromaticism, a bit of metal shredding, a chunk of Britpop melodic fragments, and plenty of contemporary indie pop delay, tonal leaps, and asymmetrical rhythm. Not using many effects, Da-Ma’s Telecaster made some of the best guitar sound I’ve heard live.

My friend Marty of Island of Sound warned me of 1976’s cult status within the scene. Their celebrity is apparently “near-mainstream.” Screaming, dancing, clapping, and head-bopping fans adored them. They screamed hard and long for an encore. The band came back and played a hit "Depression of Sunshine Boy" ["陽光男孩躁鬱症"]. The fans stuck around for over 10 minutes to plead for more. 1976 went back on stage without their instruments apologizing that they had to reserve some songs for their soon-to-be-released album. The crowd slowly and unwillingly dispersed after that.

1976’s songs are about mostly about Taipei, urban life, and 20-something-year-old’s quandary with love and future. I loved what I saw of 1976. Plenitude of love and kinship crammed into a small basement. Along with the rest of the post-show crowd, I caught the last subway of the night to go home. A sense of belonging hovered. I felt like I was inducted into scene, finally.


Aphasia: Shoegazing with Old Taipei

Taipei-based indie band Aphasia | 阿飛西雅 played a set marked by their controlled balance between sound, music, and noise at the screening of silent film The Morning of Taipei 「台北之晨」. The event took place in part of the Taipei Film Festival.

The Morning of Taipei is an experimental film directed by Taiwanese director Bai Jing-Re (白景瑞). This film was made after Bai returned to Taiwan after having studied in Italy. The film begins with long shots capturing pastoral images of Taipei: slow-moving tricycles on city streets, men carrying water, elderly Tai-Chi practitioners in the park, etc. Images of progress and youth follow. With a visual sensitivity and a “chugging-forward” rock rhythm, Aphasia played with changes in tempo, harmony, and song structure to echo the rhythm of the editorial cuts and camera movements in the film.

I liked their “noisy” section. Noise went with spiritualism - quite well. They stripped away layers of sound one by one. Guitar feedback took centerstage. Timbre displaced harmony as images of Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian iconography surfaced. The band implanted a block of sheer silence to coincide with the close-up shot of a bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ. The “progress section” showcased an Aphasia song. Major key, vigorous tempo, layered texture, creamy effects, and teleological sensibility all add up to make a now-classic shoegaze sonic ecology.

Aphasia consists of former members of Nipples. As a Nipples fan, I went the show expecting to be smothered by guitar noise and feedback. I found that Aphasia seems toned down compared to Nipples. Aphasia withdraws from Nipples’ sonic fringes and projected a flatter tonal contour. No vocals, no words, just an instrumental dialogue between the guitars and the bass rhythmically backed up by the drums. There was sludge, tons of delay on the guitar. There was a hint of rigor proffered by the bassist. I still craved for more dynamics in terms of texture, frequency, and rhythm.

Last year, Aphasia worked on the soundtrack to Taiwanese-produced film Summer Tail 「夏天的尾巴」. Directed by 鄭文堂, Summer Tail stars Enno Cheng (鄭宜農). Aphasia's bassist KK mentioned that this soundtrack is more “high school.” Compared to Nipples, Aphasia seemingly exudes more maturity through their “leveled” expressions. Yet I still miss the torrent aesthetics of Nipples. In any case, I look forward to Aphasia’s first album entitled Aphasia【失語症】. The album will be released at Formoz Festival at the end of the month by White Wabbit Records.

Here are some video snippets of the screening/performance.


Pinkos Plus: transnational improv collaboration

Here are a couple of video clips of my improv group's (more or less) recent collaboration with two experimental artists from Taiwan. The first video features an improvised set with Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, a Melbourne-trained vocal improviser now living in Taiwan. This performance took place in Taichung, Taiwan, 6/16/07.

This video captures our most recent collaboration with video/image artist Chiachi Charlie Chang at The Bridge PAI, Charlottesville, VA, 5/3/08.


