The Situationist

Don W-Ho?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2007

Don HoYesterday’s New York Times included an article by Mireya Navarro on Asian stereotypes in entertainment. The article, titled “Trying To Crack the Top 100,” contained several interesting anecdotes revealing some of the positive and negative effects of Asian stereotypes. Portions of the article are pasted below.

* * *

As a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Lee has sung R&B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.

Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show “Fame,” gaining national attention and another record contract. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turHarlemm Leen 40 this year and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.

Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.

“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” said Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. “You don’t fit.”

There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the “Asian thing” is what Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars.

People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars say that racial stereotypes — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for pop stardom.

Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean- American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While on the show, Kim wrote on his MySpace.com page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”

* * *

“There are very talented Asian- Americans out there,” said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian- American artists. “The only problem is nobody is signing them.”

Some are being signed, but the roster tilts heavily toward mixed-race Asians whose looks are racially ambiguous, like Cassie, an R&B singer of Filipino and African-American descent whose song “Me & U” was one of last year’s hottest summer hits, some Asian-Americans artists noted.

* * *

Natalise by Jonathan Alcorn for The New York Times

Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up soon.

Natalise, a 22-year-old pop singer of Burmese and Chinese descent whose single “Love Goes On” was a local radio hit in 2002 while she attended Stanford University, has turned her forays into YouTube [see example below], MySpace and her own Web site into bigger exposure. She has had some of her original songs featured on local commercial radio and MTV shows like “Next” and “My Super Sweet 16.”

“I feel that we’re on the brink of something huge and it’s just a matter of time and effort,” said Natalise, who lives in Los Angeles and is recording her third album on her own label.

A talent executive with a major label, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for his company, said he knew of no “inherent bias” against singers of Asian descent and said he was at a loss to explain why so few make it to the top.

“It’s a matter of who contacts you, who gets representation, who builds a following, who’s out there playing clubs that people hear about,” he said.

* * *

But Asian-American artists face other challenges. Making up only 4 percent of the country’s population, they are too small a market, and too fragmented in language and nationalities, to offer a solid springboard for its aspiring stars the way other ethnic groups have done, said Oliver Wang, a music journalist who teaches about race and popular culture at California State University in Long Beach.

Similarly, there are limited marketing mechanisms at their disposal.

“We don’t have BET,” said Hong of ImaginAsian, referring to the Black Entertainment Television channel. “We don’t have Telemundo, to have these artists be taken seriously.”

* * *

For a few articles on consequences of Asian stereotypes, click on the following titles: When White Men Can’t Do Math ; Stereotype Performance Boosts ; The Dark Side of the Asian American ‘Model Student’.

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