December 21

Towards an Asian-American Music

When I say “towards an Asian-American Music”, you may get the impression that I’m talking about a creative endeavor to create a new musical style or genre that is related in content-specific ways to Asian-American culture or history. That’s a natural reaction given American societal conceptions of music, I suppose. But there’s reason to suspect that this characterization for how to create a cultural music genre is based on a myth.

Note that we understand the sense in which concepts might be social constructs – so quarks and molecules aren’t social constructs. They would be doing their thing and having effects on the world regardless of what society was doing. Other concepts are probably a mix. The Boeing-747 no doubt has parts which are socially constructed (brand name, design, etc…) but parts which are not – after all it is no accident that the design helps it to maintain flight, where its ability to stay aloft in the air is not a construct of society but of things independent of that. And of course, people sometimes talk about how gender and race are social constructs. I won’t wade into that particular debate right now.

But what I will say is that music genres are definitely social constructs – or at least the vast majority of what we talk about when we talk about music genres are social constructs. After all, music is a language and music, as humans make it, is a very specific human language – even if we might see a Youtube video about an elephant dancing to a bouncing brass band.

When the endeavor is viewed in the way initially outlined, creating an Asian-American music seems like a daunting task. After all, what kinds of musical properties are representative of Asian-American culture? Moreover, there’s an issue of artistic freedom. Would we require Asian-American artists to conform the music they were doing to that one genre that was created, in order to be counted as Asian-American? This all seems very problematic. And what if the music ended up not being accepted popularly? Would we give the genre up in favor of a new one?

Imagine instead that creating an Asian-American music is just a matter of having Asian-Americans create new music and ensuring that Asian-Americans play a recognized role in staking out that territory. The issue here is two-fold – (1) creating new music, and (2) ensuring that Asian-Americans play a recognized role in staking out the territory.

The first is a creative issue that I’m not really worried about. Artists will create new art, and Asian-American artists are no exception to that rule. Though I get annoyed with the tendency of some Asian-American musicians and industry-types who lean too far towards trying to make basic commercial music – this is really just a variation on the classic commercialism vs. artistry debate that has existed forever. I’m not worried that Asian-American artists will continue to create great art.

The second is a political issue which has a few dimensions to it. Note that under the initial view of how to create Asian-American music, it places all of the responsibility for the genre on Asian-American artists, with the implied idea that an existing white taste-maker will then get to decide if Asian-Americans have earned their artistic ticket to genre-hood. You need to realize that this is how most modern music writers see the issue. Under the latter view, it places substantial responsibility on modern music writers to see and recognize contributions by Asian-American artists. And the fact of the matter is that modern music writers deserve moral blame for under-recognizing modern Asian-American artists. And they deserve moral blame for under-recognizing Asian-American artists in history as well. The latter view also recognizes (and the former view does not really) that racial bias plays a significant role in music writing.

The history and politics point is noteworthy because history and politics obviously play a role in modern conceptions of genre (see “Americana”). And of course, history and politics are very substantially creatures of social construction. That’s what we mean when we say that history is written by the victors (or oppressors, depending on how you look at it). Of course, there’s something non-constructed that plays a role in victory – one side had to be *victorious* in order for history to be written one way or the other. But the facts underlying the reasons for the win usually have very little to do with the adjustments in how history was subsequently written.

Note also that the latter conception deals with a lot of the questions mentioned earlier for the first conception. There is no particular task to try and find “the Asian-American chord progressions” or “Asian-American beats” to create the genre. There is no need to have Asian-Americans conform to a specific set of musical properties. And there’s no worry that once adopted, a musical genre might have to be given up if it’s not adopted popularly. These are all symptoms, I think, of forcing socially constructed issues into problems that Asian-American artists must somehow solve, and once you see that, the issues disappear.

What appears, however, is a moral responsibility for the modern music oligarchy to recognize Asian-American accomplishments in music. Because as people in power, they are implements of social construction, and can try to wield that power in ways that recognize Asian-American contributions or not, and are accountable as such. As usual though, conceptual confusion creates a mystery that requires some work to unravel.