What is American Music?

Guest Post by Andrew Choi

A number of years ago I had a friend inform me that Asian people had no musical history in America, and as such there was nothing particularly Asian about American music culture. This was stated rather matter-of-factly to me, and actually, the sentiment is not uncommon. It gets bandied about in one form or another, either explicitly or by inference, when people talk about American music. American music genres are predominantly characterized by way of musical history, and that musical history is characterized by way of musical icons. Those American musical icons are then neatly segregated by race. Asians are not represented in American musical history by musical icons, ergo, Asians are not a part of distinctively American music culture. Of course, Asian people are welcome to make music in America, but it's not the same thing as being able to "authentically" draw on American historical cultural heritage in the way that others can (or so I am often told). And some version of this story is repeated in casual conversation, by both cultural conservatives and cultural progressives alike.

Of course this makes you wonder. In a society where even cultural progressives are willing to racially segregate musical culture and genres so readily, and where American music is casually defined by way of American history, what room could there be to write authentic American music as an Asian-American, or for that matter as any kind of person who has not yet "earned" their history in America?

One response to this question involves pointing out that there's a faulty premise employed in the conception of American music -- namely it treats musical genres as a form of racial property where ownership is passed down by a kind of genetic inheritance. This, I believe, is a sort of awkward development of a legitimate concept, the concept of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is itself, of course, a concept which can be developed in legitimate ways. None of those ways involves concepts like racial litmus tests or genetic ownership. So for instance, cultural appropriation is a legitimate concept when construed as a kind of unfairly profiting off of the ideas of a person of another race, where the unfairness stems from one's taking advantage of societal structural privilege that discriminates based on race. Alternatively, cultural appropriation is a legitimate concept when construed of as a harm to a culture's artistic heritage, where the harm is inflicted when watered-down versions of that heritage are passed off as the original by people outside of that culture -- say because the person offering the watered down version is in a superior marketing position. None of this involves concepts like genetic litmus-tests, racial property, or the like.

To illustrate, we might take the recent example of Tyler Akin. Akin isn’t bad because he’s committed the sin of "being a white man who has sold Asian food." Rather, what’s wrong is two-fold. Akin is profiting off the cultural heritage of a group of people, where members of that group who are equally as talented, are not able to similarly profit -- because Akin enjoys a ridiculous amount of structural racial privilege over them. Alternatively (or additionally), Akin serves up a watered down version of another culture’s culinary heritage, one that does harm to it -- to its detriment and his profit -- because of his superior marketing position.

Keeping this set of observations in mind, we get all sorts of wonderful results. It turns out African-American and Latin-American people can be excellent and authentic classical musicians. (It's the reason why things like the Sphinx Competition exists). And Asian-Americans can do any kind of music that they want to and be great at it -- including making "authentic" American music, even if that music is historically associated with another racial group. None of these examples involve objectionable cultural appropriation, because racial minorities generally don’t benefit from racial structural privilege. (Hence they can’t objectionably culturally appropriate in the first sense -- at least not very easily). And as long as they don’t "water down" the cultural heritage of another, they will not be guilty in the second sense either. That said, Tyler Akin is still a d-bag on this account, because he definitely does profit off of structural racial privilege, and he serves watered down food -- or so I have been told. He culturally appropriates on both accounts.

Problem solved. But wait, not so fast.

I think that the above narrative is flawed in another respect. It makes the mistake of grounding the concept of American music in the history of American music culture, by defining American music as a genre of music, namely the genre or genres of music that developed in American history. (In fact, that's effectively how the nouveau genre, Americana, defines itself). And while that might seem like a good place to start, one might wonder why this is a good way to characterize the term "American music" as opposed to "American historical music" or "modernized American historical recreation music."

I think the idea is that the concept of "American music" must mean something like "expresses America," and the idea is that if a genre developed in a country, then that genre somehow expresses something about that country. Hence, if folk, blues, jazz and rock were developed in America, then those genres of music express something that is distinctively American, and so those genres can plausibly be called "American." Of course, forget that blues, folk, jazz and rock are not distinctively American, at least not anymore, as those genres have existed and developed in other countries too, at this point for well over half a century. So then, we'd have to say that specifically "American blues" and "American folk" developed in America, and that's what makes them distinctively American. But at some point, this stops being really a discussion of genre (at least construed of as a style of music) and becomes more just a geographical origins study. As soon as you have to say "American rock" the term "rock" stops meaning something distinctively American -- what's doing the work is that you said "American." The attempt to align genre with historical origin falls apart upon only moderate scrutiny. "Rock" as a genre isn't distinctively American or expressive of Americanism per se -- it just has some historical origins.

