Music in a Techno-Orientalist Age
How Lexie Liu, Jasmine Sokko, and Bibi Zhou Remaster Narratives of Being Women Amidst Fear of Asia Rising
Author: Diane Huang
During the last few months of my first year at university, I found myself listening to music by East Asian (in Asia) and East Asian diaspora artists. I was stuck inside my dank reeking room constantly reading about anti-Asian sentiment spurred by American Sinophobia and constructions of a cruel inhuman dystopic China which led to a reemergence of my Chinese identity.
After listening through 88rising, an Asian music collective based in America, I noticed a few themes. Many music videos employed themes of science fiction and dystopia. Some K-pop groups are based around futuristic themes and technology. NCT 127, whose name stands for ‘Neo Culture Technology,’ and Aespa, which is a combination of ‘Avatar X Experience,’ come to mind as groups that have adopted science fiction as concepts. While Taylor Swift retreated back to simpler times with Folklore and Billie Eillish’s new Vogue cover evoking old Hollywood, it was fascinating to see East Asian women artists embrace what once drove fear into Americans’ minds: Asian technological futures not reliant on American economies.
Techno-orientalism is one such phrase in academia that describes the racist, xenophobic and fearful ways Western artists, particularly in science fiction literature and film, have approached the rising of the East, or what was once known as the Orient. I can’t fully explain this concept — since it would take a whole essay — but the gist is that the switch from producer of American consumer goods to consumer, among many other things, threatens the hegemony that the United States holds over the world. Since Asia’s determined rise is a threat, it creates fear in the American consciousness. To fight Asia, narratives that are techno-orientalist are spread to the average citizen in the hopes that they will never side with Asia.
Rather than running away from the neon lights of futuristic cities and themes, the artists I found run towards them while challenging orientalist ideas of the subservient Asian woman.
The centering of narratives on women has also provided insight into the ways cyberpunk fiction asserts national identity in examples like Ghost in the Shell, where the merging of human flesh and technology on a woman symbolizes Japan’s futuristic desires. The lead eventually breaks free of her creators, in the live-action film, perhaps conveying an overthrow of colonial masters. To contrast, the character of Mantis, played by an Asian-American actress, in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is groomed to be a telepathic mood controller of a supreme alien named Ego.
Women are the focus of my music review because their music symbolizes an intervention into orientalist discourse both on the supposed intense patriarchal structures and technology laden futures of a rising Asia.
Chinese singer Lexie Liu’s 2019 EP 2030 shapeshifts between fluid Mandarin and English lyrics amidst backdrops of shifting cities, sand and neon lights. Songs like “Nada,” “Like a Mercedes,” and “Hat Trick” have dystopian themes while “Mulan” and “Love and Run” do not. An interesting track is “Bygone,” a song detailing Liu’s experience caught between her dreams and reality. In the beginning of the song, she adamantly rejects reality, filling the gaps with her work ethic and dreams of spaceships and light beams. Eventually, she switches to detailing the reality of her situation with lines like “stepping in the house shouting mama I’m home / but she moved out from the master bedroom.” Earlier lyrics like “long nights 16 hours flight across the time zones / things changed when I ain’t here” then refer to Liu’s journey back to China to realize her parents have divorced. “Bygone” includes a narrative of international students, particularly ones from Asian, that is forgotten but of increasing importance considering rising xenophobia and racism toward them due to supposed security risks.
A more recent EP is MADE IN FUTURE by Singaporean singer Jasmine Sokko, who hides her face with either a mirrored black visor or a black face mask. Released in the late months of 2020, MADE IN FUTURE brings a hit of girl power through the explicit centering of Sokko’s self. Tracks like “SHH,” a play on the action of shushing and the word shit, Sokko sings “I don’t owe you SHH” in grisly ruins with a black cat that is her animal form. Among the footage of Sokko climbing stairs, coupled with the cat and the lyrics in the music video, a tentative statement on the Internet’s fascination with ‘catgirls’ and the surveillance of Asian women by non-Asians and Asians is made.
The Chinese name of Bibi Zhou’s song “Lunar” is a reference to menstruation with the direct translation meaning “female flow.” While not futuristic nor technological, Zhou delivers a groundbreaking song on menstrual stigma that can be considered futuristic in the fact that many modern feminists think Asia to be both backwards and extremely patriarchal, remnants of colonial and orientalist imaginings. Lying in opposition to previously discussed techno-orientalist tropes, “Lunar” can be considered a reimagining of the failed utopias of techno-orientalism. In an ethereal realm, she wears a heavy pearl laden face cage and a white dress while straining at the ropes singing “if they were red tears / shed for whose sins?” The song takes stereotypes of PMS and menstruation affecting moods and making menstruators less rational and transforms them into a literal trap that Zhou is stuck in. She breaks free eventually by accepting the beauty of the lunar flow and her own strength.
The West’s obsession with nostalgia, exemplified by 90s clothing booms and a plethora of collectible items, display a comfortableness in stability and an unwillingness to change. Asia, and East Asia particularly, veer towards technologically efficient futures due to the need to change and adapt. What Liu, Sokko, and Zhou do is center their narratives of being women first in what the West explicitly fears. Thus, they reclaim their nations’ prowess amidst an abundance of manufactured techno-orientalism.