The world over, in every village and street corner, millions of kids want to make it big in music. Every country has its own “pop machine,” but making the ultimate name (and royalties) for yourself invariably means success in the U.S. market. A few from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Australia have crossed over, but why aren’t there more Asian stars on the U.S. charts?
They have the looks, the talent, the cutting-edge fashion and dance moves. In recent years, they’ve been coached by some of the same producers and talent-shapers behind big U.S. acts. So why are Americans not buying? People who know the music industry have a variety of theories.
A Smaller Launching Pad
With booming populations and rising affluence, Asia is a leader in world markets. You would think that American execs, hungry for sales, would go for artists already filling stadiums in their home countries. Yet despite the continent’s high population density, the Asian music market is half the size of Europe or U.S. markets. Many CDs in Asian countries—especially China— are pirated. So an Asian artist can have a huge following, with small sales. U.S. record execs are not impressed.
Buy American (Dammit!)
The U.S. used to have a vibrant record-store culture. But with the advent of MP3s and the IPod, the overall U.S. record market has suffered. Much of US record sales are in mass retailers. Ever seen a Wal-Mart or Target “exclusive” album? With the exception of Arnel Pineda, the Filipino lead singer of Journey, there are no Asian faces. The people who frequent the big-box retailers tend to prefer mainstream, American acts. Records are just another casualty of the sea change in how Americans shop. We prefer the biggest, most recognizable brands, and they’re just not Asian.
This brings me to another reason why APop stars may have trouble: the “fundamentally other” phenomenon. Many non-Asian people are so fascinated by the seeming mystery of Asian cultures that they forget the “people” in “Asian people.” I’ve written much about Asian actors struggling for non-stereotyped roles—you know, the ones that emphasize the human condition over ethnicity. Asian singers croon about love, lust, and regret, like singers everywhere. But it’s possible that American consumers just don’t feel they can relate to the emotions behind an Asian face. Or perhaps they can—and the record execs are still afraid they can’t.
Closely related to Fundamentally Other is the Token Syndrome. America likes “ethnic,” but in a group setting, there has to be just the right “blend.” And it seems there’s rarely room for more than one Asian. Last summer, Audrey Magazine reported on Melissa Reyes, the talented Filipina-American singer who competed in the reality series Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll. Throughout the competition, the show’s handlers pointed up the resemblance between Reyes and Dolls’ lead singer Nicole Scherzinger. Asia Nitollano, a mixed-race dancer with a contrasting African-American look, ended up winning.
Don’t hate me, but now I’m ready to play the other side of the race card. Real cultural barriers can get in the way of entertainment success. From blog and fansite commentary, I’ve learned that some APop stars just aren’t connecting with American consumers. English pronunciation is a big problem. I can speak on this with some authority. I majored in music in college, and know first-hand the difficulty of pronouncing the lyrics of a song in another language. Crossover stars like BoA have recorded in Asian languages other than their mother tongue before tackling English. Pop singers can’t just sing a song straight, like an opera number—they have to meld the lyrics in a street-worthy, kickin’ back style. It’s a tall order when you’re still learning English. The multi-nation marketing results in a lot of tongue-twisters, not to mention the strain of navigating different customs on tour. It’s hard to please everyone.
Musicians walk a fine line between creativity and conformity. Stick with a tested recipe, but add your own spices. But perhaps the APop stars are copying the recipe too well. Some commentators feel that with the exception of looks, there’s not much to make Asian acts different. Perhaps they’re trying so hard for that “American” sound that they miss bringing something different to the table.
There is hope out there for Asian stars. Those who create pop stars in the West are looking in the East, as Asia becomes more prominent on the world stage. But the competition is stiff. Reality shows and Internet promotion can help, as consumers vote by phone or wallet. Attitudes toward Asians are changing, and doors will continue to open. But the competition is brutal. Among APop stars, only those with the strongest will and the greatest flexibility will clear the hurdles America has set for them.