In the aftermath of a particularly grueling year, music’s potential as a vehicle for empathy seems more vital than ever. Yet in addition to solace, contemporary music is also providing a furnace for rebellion—especially to the nation’s alternative and indie rock scenes, which have lately been returning to a more lo-fi, consciously DIY sound. It seems fitting, then, that some of today’s most brilliant artists in the genre are Asian-American women, figures long relegated to the fringes of creative culture—namely Mitski, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, and Japanese Breakfast.
While seldom explicitly political, these artists’ 2016 releases are revolutionary in the way they lay bare the latent anxieties of the Asian-American experience—alienation, loneliness, a constant wrestling with identity. Despite stylistic differences, their lyricism is characterized by a shared willingness to make vulnerability visible to an audience that so often feels the pressure to pretend everything is okay, that kind of emotional honesty feels radical.
For instance, Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl,” the wrenching pinnacle of her 2016 album Puberty 2, is a song that’s haunted me since my first listen. From just her initial murmurs of “You’re the sun, you’ve never seen the night...well, I’m not the Moon/I’m not even a star,” we see the distance between herself and a lover, an “all-American boy,” in cosmic terms. While dissecting the song on Song Exploder, Mitski explained, “You always want what you can’t have, and that all-American thing, from the day I was born, I could never enter that dream. That all-American white culture is something that is inherited instead of attained.” As an Asian-American girl admittedly still coming of age and stumbling through romance in pursuit of validation from said culture, I know that feeling acutely—it’s a search for belonging that always seems just out of reach. It’s the overwhelming fear that you’ll never be enough.
What makes “American” such a gut-punch revelation to me is the fact that it was meant to be a love song, a confession to being wholly infatuated with someone while knowing they can never truly be yours, rather than any conscious attempt to “stick it to the ‘the white boy indie rock world.’” That raw-edged earnestness makes the song resonate even more strongly. And yet it deftly employs the sonic language of that aforementioned world to great effect—the tune is driven by power chords, and a layer of heavy distortion kicks in alongside the wall of guitars bringing in that stunningly cathartic chorus: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/but I do, I think I do.”
Similarly, on her most recent album, A Man Alive, Thao Nguyen ingeniously invokes some of the nervous, frenetic discordance and electronic snarls that characterized the late-90s’ best and most restless rock, in the same vein of Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency and I. But where those albums addressed a more generalized dread at the onset of the information age, Nguyen foregoes their theatrical riffs to create a more intimate and controlled chaos—much of the album is an apostrophe to her absent, estranged father. We meet him in opener “Astonished Man,” a track punctuated by jumpy synths and chopped vocals whose chorus admits, “You don't look for me/but I will look for you/ without a wish to see/anybody new.” Languid throwback “Guts,” a slow number halfway through the album, plaintively repeats, “You know I'm so easy to find/you won't come get your girl,” but it’s a somewhat unorthodox ballad—it ends on Nguyen holding a high E that, after twenty seconds, transforms into a strain of pedal-heavy slide guitar.
The clever, rapid-fire wordplay of Nguyen’s lyrics makes the album feel as energetic as it is sensitive. No song demonstrates this better than the frenzied “Meticulous Bird”—Nguyen, on the warpath as she details an abusive relationship, sharply spits lines like, “I know the science of the fiction/of conviction of the henchmen” and “You had a dalliance with valiance/a violence to vow against” over a jagged, metallic beat. When she sings, “I find the scene of the crime/I take my body back,” it’s a triumphant assertion of personhood—one lent new dimension by our living in a culture where women’s bodies are constantly denied autonomy, both on the individual and national level, and the expectation of Asian women in particular to be submissive and docile.
The riveting pop of Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp is similarly tinged by its shameless explorations of both despair and desire. Many of Michelle Zauner’s confessional lyrics, like Nguyen’s, are driven by a lost parent—in this case, Zauner’s mother, who died of cancer. On the soaring, shoegazey “In Heaven,” she describes how the most mundane parts of loss can be the most devastating—in the opening lines, she croons, “The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day/She’s sniffing at your empty room.” Zauner goes on to characterize herself as “an empty fucking hole” with a sweetness that seems incongruous with the song’s somber questioning of faith. When she glides into the chorus’s repeated plea of “How do you believe in heaven?/like you believe in me?,” it’s both heartbreaking and rapturous—there’s a sense of release in Zauner’s voice asking the question, despite the fact that we never get the answer.
Much like Puberty 2 and A Man Alive, Psychopomp captures both the desolate lows and manic highs of feeling adrift in youth. One of these highs, the effervescent “Everybody Wants to Love You,” is a giddy earworm that leaps from a one-night stand to domesticity without hesitation. An enamored and unabashedly direct Zauner asks her partner questions like, “Can I get your number?/Can I get you into bed?/When we wake up in the morning/Will you give me lots of head?” Her joy renders even the most routine mechanisms of romance enchanting, as she continues to wonder, “Will you lend me your toothbrush?/Will you make me breakfast in bed?/Ask me to get married/and then make me breakfast again.” When the song explodes into its airy, shimmering chorus, which features backing vocals from Sam Cook-Parrott (of Radiator Hospital), it feels like the best kind of dream.
Despite their disparate sounds and subject matter, all three women have produced work that’s broadened the emotional spectrum of alternative rock and pop—and while that might not matter to some, the representation their music provides feels vastly consequential to me. In their unapologetic confrontation of depression, trauma, and sexuality—topics that are an indisputable reality of Asian-American girlhood, yet still often remain taboo to discuss—Puberty 2, A Man Alive, and Psychopomp have been formative records during the past year of my life. They’re dismantling the unquestioned convention that “authentic” indie music is the sole province of white, male suburban melancholy. It’s about time the rest of the world started to realize that too.
Aline Dolinh is a writer from the D.C. suburbs with an earnest passion for 80s synthpop and horror movie soundtracks. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia and tweets @alinedolinh.