Popular culture moves from east to west
By Jenny Uechi, September 1, 2011
It isn’t mainstream yet, but East Asia seems to be slowly nipping at the heels of the U.S. as the world’s cultural epicentre. Signs of change are subtle, but everywhere: giant Korean Hangul letters in “Check It Out”, a Nicki Minaj music video (the rapper also occasionally calls herself “Harajuku Barbie” in reference to a Tokyo fashion district); Taiwanese singer Jay Chou starring opposite Seth Rogan in The Green Hornet; and Japanese pop star Gackt teaming up with Josh Hartnett in the Hollywood action movie Bunraku, which will be released in Canadian theatres in September. A generation ago, East Asian consumers were looking to the U.S. and Europe for the latest trends in music and fashion; these days, the situation appears to be reversed. What changed?
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, a book that examines the impact of Japanese pop culture on the U.S., has noticed that many Americans—especially youths—are increasingly influenced by trends across the Pacific.
“There was a time when Americans looked outwards, it was toward Europe…the British, the French,” he said over Skype. “But Asia has become a lot more attractive—there’s a 21st-century feel to it. It’s now producing high-quality cultural products; some of these are making it overseas.”
Kelts, who travels widely in the U.S. and Asia to lecture about cultural trends, said there may be several reasons behind this shift. In addition to the rise of East Asia as an economic power and a weakening of the U.S. brand, he said, some people are starting to feel a sense of “fatigue” with western-centric entertainment.
“The boomers may have loved British rock, and try to drag their kids to a Rolling Stones concert, but for many youth, it’s like, ‘No way, man, give me Hatsune Miku,’ a Japanese computer-generated singer, any day—something that’s cool, that’s ‘right now’.”
Even though Hollywood movies and American rock bands are still “extremely popular” in East Asia, Kelts said, their dominance is less obvious than in the past.
The creeping eastern influence on North American youth culture can be seen in the growing online community of artists inspired by Asian pop media. Natalie White, aka Pumashock, is an American singer based in Los Angeles best known for her R & B covers of Korean pop songs. In Mexico, Tanz-Traum Productions creates popular remakes of Japanese music videos, with burly men taking the place of female idols.
While Japan and South Korea have been successful in exporting entertainment, the region’s biggest economic powerhouse, China, has lagged behind due to the government’s ban on websites such as YouTube and Facebook. While domestic artists can’t readily market their products abroad, an increasing number of westerners in China have become ambassadors for the domestic cultural scene. A famous example is Dashan, the stage name of Mark Rowswell, a Canadian expat who is now one of the nation’s biggest celebrities for performing a traditional style of comedy. Feichang Fresh, a group of American, German, and French business students studying in Beijing, has become an online sensation for performing rap songs in Mandarin in a polished singing style remarkably similar to that of hip Chinese stars.
“I expect Asian pop culture to become part of western mainstream media in the future,” said Antoine Shapiro, a German singer-songwriter and member of Feichang Fresh. “But it still has a long way to go. Europeans especially have a hard time taking Asian media seriously because of the over-the-top cuteness and cheesy songs and movies that dominate mainstream media here.”
Such differences, according to Kelts, may start shrinking in the years to come, as globalization has made it easier for industry professionals in East Asia to produce material catered to a foreign audience.
“With the Internet and global travel, a Japanese music producer is keenly aware of what’s produced in New York or London at this moment. But it goes both ways,” he said.
For the time being, Kelts said, one thing is certain: East Asia is competing on an increasingly level field with the U.S. as a pop-culture producer, and the influence is no longer a one-way street.
“The industries are paying attention to each other now, all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot more of this back-and-forthing between Asia and the West, and it’s all happening really fast.”