July 01

What is American Music?

A number of years ago I had a friend inform me that Asian people had no musical history in America, and as such there was nothing particularly Asian about American music culture.  It was stated rather matter-of-factly to me, and actually, the sentiment is not uncommon. It gets bandied about in one form or another, either explicitly or by inference, when people talk about American music. American music is characterized by way of musical history, and that musical history is characterized by way of musical icons. Those American musical icons are then neatly segregated by race.  Asians are not represented in American musical history by musical icons, ergo, Asians are not a part of distinctively American music culture.  Of course Asian people can make music in America, but it’s not the same thing as being able to “authentically” draw on cultural heritage in the way that others can.  Or so the story is repeated in casual conversation, by both cultural conservatives and cultural progressives alike.

Of course this makes you wonder. In a modern culture where even cultural progressives are willing to racially segregate musical genres so readily, and where American music is casually defined by way of American history, what room could there be to write authentic American music as an Asian-American?

One answer is that there’s a faulty premise employed in the conception of American music at issue – namely it treats musical genres as a form of racial property where ownership is passed down by genetic inheritance.  This, I believe, is a sort of awkward development of a legitimate concept – the concept of cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is itself, of course, a concept which can be developed in legitimate ways.  None of those ways involves concepts like racial litmus tests or genetic ownership.  So for instance, cultural appropriation is a legitimate concept when construed as a kind of unfairly profiting off of the ideas of people of another racial group, where the unfairness stems from one’s taking advantage of societal structural privilege that discriminates based on race.  Alternatively, cultural appropriation is a legitimate concept when construed of as a harm to a culture’s artistic heritage, where the harm is inflicted when watered-down versions of that heritage are passed off as the original by people outside of that culture who are in a superior marketing position.  None of this involves concepts like genetic litmus-tests, racial property or the like.

So, it turns out that African-American and Latin-American people can be excellent and authentic classical musicians.  (It’s the reason why things like the Sphinx Competition exists).  Caucasian-Americans can sing soulfully (though that vomit-inducing term “blue-eyed soul” should be discarded).  And Asian-Americans can do any kind of music that they want to as well and be great at it.  Problem solved.  But wait, not so fast.

I think that the above narrative is flawed in another respect.  It makes the mistake of grounding the concept of American music in the history of American music culture, by identifying American music as a genre of music, namely the genre or genres of music that developed in American history.  (In fact, that’s effectively how the nouveau genre, Americana, defines itself).  And while that might seem like a good place to start, one might wonder why one would decide this is a good way to characterize the term “American music” as opposed to “American historical music” or “modernized American historical recreation music”.

I think the idea is that the concept of “American music” must mean something like “expresses America”, and the idea is that if a genre developed in a country, then that genre somehow expresses something about that country.  Hence, if folk, blues, jazz and rock were developed in America, then those genres of music express something that is distinctly American, and so those genres can plausibly be called “American”.  Of course, forget that “blues” “folk” “jazz” and “rock” are not distinctly American, as those genres have existed and developed in other countries too, oftentimes for almost as long (and sometimes for longer).  So then, we’d have to say that specifically “American blues” and “American folk” developed in America, and that’s what makes it distinctly American.  But at some point, this stops being really a discussion of genre, at least construed of as a style of music, and more just a geographical origins study.  In other words, the term “American historical music” sounds more appropriate.  The attempt to align genre with historical origin falls apart upon only moderate scrutiny.

In any case, supposing that American blues was somehow musically distinctive, as separate from blues as done in any other country, it’s not clear how that distinctiveness as a musical genre, translates into its being distinctively American as an expressive medium.  As a contrast, consider Impressionism.  Impressionism as a painting style, did not begin in America, but was nevertheless taken up as a mode of expression by some American painters, resulting in American Impressionism.  (Note: the fact that a genre begins elsewhere doesn’t prevent it from also being a genre here, at all).  But when one considers what makes American Impressionism “expressive of America”, one doesn’t point to the particularly “American” way in which the artist painted light or shape or figure.  What makes American Impressionism specifically American is the fact that they are painted by Americans expressing specifically American subject matter (in this case, American people and American landscapes).

What I’d like to suggest is that American music should be construed of, much like American Impressionism.  American music is music made by Americans expressing specifically American subject matter.

In some sense that makes the bar to creating American music much lower, in that one does not need to engage in any of the music genres classified as “American” by whoever got to decide that.  This is probably a good thing.  The historical view, outlined earlier, would seem to place a ban on music made by immigrants, derived from their country of origin, from being called “American music”.  Even if the music that they made in America was about their experience as immigrants in America.  (At least not until they had “had enough history” in America “developing” that music in America).  This, I submit, is a patently ridiculous conclusion.

In another sense, though, that makes the bar to creating American music higher, in that one needs to satisfy the standard of expressing American subject matter.  Of course, maybe in some sense all music created in America expresses American subject matter – but some of it expresses American subject matter much less than others.  A generic love song or song about heartache probably expresses it much less than a song that comments in great detail on specifically New York life.  That endless stream of Nashville Velveeta that comes out of the state of Tennessee is oftentimes American music – not because of its incessant self-conscious co-opting of American historical styles – but because it oftentimes comments on American life – albeit in its own singularly heavy-handed, simplistic and obvious way.

So, as it turns out then, Asian-Americans can make authentic, bona fide, American music.  Asian-Americans are probably not well-represented in American musical history by a particular genre, but that is pretty much neither here nor there when it comes to qualifications for making American music or being a part of American music culture.  Asian-Americans have been and will continue to be a part of American music culture whenever they make music that expresses American subject matter – and that is the only requirement for being authentic American music.

Much music that draws on American historical music genres is not particularly American, because it doesn’t have particularly American subject matter.  (See e.g., Lumineers “Hey Ho”, a relatively generic love song whose first mention of an American specific, over half-way through the song is, ironically, Chinatown).  Much music that doesn’t draw on American historical music genres is made by Americans concerning directly American subject matter, and is solidly American music.  (See e.g., Billy Joel’s “Allentown”, a straightforward pop song which directly draws very little on historical American music genres, but which comments very specifically on American history in terms of its subject matter).

I bring all this up, incidentally, as a preface to talking about the album, about which I’ll just make a short comment.  Ten Hymns From My American Gothic is intended as an album of American music, in the latter and not the former sense.  (The “American Gothic” is not a reference to the literary style, but to the painting, which is a form of American realism).  It is music by an American, expressing American subject matter, in the tradition of American social realism.  I hope you like it.