Mitski: The Reclaiming of Asian Female Identities in Indie Rock

Indie rock has seen a strong lack of Asian Americans in the genre as a whole: instead, what comes to mind with “indie” is young, attractive white men and women crooning in their traditional hipster style to songs like Broods’ “Heartlines” or Troye Sivan’s “Fun”. It is for this reason that such artists as Kathi Ko, and Carol Bui struggle to gain mainstream (or as mainstream as indie can get) recognition from their peers and from listeners of indie rock music as a whole. Mitski, too, projects this narrative, as a young half-Japanese woman in indie music, she does not receive nearly the amount of attention or fame as her white counterparts. When an Asian American, especially an Asian American woman, becomes involved with indie music, there is the inevitable fetishizing of Asian features and characteristics, and the discussions about said artist tend to center around ethnicity and race, rather than on quality of content or significance of the piece. In this piece, I will discuss the reasons I believe it is difficult to be an Asian American woman in indie music, as a style, and why rockers such as Mitski are important figures for the younger Asian-American generation.

Firstly, there is the inevitable “prostitution” of Asian culture, as Hsu states in her dissertation. Asian Americans are seen in terms of their sexualities, and nothing else, and Oriental tropes abound, especially in terms of East Asian artists. As the discussion about Kathi Ko and Carol Bui probes into this construct of a white-male-dominated society, it becomes apparent that Asian American artists are still seen as “other”, even when taking into account the fact that their roots lie in America. Mitski sings of “Your Best American Girl” (see below), where she looks at herself as an American woman, but never the one that the “all-American boy” would deign to even look at. The exploration of what it means to be a half-Japanese woman in America gives deeper insights into what motivates Mitski’s work: there is a part of her that is intrinsically American in nature, but the Japanese side of her cannot be ignored as well—in this way, she fits into both and neither cultures, an anomaly in the indie-rock scene especially. In the traditionally capitalist world, there comes an inevitable monetization of anything seen culturally “exotic” or “Other”, and with it, the burden of having to represent a race rather than a genre. This is why it is so difficult to be an Asian American woman in indie music: there is an aspect of exoticization which comes with having a different ethnicity in the scene, and to put it bluntly, hipsters and other avid indie-listeners tend to be of the white-liberal-ignorant type.

While it may be incredibly difficult for Asian artists such as Mitski and Kathi Ko to receive recognition in a non-Asian-dominated music scene, the importance of having such artists in the genre cannot be stated enough. As a country that becomes more and more akin to a “melting pot” of cultures, it is important that such representation of Asian Americans in culture, even if it is non-mainstream culture, occurs. As an Asian American myself, I never realized fully until a certain point that none of my favorite music artists were never Asian American—the industry is dominated by white artists, because it sells, especially when the music industry is run on the premise of capitalism. While capitalism ensures that white artists may sell records to their heart’s content, it promotes a darker side to the industry when it comes to Asian American artists, in that there is an exoticization, and “circulation of female sexuality” (Hsu) that is a result of Asian American singers, especially female singers, being seen as exotic goods, and nothing more. In such works, there is also the consistent system of differences in appearance and culture being turned into commodities: in this way, white liberals can pat themselves on the back for instating “diversity” in the music industry while maintaining a privileged center.

All in all, when it comes to Asian American artists entering the indie scene, many problematic elements of a corrupt, capitalist society come into play. There is the inevitable fetishizing of the “Other” and the consumption of Asian female sexuality that lends itself to the continued exploitation of Asian American artists in the genre. However, it is important that artists such as Mitski continue to expose the hegemonic state of affairs in America, while delving into scenes that may not be as widely explored by such artists. Representation, no matter the music type, lays the basis for future generations of Asian Americans to reclaim their identities within any genre of music.

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