Contemporary Aesthetics in Internet Music: Transnationality and “Techno-Orientalist” Images

In 2014, an Internet collective of electronic music artists, under the name “PC Music”, reached viral fame on the music sharing platform Soundcloud, amassing 100,000 listens within its first year. Since then, they have continued to release songs and videos exclusively online. Their sound is distinctive, known for its glossy, hyper-produced quality and extreme warping and pitching of feminine vocals. Lead producer A.G. Cook has cited aesthetic inspiration from gyaru fashion magazines such as Koakuma Ageha, synthetic and digital futurisms, and feminine “valley girl” vernacular to create what has been called a “post-ironic” representation of consumerism and gender. Through textual analysis of two PC Music-affiliated videos – “Hey QT” by QT, and “When I Rule the World” by LIZ – the construction of the Asian female body as both hyperfeminine and hyperdigitized are interrogated to underscore the hegemonic ideas that undergird non-mainstream forms of art.

“Hey QT”, produced by Cook and SOPHIE (another PC Music-affiliated artist), sparked significant interest in electronic music circuits on the Internet, with the video garnering over a million views. The concept centers on a fictional soda brand DrinkQT, marketed in the video by the tall, lanky figure of Hayden Dunham. Dunham, portraying a fictional pop star named QT (shortened from Quinn Thomas), is a performance artist for the PC Music-produced project. She sports a sleek, all-white outfit in a high-tech minimalist setting decorated with glowy neon lights and shiny computer projections. As the faster beat kicks in, the video switches to quick takes of Dunham dancing with accentuated feminine wrist and hand poses in exaggerated cheerleader-esque dances, and crosscutting with highly saturated computerized visuals of the soda, emphasizing the pseudo-commercial premise of the video. Her synthetic cheeriness, coupled with the over-the-top branding, disturbs any pretense of sincerity – the cutesy girlishness of the sweetly simple lyrics and high-pitched distorted vocals are deployed sardonically, highlighting the frivolity and superficiality of the contemporary consumerism (typified in the video by the spectacle of soda advertising).

Several music reviewers have critiqued the highly gendered nature of PC Music’s style of parody, with Fader calling it “feminine appropriation”, using the female body to act out traditionally hyperfeminine stereotypes under the creative direction of male producers. However, I would like to take up the question of Dunham’s performance of K-pop femininities in conversation with this critique. Watching the video, it is impossible not to draw the connection with styles of now-internationally recognizable Korean pop girl groups like Girls Generation and 2NE1, which incorporate electronic beats with a similarly distinctive style of dance and elaborately computerized production. Dunham’s makeup and costuming further make clear the cultural source material. Her face is highly contoured and airbrushed to emphasize sharp facial features; her hair is styled to be shiny and stick straight; her eye makeup thins her eyes to the point of almost erasing her eyelids – a look that closely replicates the monolid naturally common among East Asian women.

left: Dunham in the “Hey QT” video; right: Dunham in real life

The object of the parody, ostensibly consumerism and (perhaps unintentionally) hyperfemininity, thus becomes synonymous with an approximation of the Asian female body; something Sharon Heijin Lee dubs the “technoorientalist imaginings” of East Asian countries as fervent consumers and producers of excess in the form of technology (Lee 11). As Lee argues, Korea’s increasingly visible cultural production becomes a convenient symbol of Korea, and East Asia more generally, and its “excess” in comparison to the assumed norm of Western culture. QT’s hyperbolic appropriation and distortion of K-pop’s distinctive visual and auditory language further constructs the young Asian woman as a model of digitized and synthetic excess. The appearance of Asianness is rendered superhuman (that is, distinct from human normalcy), a surrogate for rapid consumption of technology, diverting scrutiny of the United States’ own pioneering capitalist culture which could be seen as equally “excessive” as that of East Asian countries (Lee 11).

