The Soft Sounds I Need to Hear: Listening to the Music of Japanese Breakfast
January 11, 2019
By Yaoyao Liu
Even though I had listened to and enjoyed both Japanese Breakfast albums before reading Michelle Zauner’s 2018 New Yorker article “Crying in H Mart,” learning about her relationship with her mother and Korean ancestry allowed me to appreciate her music more deeply. At 29, she comes across as a present-day Renaissance person with talents in playing music, writing, directing, and scoring. The songs that she’s put out as Japanese Breakfast are both contemplative and danceable, often at the same time. But her music, especially the album Psychopomp that was released shortly after her mother passed away from cancer, started to take on different meanings for me after reading her essay and, subsequently, a few of her interviews. Wistful songs about distance felt farther. The energy of more uptempo tracks felt like a deserved release. And subsequent listens to “The Woman That Loves You” started making me teary. Even though her songwriting doesn’t address Asian American identity directly, so many of the themes in her music resonated with me more powerfully after reading about her efforts to come to terms with lineage and loss, which she discusses in the essay.
When speaking about her upbringing, she talks about being made to take piano lessons “like most Asian kids do” and how those eventually turned into playing the guitar and performing at shows. She also discusses growing up on the mostly-white city of Eugene, Oregon and feeling like being half-Korean made her stand out in ways beyond her control. When I listen to the song “Everybody Wants to Love You,” I think specifically about how sharp the turn was from being a strange alien child growing up in the Midwest to an ogled Asian woman and how weird I feel about it all. And how it doesn’t even matter how I feel about it, because my appearance will elicit the reactions that it does whether I want it to or not. The song also makes me think about many elements of both love and nationality involve performing, a realization that contains both disappointment and potential. Making “breakfast in bed” comes up a couple of times in the song, which is a way of demonstrating one’s love for someone that was introduced to me through American films and TV. Sometimes, I hear the song as a list of things that I had to learn to do in order to perform and receive love in a way that was legible.
For Asian American women, it’s rare to find an artist who you know has experienced the feelings that you have surrounding dislocation, family, and ideas of belonging. I reflect on my teenage years of staring through the windows of my school bus in Michigan, listening to bands like Wilco and the Smith Westerns. I felt connected to the ideas articulated in their lyrics but, as I think about it now, not fully seen or heard in their art, which comprised not only of music, but also of music videos, performances, interviews, etc. And I don’t fault those artists I listened to a lot at that age – their music still holds a lot of sentimental value for me. But it’s true that I listened to a lot of music created by mostly white and mostly male artists because that’s what was most available to me as a 16-year-old with Limewire eating away at her parents’ hard drive in the late 2000s. And those artists, simply by way of their identity, can’t know what it’s like to be between cultures in the way that Chinese American teenagers are every day. Watching Japanese Breakfast emerge as such a force alongside other Asian American rockers like Mitski and Jay Som gives me such a sense of joy for the Asian American youth, especially girls and femme-identifying people, who are building their tastes in music in this moment.
The song “Boyish” off of Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet strikes that culturally specific chord with me without being explicitly about Asian American femininity in its lyrics or other sonic choices. But listening to the track as an Asian American woman, I can’t help but make associations with how my understanding of gender presentation is bound up in ethnic identity. When I listen to the song, I reflect upon how much my upbringing as a person of Chinese descent influenced my understanding of femininity, particularly coming out of a brief period in Chinese history when women were not expected to look or behave much differently from men, which has never really existed in the United States. For me, the song “Boyish” isn’t really about being a tomboy and not feeling an affinity toward traditionally feminine objects or practices, but rather it gets at the sense of alienation that comes from an inherently racialized and gendered nonconformity in Asian American life. Zauner draws out the last word in the third verse: “If you don’t like how I look then leave.” It’s as if to emphasize a certain immutability about the speaker’s perceived appearance and an insistence on the viewer to accommodate, for once.
Even though I’ve taken several paragraphs to lay out my feelings towards the music of Japanese Breakfast, it’s by no means a limit to how her music can be interpreted or enjoyed. It’s been written about as “experimental pop,” “ambient electronic,” and “atmospheric” to name a few descriptors. Listeners don’t have to be Asian American women like me to love her music by any means, but it certainly means something special to those who are. I’m really excited for Japanese Breakfast to headline the Seattle Asian American Film Festival’s Opening Night, where she’ll be performing with rapper Ruby Ibarra and Jyun Jyun, a musician and visual artist from the Bay Area. It will be held at Washington Hall in the Central District. Buy tickets here and join me in living out all of our Asian American music dreams!
Read more about Japanese Breakfast here: