This response proposes to (re-)examine the definition “retro media” and the stakes of performing with retro objects in the contemporary popular music sphere. Specifically, I consider the concept of retro media as a method to identify and examine the ways in which performing with retro objects allows the formation of a productive aesthetic and political strategy to problematize everyday erasures of Asian American diasporas in postcolonial America. What makes a retro object retro? For whom is it retro? What is the value in recognizing the retro nature of a performative object? What are the stakes of performing with retro objects? These questions are important for understanding the “Retro Media” phenomenon in our current media discourses, especially when popular cultural productions have been increasingly interested in fusing the retro and the futuristic, the alien(ated) and the mainstream, the primitive and the advanced.
The once-alien objects have now become a fad in many cultural venues. Under this backdrop, erasing or ignoring the retro nature of a performance would become a dangerous mode of silencing. I propose to look at one musical example to reflect on the abovementioned questions: Japanese Breakfast and, more specifically, their music video, “Everybody Wants to Love You” (2016). Japanese Breakfast is a musical project initiated by indie/experimental pop musician Michelle Zauner. Being half-Korean and half-American, Zauner strategically self-Orientalizes her musical project by naming it “Japanese Breakfast” while insisting on performing her Korean heritage. I identify and call attention to two retro objects in the music video: the nails and the unruly Korean woman persona. I argue that the retro objects have been operated purposefully to deconstruct many binary assumptions that retro media today has perpetuated, such as the West and the East, the normative and the atypical, the mundane and the exotic.
The music video gives multiple close shots on Zauner’s nails, such as rocking a Fender guitar with her carefully manicured fingers on a truck and operating a karaoke machine. Although the nail-salon industry has now become an international beauty industry, it is closely related to Korean immigrant women labor in the U.S. Miliann Kang (2010) argues that manicure is a form of “body labor” that involves “not simply an economic transaction” but “a symbolic exchange that involves the buying and selling of deference and attentiveness” (p. 134). Kang asks us not to overlook nail beauty as an Oriental ornament but a form of neo-colonialism carrying a diasporic history. This way, the nails are retrospective not only of a particular period of Korean American immigration history but also of an alienation history that marks the Asian and Asian American bodies as “alien, evil, and bent on invading or undermining Western civilization” (p. 203).
Throughout the music video, Zauner is dressed in a traditional Korean costume (hanbok) with seemingly exotic makeup and a traditional Korean hairdo. Sometimes drunk, sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, she navigates through what seems to be a “typical” American Friday night via multiple scenes: a public restroom cubicle, a bar, a basketball court, streets, a gas station, a convenience store, and a carnivalesque party. The unruly Korean woman Zauner performs constantly “offends” and “intrudes” on the people and the surroundings, which forces the pluralist multicultural America that refuses the alienation history of Korean (American) women to undo its “public disappearance” (Gordon, 1997) of Korean American diaspora. The “beauty” of the clothing and ornaments of Korean/Asian aesthetics, which is retrospective of many early Hollywood films that objectify and fetishize Korean/Asian women, is disrupted by Zauner’s disidentificatory performance with what a Korean (American) woman is “supposed” to look like, act like, and sound like on myriad everyday occasions.
The nails and the unruly Korean woman persona (clothing, character, behavior, etc.) are retro objects not only because they perform an aesthetic representative of a long history of Korean cultures; they also conjure up many erased or normalized episodes of the alienation of Korean and Korean American women in postcolonial America. Moreover, Zauner’s performance with retro objects calls into being a multidimensional Asian futurism, one where the historical and political baggage of Orientalism and colonialism is not erased for a utopian cause but re-appropriated for showing minority populations as agentic, multifaceted, and dynamic subjects. To sum up, I propose to examine retro media as alien media in light of their intertwined nature and trajectories. This way, retrospective artifacts would make a unique venue for reclaiming alienated Asian bodies to retrieve a long-deprived agency, which not only registers a series of stereotyping reverberating in neocolonial America but also calls for alternative Asian Americas.
Gordon, A. F. (1997). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
jbrekkieVEVO. (2016, September, 20). Japanese Breakfast - Everybody Wants To Love You (Official Video). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNT7wuqaykc
Kang, M. (2010). The managed hand: Race, gender, and the body in beauty service work. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Songm S. (2017, July 14). Japanese Breakfast Is the Korean-American Songwriter Empowering Everyone to Overcome. Teen Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/japanese-breakfast-songwriter-empowering-everyone-overcome