INSTANT YANG v.28: AIR GUITAR GURUS; KID ROCK AND ELDER ROCK; ADRIENNE LAU POPS UP; IN MEMORY OF MAKOApologies for this week's installment being late to the gate again; it's been an uncommonly hectic week, full of last-minute travel, triple-stacked deadlines, and general household disasters, although these days, that's pretty much par for the course. I actually did all the research for my "Asian Pop" column a week early, then ended up getting so choked that I got my column in late anyway. Schedule challenges aside, the column was a huge kick to write--especially given the, uh, colorful nature of the individuals I had the pleasure of interviewing for it:
ASIAN POP: UNSTRUNG HEROES
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Jeff Yang talks to the reigning rulers of mock-rock to find out why Asian Americans dominate the rising sport of championship air guitar
That's right, *air guitar*--a sport that joins women's golf and competitive eating as one of the few competitive physical activities in which Asians totally own--to the point where air-guitar impresario, and regular second-place finisher Dan "Bjorn Turoque" Crane has been overheard saying "*Never* go up against an Asian in an air guitar competition." We're hardcore! Or at least, we're able to present an incredible facsimile thereof! (On that note, maybe I can convince my editor that I didn't blow my deadline--I "air filed." Doon doon doon.)
The topic of Asians and rocking out--in re: whether we can, and why most people think we can't--is a controversial one, at least if you go by the reader mail I've gotten on this column so far. A number of Asians who play real guitars in actual bands emailed me to underscore the fact that our community is capable of rocking out for real; rest assured that I agree wholeheartedly with that thought, and am not suggesting that Asian American air guitar prowess constitutes the limit of our rocktitude. Far from it, in fact: I think it shows we're so rocktabulous we don't even need instruments to rock out with. And for that, C-Diddy, Sonyk-ROK, Rockness Monster--I salute you.
But there's a whole wide world of Asian American emerging rock talent out there--and though most of it remains relentlessly outside the commercial mainstream, it's only a matter of time before the stereotype of Asians as rock-deficient is beaten unconscious and shoved off a cliff. To that end, I'd like to point to two sterling examples of Asian American rocknicity.
The first is a young guitar prodigy named Kenny Luu, student of Paul Green's School of Rock (yeah, the one that "apparently" inspired the Jack Black movie). 17-year-old Luu is currently on tour with the School of Rock All-Stars (through August 13, check here for cities and dates), and he shreds with the speed and power of a John Deere harvester, wringing sounds out of his axe that cause grown men to weep, and young women to moan. The only online example of his skillz I could find was this YouTube clip, shot at the annual Zappanale Fest; he cuts a solo at about 3 minutes, 58 seconds in that showcases impressive handiwork.
I also got an email from Sheldon Wong, who's of another generation entirely; I don't want to guess his age, but he says he thinks he was something of a pioneer in the San Francisco rock jungle, back in the Sixties and early Seventies. Now relocated to Portland, OR he continues to drop the hammer as the lead guitarist and vocalist for the hard-working and justifiably acclaimed honky-tonk band Bad Motor Scooter; check out their website here.
So we have plenty of empirical evidence that Asian Americans can thrash; the other question is when we'll see a real Asian American rock or pop star. (If we haven't already: quite arguably, Norah Jones, Michelle Branch, Mike Shinoda, Kirk Hammett, Hoku Ho, Allen "Apl.de.Ap" Pineda Lindo, Inga "Foxy Brown" Marchand, Doug Robb, Debelah Morgan, Shaffer "Ne-Yo" Smith, Kelis Rogers, Sean Lennon, and, um, Eddie and Alex Van Halen all make the grade as Americans of Asian heritage, though they don't identify themselves primarily as Asian American.)
Comes now a rather nuttily worded press release touting a young woman named Adrienne Lau, who has quite shockingly scored a Top 20 tune on the Billboard singles chart with the song "Wanna Be Happy." charting at #16 is incredibly impressive, especially for a song that I must honestly admit causes fountains of blood to gush from my eardrums. The apparent engine of Hong Kong-born Lau's popularity: Over one million MySpace friends, including such notables as Yao Ming and Beyonce Knowles. (Her page also shows pictures of her hanging out with, or at least standing next to, Kanye, Nelly, John Legend, and Quentin Tarantino.)
Adrienne's first single, "Hypnotic Love," was a duet with Jin, formerly known as The Emcee, formerly known as Jin Tha MC. You know the one. The video also has Mike Tyson in it, for some inexplicable reason. I find this Asian American team-up quite fascinating, if only because I'm not sure it's happened before. Plus he gets to put the mack on her a little. It's a strange but transfixing experience to see the now-standard rap/R&B video narrative (pimp daddy + bootylicious hotness) cast out with Asian playas. And Mike Tyson.
Anyway, more power to her. It's not my style of music, but I don't hang out on MySpace either, except for journalistic purposes, particularly if my wife is reading this. One can only hope that Miss Lau's success inches the door a little further open for other Asian American musicians to follow.
And speaking of someone who was the quintessential example of someone who pushed open the door for his fellow Asian American artists, I want to belatedly memorialize the passing of one of the true greats of our community--a brilliant performer, a leader, and a role model. Mako, born Makoto Iwamatsu, died on July 21 of esophageal cancer, at the age of 72. He was the cofounder and first artistic director of East West Players, the nation's oldest professional Asian American theater company, and had a career as an actor of stage, screen, and television spanning four decades. His accolades include nominations for the Tony Awards (Pacific Overtures) and the Oscars (The Sand Pebbles); he leaves behind a wife and two daughters, as well as a legacy of pride, courage, and honor that anyone might envy. He will be missed.
Which leads me to sign off with this thought: Support Asian American arts. And Asian American artists. They're laying the foundation upon which our future generations will build their identity, their self esteem, their sense of passion and purpose. It's not just about entertainment--it's about culture, the force that makes us who we are, and what we appear to be to others. Buy a CD, see a show, subscribe to a magazine, purchase a book. Donate. Art doesn't make itself.