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English and identity in East Asian popular music
Phil Benson
Popular Music / Volume 32 / Special Issue 01 / January 2013, pp 23 - 33
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143012000529, Published online: 06 February 2013
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How to cite this article:
Phil Benson (2013). English and identity in East Asian popular music. Popular Music, 32, pp 23-33
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English and identity in East Asian
popular music
English Department, Hong Kong Institute of Education, 10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, New Territories, Hong Kong
Linguistic diversity poses a significant but not insuperable obstacle to transnational flows of popular
music in East Asia. This paper reviews strategies that are used to overcome language barriers,
especially the use of English by mainstream artists. Although this strategy has met with some suc-
cess, it can be problematic in that it involves the negotiation of new artist identities with audiences.
This negotiation of identities is illustrated by an analysis of YouTube comments on two English-
language music videos by established Asian-language singers – Tata Young’s ‘Sexy, Naughty,
Bitchy’ and Utada Hikaru’s ‘Easy Breezy’, which indicates that language, ethnic and gender iden-
tities are all problematised when these singers choose to sing in English.
Language in the East Asian popular music market
The recent history of East Asian popular music is marked by the rise of genres, such
as J-pop (Japan), K-pop (Korea), Cantopop (Hong Kong) and Mandapop (Taiwan),
that are largely defined by the use of Asian languages in conjunction with inter-
national pop music styles. Although Anglo-American music is also popular in the
region, there is a preference for music performed in the languages that artists and
audiences know best. At the same time, artists have often successfully crossed
language boundaries either by using a foreign language or by retaining their first
language in foreign language markets. These language crossings are evidence of
the emergence of a linguistically diverse market stretching from Japan and Korea
in the north to Indonesia in the south, and including various East Asian diasporas
around the world. To date, however, transnational flows have been uneven, multidir-
ectional and unstable, with no strong overall pattern emerging. Instead, we see var-
ious cross-border and cross-language initiatives, which are not always entirely
motivated by commercial considerations. This paper examines the role of English
in these transnational initiatives and explores its implications for the projection
and reception of artists’ identities, especially those of female singers, who have so
far been more apt to adopt English than male singers.
In the context of wider discussion of transnational flows of popular culture in
East Asia (Chua 2004), language appears to present more of a challenge to the circu-
lation of popular music than it does to the circulation of films, television dramas, ani-
mations and comics, which can be dubbed, subtitled or translated locally. Popular
music flows are linguistically mediated in four ways: (1) Japanese, Korean,
Taiwanese and Hong Kong recordings are exported in their original languages and
Popular Music (2013) Volume 32/1. © Cambridge University Press 2013, pp. 23–33
heard by overseas audiences as foreign language recordings; (2) songs from these
centres are re-recorded by local artists with lyrics in local languages; (3) artists record
in the languages of their overseas markets and in some cases relocate to them (a pro-
cess that Shin [2009], calls ‘transbordering’); (4) artists also occasionally record in
English – a strategy that has the potential to reach transnational audiences both
within and beyond East Asia.
The first and second strategies are most frequently adopted. Japanese, Korean,
Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese originals have all achieved some degree of trans-
national circulation within the region, although none of these languages has yet
dominated a foreign language market. Beyond flows in the Chinese-speaking
world (where Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese have tended to co-exist), there are
accounts of Japanese pop in Hong Kong (Ogawa 2001), Cantonese pop in Japan
(Iwabuchi 2002) and Korean pop in Thailand (Siriyuvasak and Shin 2007). More sig-
nificant penetration of foreign language markets has been achieved through
re-recording in local languages. Ogawa (2001), for example, explains how
Cantonese versions of Japanese songs came to dominate the production of
Cantopop in the 1980s, and how the popularity of these covers created a local market
for Japanese originals. The third strategy is discussed in Fung’s (2003) paper on
Cantopop singer Andy Lau’s use of Mandarin Chinese in recordings aimed at the
mainland Chinese market, while Fung and Curtin (2002) discuss an interesting
example of transbordering in the career of Faye Wong, a Mandarin Chinese speaker
from northern China, who began her career in Hong Kong as a Cantopop singer but
later reverted to Mandarin (see also Mitchell 2006; Groenewegen 2011).
Space does not allow a full discussion of all of these strategies, which have to
date only been touched upon in a literature that has largely viewed language as a
peripheral aspect of East Asian popular music. But before discussing in more detail
the use of English, which has received the least attention in academic work, it is
worth emphasising that this is only one of several strategies that collectively consti-
tute the linguistic conditions for the transnational circulation of popular music. In
effect, in order to establish a transnational presence for an artist, the artist and the
industry must tackle questions of language. The language strategies they use are
also bidirectional, involving collaboration and compromise between artists and audi-
ences. In some cases, the artist uses the language of the audience, while in others the
audience uses the language of the artist. In each case, language identities must be
negotiated between artists and audiences. English, which is widely used as a foreign
language but rarely as a first language in the region, represents a particular kind of
compromise that depends largely on audiences accepting singers’ ‘right’ to sing in
English. This paper, therefore, discusses the use of English as a transnational strategy
from the perspective of both artists and audience. It argues that this is a problematic
strategy to the extent that it involves the renegotiation of identities that artists have
already established through their Asian-language work.