In any case, supposing that historically American rock was somehow musically distinctive, as separate from rock as done in any other country, it's not clear how that distinctiveness as a musical genre expresses something distinctively American. If American pop starts favoring electronica elements, does that mean that electronica-ism expresses America in some meaningful sense? I wouldn’t think so. After all, some other country could also decide, independently, that it favored electronica elements in its pop as well. The historical view doesn’t make sense on multiple levels.

For an alternative angle, consider American Impressionism. Impressionism as a painting style, did not begin in America, but was nevertheless taken up as a mode of expression by some American painters, resulting in American Impressionism. But when one considers what makes American Impressionism "expressive of America," one doesn't point to the particularly "American" way in which the artists painted light or shape or figure. What makes American Impressionism specifically American is the fact that the paintings are painted by Americans expressing specifically American subject matter (in this case, American people and American landscapes). What I'd like to suggest is that American music should be construed of much like I'm construing American Impressionism. American music is music made by Americans expressing specifically American subject matter. American music, construed as such, is both distinctively American and also expressive of America in an obvious way - having American subject matter, it is "about" America -- which makes it both distinctively American and expressive of Americanism.

In some sense that makes the bar to creating American music much lower, in that one does not need to engage in any of the music genres traditionally classified as "American" in order to make American music. This is probably a good thing. The historical view, outlined earlier, would seem to prevent music made by American immigrants, derived from their country of origin, from being called "American music". Even if the music that they made in America was about their love of America. (At least not until they had "earned" their place in America). This, I submit, is a patently ridiculous conclusion. The new view would seem to get it right. These people are making authentic American music, even if they aren’t drawing on a genre that is historically American, because they are Americans expressing American subject matter.

In another sense, though, that makes the bar to creating American music higher, in that one needs to actually satisfy the standard of expressing American subject matter. Maybe in some vapid sense, all music created in America expresses American subject matter. But some of it expresses American subject matter much less than others. A generic love song about heartache probably expresses it very little in comparison to a song that comments in great detail on specifically New York life -- even if the singer of the generic love song wears an early-Americana getup when he sings it. Much music that draws on American historical music genres is not particularly American, because it doesn't have particularly American subject matter. (See, e.g., the Lumineers song "Hey Ho," a relatively generic love song whose first mention of an American specific, over half-way through the song is, ironically, Chinatown. Strangely, the song is considered "Americana"). Much music that doesn't draw on American historical music genres is made by Americans concerning directly American subject matter, and is thus solidly American music. (See e.g., Billy Joel's "Allentown," a straightforward pop song which directly draws very little on historical American music genres, but which comments very specifically on American history in terms of its subject matter).

So, as it turns out, Asian-Americans can make authentic, bona fide, American music -- on par with any white Brooklynite with a Masters in Music History and suffering casual banjo obsession. Asian-Americans are probably not well-represented in American musical history by a particular genre, but that is pretty much neither here nor there when it comes to qualifications for making authentic American music or being a part of American music culture. Asian-Americans have been and will continue to be a part of American music culture whenever they make music that expresses American subject matter -- and that is the only requirement for being authentic American music.

With that in mind, I present to you Ten Hymns From My American Gothic. It is music by an Asian-American, expressing American subject matter, in the tradition of a modern American social realism. I hope you enjoy it.

Because my manager would kill me otherwise, the album can be pre-ordered here.

Andrew Choi is the creative force behind St. Lenox. His forthcoming album Ten Hymns From My American Gothic (due on Oct. 21, 2016) has received early praise, with Stereogum calling Choi's voice "one of the most striking instruments in music today" and Consequence of Sound and Vulture giving Best New Song nods to lead single "Thurgood Marshall." You can follow St. Lenox at www.stlenox.com, and @stlenox on social media.

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