What’s holding back Asian artists singing in English? Is The Force not with them?

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

While Hong Kong’s so-called English “music scene” meanders along with the usual suspects “jizzing” away imagining that they’re jazz artistes- and gullible audiences buying into this vapid shell game- and the cover bands circuit tries to channel everyone from Axl Rose and Adele with no thought of originality, an artist like Yuna from Malaysia continues to push that creative envelope. Love you, Yuna.

Yuna is a brilliant singer-songwriter, multi-media artist and entrepreneur who, hopefully, is given the opportunities to fly the international flag for Asian artists, and is supported by her music label Verve beyond just releasing her music. Goodness knows it’s tough enough for many artists in this region to be accepted by their own neighbours, let alone making it internationally, where even home-grown acts can’t get a look in.

Yes, K-Pop had its moment, but that time has come and gone, and one has to wonder if that was all a carefully choreographed marketing ploy as slick and contrived by anything released by Psy. Remember Gangnam Style? Psy is back with a creepy new video, but doesn’t that just make you, well, sigh? Loudly? And wonder what the hell made Gangnam Style the viral hit that it was?

Getting back to today, and touching down again in Malaysia, last week, while chatting about horse racing with a friend, the conversation took a detour towards music, and his suggestion that I listen to Paperplane Pursuit. I did and was very pleasantly surprised to find that here is an excellent band from Malaysia with shades of Maroon 5, but definitely no musical copy cats, recording good original material in English. Of course, it made me wonder how they were going to have their music heard within the confines and cultural barriers of Asia, and then outside of this tiny music market. But with their recording “Feel Good” at least receiving airplay in the States, Hope floats. Keep following this band. They’re worth it. They’re not beholden to anyone, and are creating their own destiny.

Asia is a peculiar region where every country’s music stays in its own box. Bollywood, for example, stays in Bollywood, and not even the success of “Slumdog Millionaire” took it outside of those cultural parameters. Pussycat Dolls might have created a mild “Jai Ho” A.R Rahman curry to a quasi Bhangra beat for Western tastes, but other than a few Bollywood Remixes, Bhangra hasn’t travelled though in the UK, Cornershop once sang about A Brimful Of Asha.

The sad fact of the matter is that what happens musically in Asia tends to stay in Asia. There are no knights in shining armour to rescue it and take it along a new path of enlightenment. It’s why MTV Asia and Channel [V] have three different beams, one only for India, another for Greater China, and the other for Southeast Asia- the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. No one cares enough about Hong Kong to bother as Hong Kong is all about Canto Pop and which plods along its derivative road of schlock. And if thinking music companies can help bridge this chasm, dream on. They’re so shackled to focus on “global priorities” picked by Head Office and “making the numbers” that they cannot juggle more than two balls in the air at one time.

Excellent bands from Scandinavia signed to “worldwide recording deals” have had their records gathering dust in music companies for decades whereas, once in a while, the mawkish ballads of a band like Denmark’s Michael Learns To Rock become a freakish hit. Why? They’re some “Danglish version of Canto-pop churning out turgid ballads.

Though nice enough guys, and despite a recent mini documentary produced about the band’s phenomenal success in Asia which out-Spinal Tapped Spinal Tap for its goofy self-importance, MLTR’s time has come and gone along with novelty acts from Scandinavia like the cartoon-like Aqua, and Ace Of Base. Cardigans made it because they were brilliant- for a short time. Denmark’s The Asteroid Galaxy Tour had it all, including the gorgeous singer Mette, but seemed to self-implode through weak management, whereas ABBA wrote and produced brilliant Pop music that, like the music of the Beatles, lives on today.

As for acts from Asia recording in English, one of the sadder stories surround a young band from Singapore named Parking Lot Pimp.

Signed to EMI Singapore in one of the most lopsided deals seen in many a full moon, the band happily handed over an entire record of their original music produced at costs to them, plus an EPK- Electronic Press Kit, and a music video in return for 18 percent of sales. The band didn’t help their cause by being dysfunctional and a political time bomb, but that all-English album had some brilliant tracks that could have easily been hits overseas. But, artist and music company never got along, and Parking Lot Pimp became a bit of a trainwreck. Pity as the track “Blow”, especially, was as good as anything N.E.R.D was producing at the time.

