Growing Up with Asian Pop

Music is essential to the Asian experience. How else can you explain the popularity of piano lessons and karaoke? While Mississauga kids grew up with BET, Richmond Hill Asians tapped into the cultural bank already at their disposal. Discerning Asians tuned into J-pop (Japanese pop), K-pop (Korean pop) or C-pop (Cantonese/Chinese pop), genres just as varied as the natural world.

Thus, like organisms in the natural world, Asians were classified by the food they consumed. These included the type of music they listened to. Teenagers in the early to mid 2000s rocked out to the likes of Edison Chen, S.H.E, and Utada Hikaru, before Korean boybands claimed world domination—and, depending on the idol they worshipped, occupied certain social roles.

Moreover, because music is universal, it was possible to jam out to songs from a different language altogether or in the original tongue one had failed to learn. This allowed Asians to learn more about other Pan-Asian cultures without adopting their expletives, sexual innuendos, and inappropriate content as well. If you were a Cantonese speaker jamming out to a Korean song, your lack of Korean knowledge potentially sheltered you against any dark, subliminal messages. You could share in the pathos of your brethen without getting into trouble.

Everyone knew Gackt and either crushed on him (girls) or envied his clear skin (guys). That’s him in the header image.


Girls who understood Cantonese liked (the?) Twins, a singing duo, until it became fashionable to poke fun at them as well.

Girls with swagger liked BoA.

Utada Hikaru filled our souls with whispery vocals and spoke to the emo in all of us.

This list is obviously skewed towards J-pop and feminine vocals/lyrics. But I can’t leave without citing the kind of J-rock (Japanese rock) that spoke to the artsy, deviant, and gender-bending Asians that inhabited the Art wing—in other words, me. As an receptive teen, I loved the lavish costumes, orchestral textures, and glam guitar riffs that made up bands like L’arc-en-Ciel, X Japan, and Dir en grey.

Their brash makeup and gloomy sounds—often dealing with themes like death, desire, and revenge—captured the very angst I could not express. To this day, X Japan’s “Endless Rain” still makes me cry because its feelings transcend language.

It didn’t matter if our mp3 players lacked the proper unicode to read Asian characters…. we filled all 256 MB of our devices with the music of our roots.

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