Language choice and identity
Where English is a second language, its use in popular music often precedes the use
of local languages. At first, admired overseas styles are adopted wholesale, the
language of their lyrics included; later artists learn to compose and perform these
styles in their first languages (Larkey 2003; Wallach 2003). Research with
24 Phil Benson
independent musicians in Hong Kong, however, points to three relatively stable
motives for using English: (1) the difficulty of composing songs in the local language,
Cantonese; (2) a feeling that English is the language of their preferred musical styles;
and (3) a desire to reach beyond Cantonese-speaking audiences (Benson and Chik
2011). For these musicians there is no sense of inauthenticity in using English.
There is also evidence of locally based creativity in their English lyrics (Chik 2010).
English helps these artists to differentiate their music from mainstream Cantopop,
although English is now increasingly present in the mainstream too (see de Kloet
2010, on the use of English in independent music scenes in Beijing). For mainstream
artists, who usually perform songs written by professional composer-lyricist teams,
the second and third motives are likely to be more significant. Their desire to
reach transnational audiences is also likely to be more commercially motivated,
but both independent and mainstream artists appear to share an urge to affiliate
with global communities of artists and audiences who enjoy certain styles of
music that are mainly performed in English.
Berger (2003, pp. xv–xvi) makes the point that ‘singers and songwriters use
forms of talk from the social world around them to publicly think about, enact, or
perform their identities’. Whenever singers use a particular language or language
variety, they are ‘exploring, performing, or enacting a social identity rather than
merely describing it’. In multilingual music scenes, therefore, language choice
becomes a significant element through which artists enact identities, or project
images of themselves and their music to audiences. Fung and Curtin (2002) discuss
how, for example, Faye Wong’s transition from Cantonese to Mandarin in the 1990s
was tied in with a radical change in her enactment of gender identities, while Fung
(2003, p. 257) discusses how Andy Lau’s transformation into ‘a pan-Chinese icon’
involved the projection of more conservative identities in his Mandarin Chinese per-
formances for the mainland China market. A crucial question, however, concerns
audience receptions of the identities projected when artists sing in a new language.
Following a brief discussion of the role of English in mainstream East Asian popular
music, this paper will explore this question by examining YouTube users’ comments
on English-language music videos by two established Asian-language singers, in
which the negotiation of identities with audiences is very much at issue.
English in East Asian popular music
The use of English in East Asian popular music dates back to the early 1930s in Japan
(Stevens 2009) and the 1950s in Hong Kong (Benson and Chik, forthcoming) and
Singapore (Pereira 1999). Artists who have used English include those who (1) exclu-
sively or mainly use English, (2) include English songs in multilingual repertoires,
and (3) mix English into Asian-language songs. Much of the research on English in
Asian popular music has focused on language mixing, the third category (e.g.
Pennycook 2007). This paper is mainly concerned with artists in the second category,
such as Utada Hikaru, who has made five Japanese and three English albums, and
Tata Young, who has six Thai and three English albums. Other well-known artists
who have released English albums include Jacky Cheung (Hong Kong), Coco Lee
(Hong Kong) and Faith Yang (Taiwan). The Wonder Girls and Girls Generation
(Korea) and Koda Kumi (Japan) have made English versions of some of their
songs, while a number of Hong Kong singers have released original English
English and identity in East Asian popular music 25
album tracks, such as Eason Chan’s ‘Aren’t You Glad’ (2008). There have also been
English-language collaborations between East Asian and Anglo-American artists,
such as Koda Kumi and Fergie’s recording of ‘That Ain’t Cool’ (2008) and Jolin
Tsai’s (Taiwan) collaboration on Kylie Minogue’s Asian release of ‘In My Arms’
The motivations behind these English-language recordings are varied and can-
not be reduced to a desire to break out of East Asian markets. Even where this is a
motive, recordings have been more successful in East Asian markets. Utada’s Exodus
(2004), made for the North American market, reached only #169 on the US Billboard
album chart, but topped the Japanese Oricon chart and was successful across East
Asia. Tata Young’s I Believe (2004) was also targeted at non-Asian markets, but
was more successful in East Asia, reaching the Oricon top ten, selling more than
250,000 copies in Japan. In many cases, however, the commercial motives are less
obvious. Dick Lee (Singapore) achieved some degree of transnational success in
the region in the 1990s, with a series of multilingual albums that included a good
deal of English and enacted pan-Asian identities through artfully constructed pas-
tiches of Asian and Anglo-American musical styles (Mitchell 2001; Iwabuchi 2002).
Working in collaboration with Dick Lee, Sandy Lam (Hong Kong) also released
English albums in Japan. In 1999 Faye Wong’s ‘Eyes On Me’, made for the popular
Japanese video game Final Fantasy VIII, sold 400,000 copies in Japan and was voted
‘song of the year’ in the Western music category at the annual Japan Gold Disc
Awards. More recently, Koda Kumi’s collaboration with Fergie served as the
occasion for TV appearances and magazine photoshoots with Fergie that promoted
her ‘international’ image in Japan. Some releases seem to lack a strong commercial
motive and stem more from the artists’ desire to record covers of their favourite
English songs (e.g. Jacky Cheung’s Touch of Love and Faith Yang’s Self-Selected
albums). Jolin Tsai’s collection of English cover songs was released as part of a self-
produced English-language learning package.
Eason Chan’s ‘Aren’t You Glad’ was
reportedly a demo for a Mandarin song, prepared by its English-speaking composer,
which was eventually preferred to the Mandarin version because it better conveyed
the emotion of the song.
Viewed from the artist/industry perspective, the contribution of English-
language recordings to transnational flows is evidently complex. Yet as no recent
English-language East Asian recording has achieved commercial success beyond
East Asia, it is within this region that we should look for their significance. Some
English recordings have carried their singers across language barriers in East Asia,
while others have not. The artists to whom we now turn, Utada Hikaru and Tata
Young, are among the most successful in East Asia in recent years. If they target
an English release at non-Asian markets, their record companies know that the
costs will be more than recovered from sales domestically, throughout East Asia
and in the diaspora. This may also entail some renegotiation of the artists’ identities,
however, as their use of English is likely to involve the projection of new identities,
which may place their established Asian-language identities at risk.
The following sections illustrate this by discussing audience responses to two
English-language music videos that have attracted attention on YouTube over a
period of several years: Tata Young’s ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’ (2004) and Utada
Hikaru’s ‘Easy Breezy’ (2004). These videos are among the most frequently viewed
East Asian English-language videos of the past decade. They also involved the pro-
jection of very different identities from these artists’ earlier Asian language work. The
26 Phil Benson
analysis focuses, therefore, both on the videos themselves and on YouTube users’
comments on them, in which issues of identity are often evident. As the methodology
used here is relatively new, I will briefly discuss its theoretical underpinnings.
The methodology of this study is informed by ‘active audience’ theory, which views
audiences as ‘dynamic creators of significance’ rather than ‘simple receptors of tex-
tual meaning’ (Barker 2004). Here, this implies that the effects of English recordings
cannot simply be read off from the intentions of artists or their production compa-
nies. Similarly, the identities enacted in English performances will not simply be
accepted, or read in a single straightforward way, by audiences. In order to under-
stand the impact of English on transnational flows of music, therefore, we need to
examine the responses of transnational audiences to them. The methodological
assumption in this study is that YouTube comments potentially open a window
onto the identity negotiations that take place around particular songs and videos.
Because YouTube itself is relatively new (although it is increasingly becoming
one of the most widely used channels of global access to popular music), there are
inevitably unanswered questions about the meaning of users’ comments and their
reliability as research data. This research is, therefore, exploratory and its conclusions
are tentative. Given sufficient numbers, however, YouTube comments are likely to
represent the range of positions that are taken on a particular video. In this study,
which is based on more than 2,500 comments, analysis of repetitive interactional rou-
tines led to identification of typical themes and positions around the two videos. The
approach also helped uncover aspects of identity negotiation that would have been
difficult to access using other approaches.
Comments were downloaded from versions of the videos available when data
were collected in 2008. Most comments praise the video, the song or the artist, while
a smaller number are critical. Those cited in this paper come from approximately
300 exchanges, often sparked by critical comments, in which there is substantive dis-
cussion of language or identity. Comments are reproduced verbatim, but are some-
times abbreviated to save space. The two videos can be found on YouTube by
searching for the names of the songs, but as videos are routinely removed from the
site, some of the comments cited here can no longer be viewed. In particular, Utada
Hikaru has now opened her own YouTube channel and previous postings of ‘Easy
Breezy’ have been removed. The comments used as data are, therefore, a selection of
those that have been posted while versions of the videos have been available on
YouTube. The principle of data saturation was applied in judging the reliability of find-
ings based on this selection. In order to test whether more analysis of more data would
lead to new or different findings, I reviewed comments posted after 2008 while I was
writing this paper and found that they repeated earlier themes or positions.
