On Race and Obama

Presidential candidate Barack Obama explicitly discusses the issue of race for the first time in his campaign speech last Tuesday (3/18/08). He does so in part responding to a speech made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama puts forth his definition of race as a color-based ideology that leads to inequalities and social divisions. Recognizing the history of black oppression – slavery, Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education, Obama makes clears that he is aware of the fact that minorities in the United States still experience the social, political, cultural and even psychological consequences from this racist history. Obama taps into the current discourse regarding social emotionality as he diagnoses the causes of “black anger” and “white resentment.” He then attributes the conflictual sentiments to the issue of race “that we cannot afford to ignore right now.”

Obama is quick to point out the racialized response to the presidential election campaign, i.e. the bipolarization between African American and white votes split between Obama and Clinton, the prediction of white majority’s favoring McCain. This conspicuously leverages his campaign strategy of promising a “union” across the racial and economic divide. This union is a union of “the people,” particularly for and from the children, with the central issue being education. Pitted against the “people” are implicitly the immoral corporations and political lobbyists with self-interested motivation and power to advance for profit. I like that he targets the corporations and the politicians. But I ask, who are these “people”? The American people? The citizens? I dare asking, what about the non-citizens? What about the immigrants?

The compelling effects of Obama’s speech have much to do with the colorblind discourse presently dominating the American public. He’s right to say that there is much cynicism in the current cultural and political atmosphere, and not enough serious discussions about racial equality and justice. He is even progressive-hip to censure the neo-conservative contradiction in “reverse racism” and American public’s compulsory to be politically correct. But unfortunately, this is where he stops.

A good student of American history perhaps, Obama draws the cause-and-effect relations between the historically known facts about African American oppression and the current racial inequalities in the U.S. Obama understands the “white resentment”, particularly toward pro-minority policies such as the Affirmative Action, as a reaction to white American citizens’ claim to their “immigrant story” and the American Dream. Obama criticizes the majority’s blind faith in “equal opportunity.”

The immigrant story is not just a story, it’s a reality. In the resolution portion of his campaign speech, Obama advocates for a sense of hope for change. To the African American voters, he promotes hope and stands behind their grievances for justice. He conflates the conditions of an economically disadvantaged “immigrant father” to the minority side of the divide.

It seems, the immigrant figure can flip-flop from the white majority to the African American minority side of the picture rather conveniently. Obama apparently side-steps the issue of immigration most pertinent to Latinos and Asians living in the U.S..

Race is not just only an issue related to the domestic black-white relations. Race is also central in the polemic about immigration and foreign policies. When Obama denigrates corporations for outsourcing, he ignores an important part of the story: both working Americans’ animosity toward “foreigners” working within the border of United States as migrant workers, or working for an U.S.-based company. The discourse around the War with Iraq and anti-terrorism is undeniably tainted with racializing ideologies about the people of the Middle East and the Islamic faith, both abroad and domestically. Immigrant rights as well as race-based profiling and hate crimes against American citizens and immigrants of Central Asian ethnic and religious affiliations have been downplayed in presidential debates.

Race and Racism come in various shapes and colors. Some are black; some white. And some are brown, some yellow. Whiteness (or blackness) is sometimes defined by while being pitted against brown-ness, yellow-ness, or Muslim-ness. Obama’s “new politics” fails to address an age-old problem about the interethnic and interracial tensions within the United States and abroad. Until the issue of race is addressed multi-dimensionally with nuances regarding citizenship and border, race remains a stultifying divisive force. There is conceivably no true union, if the union is based on hate and exclusion across various borders within and along the U.S., and not on the domocratizing ideals of this country.

If you haven't watched it yet, please do:


Exit Clov: When the Serious Meets the Non-Serious

Based out of Washington, DC, Exit Clov makes clever, sprightly indie pop rock. The quintet consists of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, and two singers/multi-instrumentalists: Emily Hsu on keys and violin, Susan Hsu on guitar and violin. The Hsu sisters sing catchy tunes in brilliant harmony. Exit Clov headlined the show on 2/23/08 at the Third Floor, organized by Fredericksburg All Ages. Hipster teens’ dancing feet, swinging hips, giggles, and sing-alongs made an uber-fun time.

Their influences are multi-sourced: “ranging from Bartok to Blondie.” Or from new wave to no wave. Indeed, Exit Clov’s music sounds like a party at Music & Arts (or any local music stores) where kids with intensive classical music background jamming with their next door neighbor punk kids. Thick, fingery keyboard textures, offset by the sustained tones on the violin, create a lush harmonic ecology supported by dance rock rhythm and bursts of guitar noises reminiscent of Melt Banana. The two aesthetic streams interact in creative and sometimes clashing ways. What was most memorable, perhaps, was Emily and Susan’s vocal harmony. They sang beautiful parallel and contrapuntal harmonies in uncannily similar vocal timbres. Like the Carpenters or the Carter Family, their familial vocals are aurally congenial and pleasant. Exit Clov’s pop sensibility – marked by memorable and well-composed tunes delivered with a stylistic exquisiteness - reminds me of East Asian Pop – MandoPOP, TPOP, JPOP, or KPOP.

