Situating foreign pop music within familiar schema
What offends me about statements like that (“You can’t like ‘Gangnam Style’ if you don’t like LMFAO”) is the assumption that the Asian artist in question is just putting on a Western musical style like a costume. In this case, Psy has been in the business for much longer than LMFAO, and from what I understand, he’s always had more or less the same persona. You could say the same thing about the Perfume song: if you write about this and don’t mention Yasutaka Nakata, but do mention Calvin Harris, you’re doing it wrong. I highly doubt Nakata is scrambling to find Western pop trends to duplicate; I see it more as him taking the challenge of fitting his own musical genius into a new template. This is what creative people do: they take on conventional forms to see how much they can stretch them. I for one don’t think “Spending All My Time” sounds all that much like Western pop anyways, and the video is so singularly disturbing (even horrifying, in a way), quite unlike what you might see in the West.
PERFUME - SPENDING ALL MY TIME
Mallory O’Donnell: If this wasn’t J-Pop many critics would be backhanding it for its indebtedness to (unjustly) hated west coast Hi-NRG and (justly) despised italo-house, but simply because it is, they will praise it for the same reasons. As for me, I could care where something comes from : as songs go, this is forgettable tosh. See, I’ve already forgotten it.
I read Mallory’s provocative blurb here and I think also of the two recent posts I’ve seen on tumblr calling out non-specific groups of people for liking “Gangnam Style” even though they probably don’t like LMFAO, attributing this to Psy being South Korean. All three have bothered me. This one slightly less so since it’s directed at critics and doesn’t present it as a problem apart from in musical terms, so sorry to Mallory that this was the final straw, and this is not directed specifically at only one post.
People sometimes like music from Asia for reasons which don’t have to do with the music itself. Sometimes people discuss music from Asia in ways which help to create or reinforce damaging discourses. OK. I may sometimes be one of those people, and would be happy for it to be pointed out if and when I am. If you are seeing specific instances of people engaging with music in hypocritical or negative ways, then it would be great to address those instances (I for one would love to never see the phrase ‘OPEN CONDOM STYLE’ ever again).
On the other hand, making blanket statements that assume exoticisation as the only possible explanation for whole groups of people to like a given Asian act does not helpfully address anything. It says that those acts’ Asian-ness is their sole defining characteristic. If your problem is just with music that you think is terrible getting attention, you could always concentrate on why the music is terrible rather than the speculative motivations of its listeners.
Also, I think the “exoticism” accusation misses a crucial point: we like music not just for how it sounds but for who is performing it. In my mind, there’s a huge difference between Psy and LMFAO, for instance. I actually don’t find LMFAO annoying at all, but they definitely are buffoons, intentionally so, in fact. Psy just seems like a really likable, quirky, and interesting guy. I’ve compared him to Jack Black before, and I think that’s still kind of apt: you don’t listen to Tenacious D for the music so much as you do for the performance. Like Black, Psy is goofy in a sweet, endearing way. There’s nothing mean-spirited about him at all—I mean, how cute and sweet is it that he burst into tears while serving as a judge for “Super Star K4”—and I don’t feel you could say the same about LMFAO, who seem a little skeezy.
And this is not a matter of preferring “Asians” to “Westerners,” whatever that really means. For instance, I much prefer the demeanor of someone like Lil B (who preaches respect for women even while working within a medium that thrives on macho attitudes) than Teen Top’s C.A.P., who said that if he had a daughter, he’d “discipline her by giving her a spanking and keep her at home.” Of course, yes, I still like Teen Top’s music, but my point is that looking at the most superficial traits of a person—not their identify (ethnic, cultural, or otherwise), which can be very meaningful, but just the mere fact that they are Asian, white, black, or whatever—and using those to talk about artists instead of looking more deeply at their personality (i.e. the feeling you get from being in their presence, whether through their music, TV appearances, live performances, or anything else) just seems like willfully ignoring the way most people listen to music.
Fascinating conversation here - because it raises the question, “Is there a correct way to listen to and critique somebody else’s music? If so, what makes that way correct?” What does it mean for a person to talk about a song and/or Asian music and/or “other” music in a hypocritical and negative way, and how can it be addressed? I think there are a lot of value judgments that need to be named, especially given that everyone involved in this conversation is not actually part of the culture that produced the music. If it’s about anti-racism, which it seems to be, that’s cool, but let’s be very transparent about it so we can make sure we really are holding true to that.
I see the retreat to comparisons with Western music as a strategy for those of us who are outsiders to find an “in,” a way for us and people like us to relate to the music. What we know about learning (see, for example, here, or Keene & Zimmerman’s Mosaic of Thought) suggests that understanding something new is facilitated when the new material is connected to something that is already known and stored in the brain - within frames or “filing cabinets” known as schema. If people are comparing Gangnam Style to LMFAO, I’d argue it’s because they’re trying to find a connection to their already-existing schema. (By the same token, if they like Gangnam Style but don’t like LMFAO, they’re just using different schema to relate.) So to me, O’Donnell’s criticism - “I think this song sucks because it’s too similar to x and y, but it gets a free pass because it’s jpop” - seems to be attempting to situate a foreign form within a familiar schema. Is it a classy/helpful/non-hypocritical way to criticize a song? Maybe not, and I agree with the points made above. But again, let’s be very explicit as to what the standards are for “classy” or “non-hypocritical” criticism. (The standard for “helpful” is whether the criticism helps me understand the song better, which it really does not, since I have no familiarity with the x and y genres O’Donnell names.)
Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and it’s up to music critics (which is what I’m calling people who want to talk about music in a serious way) to do their homework and understand the ACTUAL relationships of songs to schema: that is, whether Gangnam Style actually has any causal relation to LMFAO’s music, and whether the producer on Perfume’s song actually has any influence from Calvin Harris (which, as Occupied Territories has pointed out, is highly unlikely). I don’t think critics can be blamed for trying to begin to understand something from within their already existing mental frameworks - that’s just how we learn - but I do think their critiques can be rendered invalid if they fail to inquire beyond those frameworks and just assume that the way they experience and understand something makes it true for everybody else.
In terms of keeping criticism of foreign music respectful, my two cents is that all of us outsiders need to remember that whatever we see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg - or, in Geertz’s rendering, the platform resting on the back of an elephant, which stands on the back of a turtle, which stands on the back of another turtle… “And after that, it’s turtles all the way down.”
This and other responses from people much more familiar with the subject than me have been great, not least because my wish to have it pointed out if I’m going wrong has been immediately met since I was one of the ones right in there making Calvin Harris comparisons in a way which overstated the case beyond ‘these two things sound similar to me’ without considering the implications enough. Will definitely try to think about these points in future when covering Japanese or Korean pop, or indeed pop from elsewhere in the world whose contexts I know even less about, for the Jukebox.