- Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race Through Musical Performance by Grace Wang
Controversy over the casting of white actors in Asian character roles has reached new levels of intensity in the U.S. film industry in the two years since the publication of Grace Wang’s excellent Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race Through Musical Performance. Although the practice of yellowface has a long and disgraceful history in Hollywood, the whitewashing of parts designated for Asian characters continues apace in the present day—in, for example, big-budget films such as the 2016 [End Page 260] adaptation of the Marvel comic Doctor Strange, which reimagines the Tibetan character The Ancient One as a Celtic character played by British performer Tilda Swinton. The erasure of Asians and Asian Americans from products of the American culture industries has been addressed in the public sphere primarily as a problem of “visibility,” with high-profile performers such as Indian American actor Aziz Ansari emphasizing its essentially optical nature: “Just look at the movie posters you see. It’s all white people” (Amanda Hess, “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored,” New York Times, May 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/movies/asian-american-actors-are-fighting-for-visibility-they-will-not-be-ignored.html, accessed 12 June 2017). Advancing this discourse into the sonic realm, Wang’s timely study probes the racial politics of several performative domains in which Asian Americans have labored to render themselves audible, as well as visible.
Limning the connections among the seemingly disparate worlds of Western classical music, YouTube stardom, and transnational Mandopop (Mandarin-language pop music), Wang’s most trenchant argument is perhaps “that the rationalizations used to manage and explain Asian Americans’ purported overrepresentation in Western classical music and underrepresentation in U.S. popular music illuminates the broader mechanisms that limit the scope of Asian American integration into the United States” (p. 8). To this end, the book is divided into two parts, each comprising two chapters. The first part delves into the ways that Asian American musicians and their parents contend with “racialized perceptions” (p. 7) and model minority myths at competitive music schools and in the professional performance careers that sometimes follow advanced studies. Many of the voices that ring out from Wang’s ethnography are 1.5 and second generation East Asian Americans from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds. As they assert their belief in meritocracy—their success in the elite world of classical music would seem to provide material evidence that the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is, indeed, to practice, practice, practice—they also chafe against stereotyped assessments of their playing as rote and passionless, the supposed result of a drive to accrue the social capital attached to classical music without any real “feeling” for the art itself. The second part of the book examines how these same perceptions and myths have been mobilized by pop culture industry gatekeepers, spurring Asian American popular artists into more democratic online spaces and Asian music markets “that would yield them some reprieve from the limitations of musical and racial inheritances in the United States” (p. 9).
Chapter 1 transports readers into the corridors, cafeterias, and lobbies that Asian “music moms” (p. 28) inhabit while attending to their children at the Juilliard Pre-College Division program. Wang investigates how these individuals, mostly immigrants from Korea and the Sinophone world, express their identities as “Asian” and affirm their cultural values as fundamentally different from (implicitly white) “American” cultural values through participation in their children’s classical music education. Alternately refuting and embracing characterizations as overbearing and controlling (an image Wang returns to in her epilogue scrutinizing the figure of the “Tiger Mother” [pp. 186–192]), the mothers argue that investment in their children’s success necessitates significant personal sacrifice. A detailed overview of the history of Western classical music in East Asia focuses on the...