by Chris Randle
A creaking racial barrier was breached last November. It mostly went unnoticed – this was not an Obama-sized milestone – but as omens go, it’s a convincing one. When the L.A. rap crew Far East Movement sent their single “Like a G6″ to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, they became the first Asian-American group to top the U.S. charts. And they happened to do so just as record companies are making an unprecedented promotional effort on behalf of pop acts from East Asia itself, hoping that Korean and Japanese stars will find an Atlantic audience.
“The first Asian-American…” is a problematic distinction, or at least a fussy one. Ne-Yo has Chinese ancestry; Nicki Minaj’s background is partly Indo-Trinidadian; Amerie was an army brat who spent several early years in her mother’s native Korea. They’ve all recorded Top 10 hits. But their public identities tend to be coded as black and nothing else, by design or otherwise. (Amerie collaborated with the Korean R&B singer Se7en and apparently speaks the language with relatives.) Not to mention Jay Sean, whose Britishness is probably more exotic than his brownness in parts of the U.S. now. Far East Movement just register as “Asian” without any such ambiguity – I mean, look at that name. Like California Swag District, it reminds me of factions from a video game, possibly because I spent way too much time playing Fallout over the holidays.
Though FEM sometimes work with an African/Asian/Caucasian-American production team called the Stereotypes, “Like a G6″ is free of dubious chinoiserie. The most cringeworthy thing about this single is its faint resemblance to Black Eyed Peas. I like the cold bass – between that and affectless chorus girl Dev, the track almost sounds like electroclash. I like her own party-party-party anthem better, if only for “wanna get your mitts in my oven.”
It’s unremarkable that a bunch of guys from Los Angeles’ Koreatown grew up surrounded by pop-rap and thought yeah, me too! What did surprise me is how much certain East Asian groups have enthusiastically adopted American musical idioms. When Tom Ewing assigned me to South Korea for last year’s Pop World Cup, I fell in love with K-pop. (Ended up losing by a single vote in the quarterfinals, perhaps due to my unhealthy fixation on propulsive beats + blatant Autotune.) And K-pop idols – a very technoccult term for these carefully managed stars, as if Genesis P-Orridge had gone into A&R – are rapping a lot. There are successful Korean MCs, such as G-Dragon, but the ascendant girl groups often have designated verse-spitting members of their own, from Rainbow to Miss A. Plus, club bangers:
None of the aforementioned foreign acts have actually broken through in the U.S. yet (Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” did reach the outer environs of Billboard’s chart in 2009, the first Korean song to do so). I suspect that’s because the artists in question have been induced to imitate passing American trends before each marketing push. The Korean-Japanese singer BoA, for example, recorded an entire album of sub-Gaga Eurobosh for her stateside debut, sounding understandably awkward in the process. Why not foist the ultramodern, ecstatically artificial bubblegum of a Girls’ Generation on unsuspecting Americans and see what happens?
That easy choice is ultimately a false one. What I really want to see 2011’s slate of crossover wannabes do is continue the tangled polycultural moves they’re already feeling out. Anyone living in a major North American city has probably been pulled into that dance already, if not born on the floor. My friend Maddie, whose critical K-pop blog My First Love Story guides, incites and inspires, recently argued that “hybridizing one’s identity is better than endlessly floundering between one or the other.” Nicki Minaj couldn’t forge a katana for you, but she knows how to swing one.