YellowBuzz video: Hsu-Nami, NYC, 8/10/07

I captured some footage of Hsu-Nami's show last August at Desmond's Tavern in New York City. It was a really kicking set. Read my show review.


[ CALL FOR ARTISTS ] HzCollective's MegaHz Festival

As a member of HzCollective, a Virginia-based experimental music collective, I organize shows in Charlottesville, VA. The collective is putting on a two-day, two-city experimental music festival over the second weekend of October.

If you're musical experimenter, do consider submit to the fest!

See below for details//

HzCollective Presents: MegaHz Experimental & Noise Festival
October 11th-12th, 2008

Call For Submissions:

HzCollective Presents: 'MegaHz', a festival of international, touring and local artists presenting experimental, noise & avant garde music and visual media. Taking place between Charlottesville [Saturday October 11th] & Richmond, VA [Sunday October 12th], 'MegaHz' will serve as an opportunity for artists to collaborate, share & present their ideas of improvisation and avant garde composition to the perceptive experimental communities that exist within these two cities.

All experimental, noise, & avant garde musicians interested in participating in this year's festival are encouraged to submit a recording and short bio for consideration. The deadline is August 1st. All submissions will be carefully considered by the HzCollective Festival Committee and notice of acceptance will be sent via email by September 1st.

Due to the D.I.Y. nature of this event (no grants, not-for profit status, etc.) we can promise only a place to crash and nutritional sustanance. So we ask that you come prepared to participate for the purpose of community-building and networking with other artists and enthusiasts. If we collect sufficient funds from the event, we will gladly compensate performers with an equal slice of the door.

Please keep in mind that the two day festivals are in two different cities, both two hours from D.C. and one hour from each other. Be sure to clarify which date(s) your submission is to be considered for.

ATTN: RECORD LABELS! Day Two of the Festival in Richmond, Virginia will play host to a Record Label Expo, so if your record label is interested in tabling merchandise and information during this years event please write: hzcollective@gmail.com

Submit Material (CD & Bio/Press Sheet) To:
(No Mp3's, physical recordings only)

PO BOX 4296
Richmond, VA 23220

HzCollective is a Virginia based experimental, noise & improvised music collective serving to strengthen the bond between the Richmond and Charlottesville creative arts communities. The collective fosters a local network of experimental artists and enthusiasts by organizing performances and workshops involving local and touring artists from around world.

email: hzcollective@gmail.com


YellowBuzz Video: Carol Bui live @ UVa

I invited Carol Bui to speak with my students in my summer course Race and Ethnicity in Popular Music. Carol presented an extended self introduction, touching on her musical influences such as Vietnamese singer Kanh Ly and issues related to growing up as Vietnamese American. Then she played a solo short set of three songs from her latest album Everyone Wore White: 1) "Rockville"; 2) "Quan An"; 3) "Modern Dance." What a treat!

YellowBuzz Video: VHS or Beta live @ Toads Place

VHS or Beta, led by Craig Pfunder, played a kicking set at Toad's Place in Richmond, VA on April 12, 2008. Captured on my little camera is a video clip one of the songs at the show.

interview with Craig Pfunder, pages 34-7, RVA Magazine:


Loving His Black T-Shirts, Metal and the World through Music: Interviewing Craig Pfunder [YellowBuzz edition]

I interviewed Craig Pfunder of VHS or Beta when the band came to Richmond's Toads Place to perform a couple of weekends ago. Below is a version of the interview longer than what will be published in the upcoming issue of the RVA Magazine. This version contains some of Pfunder's thoughts and stories of potential interest to YellowBuzz'ers.

Craig Pfunder fronts the dance-punk band VHS or Beta. First emerged as a noise punk band in Louisville, Kentucky in the 90s and now signed onto Astralwerks, the band recently released Bring on the Comets (2007), an album consisting of songs that mix two worlds of music – electronic dance and rock – that not many thought would collide in the 1990s. VHS or Beta offered us a set of intense love for music, fun, and movement at the Toads Place in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom on April 12, 2008.