PC Music’s use of racialized representations of femininity is part of a larger anti-mainstream or alternative aesthetic in the United States which constructs Asian symbols and bodies as inherently foreign, and Asian femininity as inherently juvenile or “kawaii” (defined by Oxford Dictionary as “cute (in the context of Japanese popular culture)”). This appropriation of kawaii is seen through “When I Rule the World”, another PC Music-produced track. The vocals are performed by LIZ, an American female pop star who has described her music as “Sailor Moon R&B” (in reference to the global franchise that originated from a Japanese shōjo manga series in the early 1990s), highlighting the U.S.-centric entitlement to Asian aesthetics that a globalized online culture has made possible.

As evident from the title, the theme of the song is one of a post-feminist Girl Power ideal, achieved by a women’s agency via conquest of the world:

When I rule the world, then you’re the little girl

You should do as I say, cause things are gonna be my way

When I rule the world so get down on your knees

Better do as I please, until I tell you to stop

“Post-feminist masquerade” – defined by Angela McRobbie as the exclusion of non-white femininities from neoliberal ideas of female choice – is made apparent in its visual deployment of K-pop styles in the music video (Lieu 49). As in “Hey QT”, the song makes copious use of the glittery synthesizer sound and a bouncy rapid techno beat to achieve a digitized “futuristic” sound similar to K-pop girl groups like Red Velvet. The video reflects this vision, with sped up clips of LIZ batting her eyelashes and sporting glossy, youthful makeup mixed with colorful cutesy graphics. She is dressed in a variety of different stereotypical Hallyu tropes – a pastel-wearing “cute girl”, a hip-hop dancer, a sporty chick – all which draw parallels to internationally popular K-pop music videos.

“When I Rule the World” styling vs. K-pop video styling

Her performance of these “girly” representations is meant to contrast the aggressive lyrics, which proclaim extravagant agency and power. Through both auditory and visual cues, LIZ and PC Music-affiliated producer SOPHIE (the song’s main composer) use K-pop’s familiar images as shorthand for the antiquated ideas of submission and femininity that LIZ seeks to reclaim for white women.

In both of these videos, white women perform pseudo-Yellowface to articulate what is not literally represented – the “saying” and the “said” which Celine Parreñas Shimizu emphasizes as dually constitutive of visual representations (Shimizu 129-130). In these cases, the “saying” – for QT: a critique of consumerism; for LIZ: a reclamation of (white) femininity – depends on the “said” – for one, a marked absence of Asian women; but more critically, the assumed self-absorbed nature of the (adolescent) girl, the false equivalency of “Asian” and “young” and “feminine”, and the allegedly perverse materialism of the East. By using these markers of infantilized Asian femininity in the absence of Asian bodies, the alternative artists at PC Music wield Asian women as a totalized aesthetic device, their bodies the epitome of femininity and capitalist consumption.

More broadly, PC Music represents a type of 21st century Internet art that has become simultaneously critical of and representative of a chaotic, uncertain, technologically-advanced future. Through the transnationally networked nature of the Internet, symbolic markers of culture become available to global audiences but lose nuance in translations of larger ideas of race and gender; in this case, a synecdoche for Asianness that renders female Asian bodies totalized objects to a gaze that is still undeniably white. As homogenized Asian images become more and more familiar to non-Asian consumers, their commodification at the hands of alternative music producers, intending to satirize mainstream culture, inevitably reinforce mainstream ideas of Asians as inassimilably foreign. To embrace anti-mainstream artistic expression without critically engaging with the cultural material that inspired it runs the risk of reinscribing totalities, rather than opening representations to infinities.

Works Cited:

Lee, Sharon Heijin. “Beauty Between Empires: Global Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 37.1 (2016): 1–31. Print.

Lieu, Nhi T. “Beauty Queens Behaving Badly: Gender, Global Competition, and the Making of Post-Refugee Neoliberal Vietnamese Subjects.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 34.1 (2013): 25–57. Print.

Shimizu, Celine. Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies. Stanford University Press, 2012. Google Scholar. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

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