Of course, there have been those rare moments when music companies have pulled out all stops to break an act from Asia, internationally, namely the U.S. market. Such was the case with the two English albums by Japanese megastar Utada Hikaru.

Being the biggest selling artist in Japan for Universal Music, the American-educated Utada dearly wanted- and demanded- that she record an English album. The first one flopped. To be brutally frank, the music was like a sushi platter for Western tastes. Not many found it exactly appetising.

The decision to produce the second English record was another token gesture to keep the artist and her father happy. Nothing else. Despite a huge promotional budget and an extremely expensive record to produce, the end product was another miserable flop. Why? Why would American music fans buy an English record from some unknown Japanese artist when they had the likes of Janet Jackson, Christina Milian etc?

The artist lacked credibility, relevance, and no amount of hype was going to save it. Certainly not in America, which remains one of the most difficult markets to break into unless surrounded by teams with powerful roller decks. Ed Sheeran and Miss Adele, no matter how commercially accessible their music is, have been extremely lucky when one looks back and sees the number of very good acts from that market- Low Millions, for instance, fronted by Adam Cohen, son of the great Leonard Cohen- who, for one reason or another, never ever made it. And making it on scripted television singing competitions for three months is not making it. That’s faking it for those fifteen minutes of fame.

As for Utada, while American music fans might have once accepted J-Pop as a musical novelty item as they did way back in 1963 when making Kyu Sakamoto’s Japanese recording of the very melodic “Sukiyaki” a Number 1 on the Billboard chart- the same song made a comeback decades later when recorded with English lyrics by the extremely sexy Taste Of Honey- one supposes that a Japanese artist appearing to be what they’re not never registered with the music media and music fans. Perhaps the A&R behind the record was weak? Perhaps Utada was just not good enough? Perhaps…

Some of the hurdles for Asian artists to break the American market can be blamed on the hurdles actually created by Asian artists. For example, there was the extraordinary hype that Korean megastar Rain had “conquered the American market” by selling out Madison Square Gardens. That’s half right. That audience comprised over ninety percent Koreans. No one likes smelling bullshit.

No matter how successful K-Pop might appear, the marketing of this genre appears to be as strict and as frightening as the rigid training and cosmetic surgery these kids go through to be false idols. K-Pop has a well-documented dark side to it.

With so many ethnic groups in the States, Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian etc artists make annual pilgrimages for millions of dollars to play Atlantic City and make side trips for more bucks to play to Asian communities in cities like Vancouver. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s simply the economies of scale and making hay while the sun shines. What none of this does, however, is further the careers of bona fide creative talent like Yuna, like Paperplane Pursuit, like others not mentioned here, all recording in English and wanting to be taken seriously and not seen as some caricature of what Asian artists are supposed to be through Western eyes.

There’s always the opportunity to make a record with the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg, or Ludacris or Nicole Sherzingher or some unknown Pussycat Doll. And then what? That much-hyped multi-national act outta Hong Kong named Blush who, just a couple of years ago, were being touted as being- Gawd no- Asia’s Spice Girls, recorded a track with Snoop Dogg. Apparently, the track was a Number 1 on some Billboard Dance Chart, but where’s Blush today? No one cares. The world has changed, and so have musical tastes and how music is consumed and inhaled.

One can’t help but think what might have happened if an Asian artist had written and recorded and released all of the hits by Adele and Ed Sheeran and Rihanna and Taylor Swift. Would they still have been hits? And if not, why not? Racism? The “wrong packaging?” Because Asian artists are not supposed to sound Western? You tell me.

Something’s wrong, and Asian musicians brave enough to breakaway from the running dog pack and create their own music in English need some form of a Rainbow Coalition from Asia and the West, especially, the States, to make this happen.

This music cannot be lumped together with embarrassments like “It Takes Gutz To Be A Guitierrez” from the Philippines, a fifth rate attempt to ape “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and, somehow, being shown on channel E!

Surely, it’s time for good, original creativity from Asia to not be lumped together with vapid copycat work from the past, and chart a brave new world for itself? As a proud Asian, count me in.

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