Before sound-check, Pfunder sat down with me and spilled details about his background and insightful thoughts on the changing social and cultural landscape of indie rock. He told stories that verge on being a social and historical scrutiny of indie music. Craig Pfunder’s self-conscious, critical lens brings out indie rock music’s cultural ebb and flow, with convincing frankness.

WH: Tell me about your training or influences.

CP: I never really had any formal training. The only formal training I had was when I was in middle school. I was playing saxophones when I was a kid. Everything is pretty much self-taught. I got my first guitar when I was in sixth grade and just kept playing playing and playing songs. At some point I really wanted it [formal training] because I was really interested in the technical aspect of music. I still think that having a background in some sort of music theory is good because I still retain that. And I was teaching myself music theory when I was in high school.

WH: That’s really cool actually. What did you do? Did you find music textbooks?

CP: Yeah, textbooks…teaching myself chords, theory, and scales.

WH: Does that affect what you do now?

CP: Well, having the knowledge, the foundational knowledge of things, can help. And I think with music, sometimes people get over-schooled. Sometimes they have a tendency to lose the imaginative part of music. I know a lot of people who can sight-read anything. Then when I ask them to compose a song, then they say, “I don’t really …” I guess it boils down to the person.

WH: What about influences?

CP: Early on, I was just influenced by a lot of different things, almost anything that my ears grabbed onto that I could like. I guess when I first started playing music, there was a lot of weird metal in the 80s. At the same time, I was listening to college rock, or the music that was being claimed as college rock at the time like REM. I really embraced that kind of music as well. I think I ended up going more of the alternative end, instead of the metal end. You know, we were playing early Metallica in the band the other day. That kind of music still resonates with me and I enjoy listening to it. At the same time, I just got the new REM record.

WH: I totally hear REM in your music.

CP: Sort of my early influences. I think they’re probably in my top 10 bands of all time.

WH: What do you think of indie rock in general? What do you think of the scene? What do you think your role within it is?

CP: Indie rock has taken so many forms and meanings. For a while, there was a strong sense within indie rock that that you’re doing it yourself, you’re independent, and that you’re free of the major label “corruption.” And that, I would say, existed more in the 80s and 90s. You know like, “we’re independent and fuck all this, label’s money and all this stuff.” But now, it’s so easy to be independent because you have blog culture, Internet, Myspace, Facebook, and you have all these things that can help you exist without corporate dollars.

It’s different to be indie rock now than it was 10 years ago. Well, this band [VHS or Beta] has been around for over 10 years. We did everything ourselves, down to packaging to transferring the masters to final versions, to booking our own shows and taking out personal loans from banks or begging our parents just so that we could buy a van so that we could tour and do all those things. Now that we have a label, I don’t know what part we have in indie rock. I feel like, though, there was a part the indie rock scene that we didn’t want to be a part of. I think the 90s had a staleness in the indie rock scene, at least where I was. A lot of it felt dark and just that people weren’t having as much fun anymore.

WH: But that was kind of the zeitgeist of the 90s, wouldn’t you say?

CP: Yeah, maybe there was a national cloud that was just lowering over the audiences of indie rock. And we kind of wanted to go in a different direction. At that point we had really fallen in love with house music, raves, but maybe not rave culture per se, but like going somewhere like a big fucking place with a bunch of different rooms, all these different types of music, and all these different looking people. It wasn’t for us so much about the drug culture as much as it was that our ears were hearing things that we had never heard before. That was exciting and people were inviting us to be a part of that in a way that indie rock never really felt. Indie rock really, in a way, felt exclusive. I was going to those parties and those nights felt really inclusive. I think the band somehow went kind of anti-rock for a minute, you know, anti-wanting-to-go-hang-out-at-the-hipster-bars, or anti-wanting-to-be-a-part-of or, -being-aware-of-what-was-on-the-radars-for-what-was-cool.

