When Asian Women Rock
A Personal Essay on the Representational Politics of Letting Loose
The night air was just starting to grow teeth in Minnesota when I went to go see Thao Nguyen play live for the first time. I had on a leather trench coat that made me feel like I was in the Matrix.
Thao was opening for Julien Baker, and it was clear who was the bigger celebrity – who the throngs of white people were there to see. Inside the concert venue, I scanned the crowd for Asian people.
Are you here to see Thao, too? I asked them with my eyes. As fraught as I know Asian American identity to be intellectually, I can’t help devolving to my baser instincts when I’m surrounded by white people. I’m searching for the familiar, assuming we have the same goals and the same interests. It’s simplistic, reductive, perhaps even disrespectful, but it’s also like habitually locating the nearest fire exit in a crowded room: half paranoia, half survival tactic.
Then Thao took the stage in a Julien Baker t-shirt and shorts and the most beautiful shiny black mullet I’ve ever seen, and she was all that mattered. In her first song, she opened in her signature wavering, almost whispery voice, singing as if she were confiding in you. The crowd seemed uncertain. I saw the two white girls in front of me look at each other with bemusement. I wanted to demand or beg them to give her a chance.
Quick to think the worst, I was ready to go to bat for Thao even though I knew she didn’t need it. She hit the chorus with a crash; she was electricity, charisma, a rock angel bathed in light. The audience began moving fluidly to the beat, without hesitation, feeling it, too.
In 1971, upon witnessing the nascence of rock in Viet Nam, American journalist Gloria Emerson remarked that the Americans at a concert believed the Vietnamese attendees "didn't know much about rock." It seemed to her that the concert was just for the crowd “to be together.” I daydream about what it would be like to be in the scorned crowd, bound and captivated by this shiny new Western music. We know little about it except that it made us move; so much so that we called it “nhạc kích động,” or action music.
In the present, Thao transitioned to her most popular song, Temple. I felt the first few chords jitter up my spine. Temple is told from the perspective of Thao’s mother, escaping the Viet Nam War, who tells her: “I lost my city in the light of day / Thick smoke / Helicopter blades / Heaven on earth I've never moved so fast / You'll never know the fear your mama has.”
I felt arrogantly entitled to this song; in my heart, I knew I came to see Thao do this, to sing a diaspora story in one of the most iconic venues in the country. I understood why representation was such a hell of a drug.
We hear the nostalgia of her mother, as she shows Thao a picture of the glory days: “Look at this one / I want you to see / Fashion was high / My hair was so long.” The ending of this verse always captivates me, as her mother confides that she, too, was once young, living for the nights when she could twist away her worries. “At night, like you / We danced to be free.”
As Thao sang, I sobbed behind my mask. I thought about my mother asking me what I wanted to eat when I came home. I wondered if she used to have countless suitors, fawning after the swish of her long, black hair. I wondered if she danced.
As the night went on, Thao was a blaze that only burned brighter and louder. She wailed, she jumped around the stage, she left the mic and played the drums, she whipped out a mandolin and left me swooning. She was unapologetic about the space she commanded, and yet when she spoke to us between songs her voice was velvety soft.
The performance of rock n’ roll is, of course, the complete opposite of the caricature of Asian women as submissive and quiet. It’s what makes the fictional Rocky Rivera from the Gangster of Love such a lifelike, colorful character; she has all the swagger, confidence and mental illnesses you’d expect from a rockstar. This bravado is a pointed spear she carries, trudging through New York City and San Francisco in search of what it means to be Filipino in America.
When Mitski’s tour tickets sold out, I laughed a little too hard at the tweets that said white people who bought presale tickets should give them to people of color. It’s uncomfortable to admit that I feel an ownership over these Asian women who dared to be the center of attention, to sing about their loves and heartbreaks instead of murmuring their feelings like shameful secrets. But I have no delusions about having some secret understanding of their inner lives; instead, I sought and received permission to be publicly untethered. These artists are a mirror, which I look through to find new ways to be Asian American.
Clearly, conversations about Asian American identity are fraught with caveats. We share immigration and war stories but we are not a monolith. We have cavernous class disparities inside our massive racial group. We demand to be seen as the disparate ethnic groups we are, and cling to the political identity formed in the glory days of the Third World Liberation Front. Even in recounting this beautiful night watching Thao perform, I feel like I need to deprecate myself for seeing her first as someone like me.
The neverending insecurity of wondering, “What actually belongs to me?” seems to afflict children of the diaspora acutely. This was different for the Vietnamese who picked up rock music through U.S. soldiers and military officials. Jason Gibbs, an American musicologist, wrote that rock music in Viet Nam was originally performed by Filipinos to entertain Americans and other foreigners. They taught the first wave of Vietnamese rockers, who over the years began to make it their own.
Rock music was banned or censored at points by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and then later used by government-backed “youth assault groups” to encourage citizens to assist with its rural development strategy, according to Gibbs. Musicians developed uniquely Vietnamese rock songs, like “Đám cưới chuột,” based on a folk tale about a mouse wedding. The band Gạt tàn đầy literally has a song called “Phở.” Rock was and is an avenue for the youth to sing about maturing into an uncertain society, to rebel, to lament and to critique – just as it is in America.
I love a good karaoke session where I can belt out Paramore, even if it feels like I’m shimmying into an ill-fitting cosplay. But Thao, Mitski, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, the wonderfully young and unapologetic Linda Lindas, give me what Hayley Williams can’t; they show me Asian American women and girls can rock. They bestow upon me the authenticity I and many others in the Asian diaspora seem to be clamoring for everywhere – in movies, in clothing, and yes, of course, in food.
However, as Cat Zhang writes, proclaiming that music makes us “feel seen” is not enough. We must investigate what it gives us and tells us about ourselves. Like a curse, perhaps I’ll never stop looking for my fire exits. Maybe I’ll always be standing in a room afraid to touch anything for fear of claiming it. With the controversy around Jay Caspian Kang’s book, it feels like there’s too many differing opinions on Asian American identity and also not enough. Thao closed the night with the song Marrow, in which she asks her now-wife: “I've got grief in my marrow / Will you marry me still?” This question resonates with me, as I plead with my community to find me imperfect and still worthy.
For now, maybe it’s enough to just “be together,” to bang our heads until we’re dizzy and let the world spin around us. There’s more than enough room for all of our stories, our laments, our rebellion and our joy. I hope for an abundance of music like Thao’s, in which we do not simply see ourselves, but can imagine a future as bright and outrageous as we want to be.
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