The kids at the show knew their songs. They sang, “i survived cause i surrendered to the rules of / mkdelta / a committee artichoke / feel the power of service, serving the enemy / It's sexy, infect me!” Drawing historical and social facts and then juxtaposing them with mundane metaphors, Exit Clov’s lyrics lean toward the post-Gen-X irony and absurdity. Exit Clov describes their music as “tunes of revolution, ennui, and societal idiocy—smart music for kids of the next century.” Trivializing political uncertainty and nihilism sprinkled in with non-sequitur humor, Exit Clov is serious non-serious indie pop rock for fun-loving takers who are not afraid to move.

more images of Exit Clov.


Book review: Queering the Popular Pitch

I just wrote a review of Queering the Popular Pitch, a collection of essays edited by Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga. The finalized reversion of this review will come out in Journal of Popular Music Studies later this year. Here's a preview of the article:

The contributors to Queering the Popular Pitch use “queer” as a verb to represent their commitment to the intellectual enterprise of outing musical subjectivities and signification associated with same-sex desire, sociality, and sexuality. In the introduction, the editors Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga state the volume’s purpose: “exploring the ways in which queering has challenged cultural, social, and musical structures, subverting the gendered heterosexual bias in popular music by invoking a different way of listening, a queer sensibility” (xiii).

Resonating with the ambivalence embedded in the term queerness perhaps, the editors never articulate what they (and the essay contributors) mean by queer(ing). With no literature review, the short introduction does not provide substantial theoretical, social, historical, or political context of queerness as a concept or queering as a critical practice. The editors do distinguish the usage of the term from lesbian and gay to indicate the qualities of taboo-breaking and fluidity in terms of gender and sexuality (xiv). This postmodernist de-centering gesture to refuse definitions comes with a pluralistic approach to the subject matter.

The topical, theoretical, and methodological diversity covered in the volume is noteworthy. The musical genres discussed range from Israeli pop and poetry, to Latin House, to American Emo. This topical breadth leads to wide-ranging analytical treatments of music as text, recorded sound, live performance, commodity, subculture, or as a part of multimedia cultural materials such as music videos, films, and drag shows. The methodological variety allows for a refreshing scrutiny of how people of various genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, nationalities and relationships to music (songwriters, performers, fans, celebrities, impersonators, and academics) engage with musical queerness. The collection’s interdisciplinary perspective is drawn from musicology, ethnomusicology, English, religious studies, Hispanic studies, cultural studies, gender studies, and popular music studies.

The collection contains 18 essays and is divided into four parts. Part 1, titled “Performing Lives, Hidden Histories,” surveys “different contextualizations of gender, generation, community, race, and sexuality” (xiv). Part 2, “Queering Boundaries,” outs hidden histories of popular music in Latin America and Israel. Part 3, “Too Close for Comfort,” delves into yet-to-surface homoerotic possibilities and tantalization with queer sexuality in the public images and music of iconic figures in the music industry. The last part, “Glamorous Excess,” rather ambiguously “considers how the principle of queering can be theoretically supple in many situations” (xviii). This arrangement of essays doesn’t seem intuitive to me. This may have bearing on the tendency of category refusal implied in queer epistemology.

The essays in the collection are theoretically rigorous, particularly with regards to the intersectionality of sexuality and race, ethnicity, and nationality. This is in line with the recent efforts of diversification within queer studies as it considers non-white, non-Euopean-American perspectives. In chapter 8 “Albita Rodríguez: Sexuality, Imaging, and Gender Construction in the Music of Exile,” for example, Mario Rey uses the “double-narrative of gender and ethnicity” to read the songs, images, and performances of Cuban American star Albita Rodríguez within the Cuban exile culture and community in Miami. Rey explores how Rodríguez’s “performance narratives reflect the dialectic of erotic and national discourses, destabilizing the privileged discursive gender positioning in Cuban dance music” (116). Other examples of intersectional approaches include Stephen Amico’s chapter on the queer subculture of Latino House music in New York city; Jeffrey Callen’s essay on the neglected performances of African American female and male impersonators between 1800s and World War II; and Freya Jarman-Ivens’ reading of the homoerotic subtext and desires in seemingly misogynistic, heterosexist rap music.