I’m not anti-rock at all. You can listen to our record and know that. But I definitely feel like I’m at the point where I’m not as concerned about indie rock and coolness. There’re a lot of bands coming up, not that I don’t like them or would like them. I feel like I used to find out about music in such a different way than I do now. Nowadays it seems like if I want to find out about something, there’s going to be a flood of people telling me about it because they read about it on a blog. Not that that’s bad, but things are different.

I think we’re at a weird time in music where we feel like it’s hard for anyone to invent anything new. For me, it’s like – is the product good? Is it different enough to call it good? I feel like a lot of the Pitchfork-y like places really latch themselves onto bands based on the question of: “not is it good - but is it new, or does it feel new to listen to.” Like Vampire Weekend, it’s kind of AfroPop influenced, kind of indie rock, like French Kicks, kind of Walkman’ish voice, but it’s got things on that not a lot of bands are doing right now. So it gets praised for that. Not whether it’s good or not, but it’s just different enough to attach themselves to. There are songs that I enjoy but I don’t think the whole record deserves that much attention.

WH: This is a really ambiguous question. What I’m trying to get at is there are certain things about indie rock, particularly the people who are in it, predominately white, predominately middle-class. How do you feel about that?

CP: Well, I think people feel safe in their little pocket of existence. If you look back on bands that have been influential to indie rock people, whether it’s CAN or Captain Beefheart, Neu, or like all these bands that are über-fucking hip. I mean, these are the foundational building blocks of a lot of indie rock music and bands… But I’m also an Asian American. My parents are white and I wasn’t really raised as an Asian child. So if you put me behind a surface, you couldn’t see behind that. I might as well just be a white guy to anyone else, in a weird way.

I know that it’s very ambiguous to ask it and it’s a very ambiguous answer. It’s hard to even grab onto completely. In the end, it’s just music. It’s not to be taken too seriously. I mean I live and die by music. That matter of white American rock and roll that’s heavily influenced by art and middle to upper class white American people…who knows why that stuff exists. I think it’s like early jazz music in the 20s, primarily coming out of the slums, African American or wherever spawned that music. It just all has history and it all has relevance. And if you change that, then you maybe get a different type of music.

I think we’re at a weird time in music where we feel like it’s hard for anyone to invent anything new. For me, it’s like – is the product good? Is it different enough to call it good? I feel like a lot of the Pitchfork-y like places really latch themselves onto bands based on the question of: “not is it good - but is it new, or does it feel new to listen to.” Like Vampire Weekend, it’s kind of AfroPop influenced, kind of indie rock, like French Kiss, kind of Walkman’ish voice, but it’s got things on that not a lot of bands are doing right now. So it gets praised for that. Not whether it’s good or not, but it’s just different enough to attach themselves to. There are songs that I enjoy but I don’t think the whole record deserves that much attention.

WH: So newness isn’t necessarily good.

CP: It doesn’t mean that the product is better. I think there’s a black T-shirt somewhere at a thrift store that I will love just as much as any other T-shirts that I own. I don’t need the new color. And if it fits right and feels right, just because I have 8 million black T-shirts, doesn’t mean that there is not another black T-shirt out there with my name on, just perfect. And there are records out there I know are pop records. I know that they’ve been done that way a million times, but I like it, then I like it. I don’t need the filter of what’s going on with music, is it stamped with approval by [pitchfork] or whoever.

WH: One last question, you guys have played with Melt Banana, have you guys toured Asia?

CP: We just got back from Jakarta, Indonesia. It was great. It was awesome. We have plans. We’re gigging in Bangkok. We’re hopefully doing some things in parts of China and maybe South Korea, which is where I’m from, so would be a big deal for me because I haven’t been back there since I was adopted. We completely want to a part of a music scene that exists. We’ve done Japan. I would love to go back. I will play anywhere. But it would be special for me to at least be a part of something in Asia because I’ve always lived in the States and it would be nice to spend time over there. And if music is the way I can do that, then that’s awesome.

More images of VHS or Beta at the show.
[comment - please - if you think I should get a better camera.]