Most articles in the collection pay close attention to the relationship between gender and sexuality. A notable example of this is Rachel Devitt’s chapter “Girl on Girl: Fat Femmes, Bio-Queens, and Redefining Drag.” Devitt uses the Queen Bees as a case study to highlight the aesthetics, politics, and theoretical implications in drag performances by biologically female femmes. Her theoretical framework rehashes the difficult relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality and points out a sex-based bias in the studies of drag performances. “If drag must entail a cross to the ‘opposite’ of one’s ‘true identity, then that original, that biological sex-based identity becomes normalized and immobile, thus denying both the validity of the performer’s self-identified gender and the power a drag performance has in questioning gender ‘realness’” (30). Contrasting with Devitt’s case study of a grassroots performance practice is Stan Hawkins’ analysis of publicly straight male pop stars in the US and UK. He is quick to point out how queer gender signification can be appropriated by pop stars who don’t identify with queer politics. “When pop stars borrow from queer chic, their self-identification with gender ambivalence can be interpreted as nothing more than gender tourism… At any rate, the queer aesthetics that result from this provide a powerful mechanism for the further heterosexualization of the music industry” (289).

Contributors situate their analysis in thoughtfully crafted social, historical, or political contexts. For example, in his analysis of songs about AIDS-related deaths by artists not typically associated with gay rights advocacy, Paul Attinello illuminates the liberal public’s tolerance for gay men and pity for the HIV-afflicted gay men during the late 1980s and early 1990s. His close reading also reveals the sentiment of “fear and distaste” for gay men covered up by the ethos of tolerance. Other case studies well-contextualized by social factors include: Anno Mungen’s chapter on queer representation in cabaret songs in 1920s Germany; Vanessa Knights’s reading of the queer signification of the transnational history of the bolero in Latin America; Sarah Kerton’s examination of the lesbian representation of Russian girl pop group Tatu; Sheila Whiteley’s exploration of the queer imaging of pop icons in UK and US in the 1970s; and Lloyd Whitesell’s analysis of the aesthetics of glamour in Hollywood film musicals from 1930s to 1950s.

Queering the Popular Pitch adds a substantial texture of queerness to the register of gender and sexuality within popular music studies. It projects and meets the post-structuralist aim to expose the permeable boundary between straight and queer, male and female, gender and sexuality, production and reception, signification and embodiment, the underground and the upperground. The volume’s theoretical rigor contributes to the understanding of the relationship between pop music, identity, and society. I recommend it to scholars and students of queer studies and music studies who wish to examine, question or disrupt the cultural, social, and musical norms revolving around sexuality.


Yoko Writes Back!

A couple of weeks ago, I mailed Yoko Ono a copy of the RVA magazine that contains my article about Ono's Imagine Peace Tower. Yesterday, I got a letter sent from Studio One [Ono's studio]. Inside the envelope is a card signed by Yoko Ono herself. On it, she wrote a short message thanking me for writing the article. Regarding the article, she wrote, "that was neat."

Here's the card that I received from Studio One. This image of her is similar to the promo material used for her album Yes, I'm a Witch (2007).

Here's my article in print in RVA magazine. I downloaded the scanned images of article from Ono's ImaginePeace official site.


Carol Bui: Power Amidst Chaos, Confusion, and Change

Raucous teens stood around abashedly while chatting among themselves. The smell of Dorito’s and Frito’s permeated the air. DC-based Post-punk singer/guitarist/songster Carol Bui stood center stage alone, and sang a capella a traditional Vietnamese folk song in Vietnamese, under the dim stage light at the Third Floor in Fredericksburg, VA on the night of 2/23/08. (“Gau cao gio bay” appears as the last track of Bui’s critically favored 2007 album Everyone Wore White). In the open gallery hall, Bui’s voice reverberated far and deep as it pierced through the vociferous chattering of the teens. Social interactions ceased suddenly and then everyone proceeded to sit down to witness Bui’s evocation. People and spirits congregated, all anticipating a night of vigor, thrill, and rock and roll. Its ritualistic resonance was astounding and sobering.

Carol Bui’s band joined her after the opening number. She rocked out on her Telecaster the rest of her set. They played songs from Everyone Wore White. With precise and apt distortion, Bui’s guitar spoke and cried with anger. Her guitar playing is Sonic-Youthian and her aesthetic leanings toward noise and ambiguity remind me of the Riot Grrrl sound and PJ Harvey. Bui's voice bled through vulnerably. She sometimes took the liberty to let her vibrato quiver and sometimes sail into a sonic abyss. Her voice trembled, but never faltered. Strength prevailed in every enunciation.

The harmonic complexity – with a plenitude of minor chords, modal intervals, and dissonance – in Bui's music projects a sense of tonal ambivalence. Her anchorless music rustles in the mind and engenders a vivid context for emotional density. In this musical world, the dichotomy between tension and resolution doesn’t exist. No gravitation, only snippets of stasis. Existential angst is nothing new in the post-grunge age. But Bui’s astute emotional detailing is remarkable. Her songs touch on subjects such as faith, mother-daughter relationship, broken heart, adolescence, places, and the interconnection between these parts of life.

I love Carol Bui’s songs. Bui’s self-consciousness means to me an audacity to confront life’s difficulties. It is power amidst chaos, confusion, and change. I’m not sure if the teens at the Fredericksburg All Ages show felt that about Bui’s set. Maybe it takes a slightly more aged soul to appreciate Bui.

More images of Carol Bui's show.