The videos
Tata Young, the daughter of a Thai mother and an American father, released her first,
million-selling Thai album, Amita Tata Young (1995) at the age of 15. After three more
Thai albums, she released an English album, I Believe, in 2004, which included ‘Sexy,
English and identity in East Asian popular music 27
Naughty, Bitchy’. Utada Hikaru, the daughter of Japanese parents, grew up in
New York and had already released an English album, under the name Cubic U,
in the United States (Precious, 1998). Precious received little attention and Utada relo-
cated to Japan, where she released a Japanese album (First Love, 1999) at the age of 16,
which remains the all-time bestselling album in Japan. After two more Japanese
albums, she released her second English album, Exodus (2004) (as Utada), which
included ‘Easy Breezy’. Therefore, although they are both fluent English speakers,
Tata Young and Utada Hikaru were better known as Asian-language singers at
the time I Believe and Exodus were released, which led some YouTube users to ques-
tion their ‘right’ to sing in English. In addition, their music videos projected more
sexually assertive identities than those found in their earlier Thai and Japanese
work. This was perhaps a necessary move, if they were to compete as female
R&B-style artists on a global stage, but some viewers saw it as inappropriate for
Asian female singers. Language, ethnicity and gender thus became the grounds on
which identities were explored and contested in comments.
‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’ and ‘Easy Breezy’ are both first-person narrative songs,
in which the singers act out sexually assertive identities. In ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’,
this is evident from the title and lyrics, which describe the narrator as ‘the kind of girl
boys fantasize’, who is ‘cool with her sexuality’, and ‘a 180 to the stereotype of girls
like staying home and being innocent’. The original music video consists mostly of
head-and-shoulders shots of Tata Young singing and adopting a variety of provoca-
tive poses. A second video, released in Japan, is similar except that Tata Young
appears mainly in long shots, dancing on a nightclub set. In both videos, she is
mainly filmed alone, singing directly to the camera.
‘Easy Breezy’ has a more complex narrative involving the development of
Utada’s character. Although the lyrics are less than explicit, the video indicates
that they are addressed to her white American ex-lover and that despite her contin-
ued feelings for him, she is now moving on. The hook rests on the ambiguous lines,
‘You’re Easy Breezy, and I’m Japaneesy. Soon you’ll mean exactly nothing to me’,
which appear to express the narrator’s view of her ex-lover’s attitude to their relation-
ship. An opening scene shot in a swimming pool switches between Utada, alone and
disconsolate, and her ex-lover, who is enjoying the company of two female friends.
Utada then runs into him again in the changing room as he and his friends are leav-
ing after a shower of rain. Night shots show Utada walking in the rain, trying to tele-
phone her lover from a call box, and sitting alone in her apartment. The mood then
changes as Utada leaves her apartment and drives away in a Ferrari sports car, sing-
ing ‘You got a new microphone!’ over the final chorus. As the song closes, Utada
steps out of the car and approaches a dark-skinned man. In a second of silence
after the end of the song, she brings her lips to his and the video ends just before
they kiss. Although the song and video can be read in various ways, three contrast-
ing images of Utada’s character stand out: the awkward Asian woman at the pool,
who wears shorts over her bathing costume while the others wear bikinis; the confi-
dent, assertive, sharply dressed Asian woman driving a Ferrari; and Utada the singer
in close-up, wearing striking red lipstick and with her neck and shoulders unclothed.
There is a marked contrast between both videos and the artists’ earlier Thai and
Japanese work, which cannot be fully explored here. In brief, their Asian language
work projected (and continues to project) softer, more feminine and less sexually
assertive identities. Tata Young’s Thai productions, for example, typically project
images of innocence – on one album cover she poses in a lacy white dress with a
28 Phil Benson
puppy in her lap – such that ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’ could almost be seen as a cri-
tique of this work. Although Utada Hikaru’s Japanese image was certainly assertive,
it was more that of a young star who is comfortable wearing casual, asexual outfits,
and is often filmed in the studio working on her music. ‘Easy Breezy’ was her first
video to tackle sexual issues in such a direct way. In these videos, therefore, both
artists adopted new identities, which were encoded at a number of semiotic levels,
but anchored in English-language lyrics that asserted their sexual independence.
YouTube comments
The statistics beneath YouTube videos include a world map that shows the geographi-
cal distribution of viewers. In June 2012, ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’ was the most viewed
Tata Young video, with more than three million views for the Thai and Japanese ver-
sions combined. Most viewers came from Thailand and Japan, followed by the United
States and the rest of Southeast Asia. The 2009 version of ‘Easy Breezy’ was the third
most viewed Utada Hikaru video, with 1,320,402 views, mostly from Japan and
Thailand, followed by the United States. Assuming that most viewers are fans of
East Asian popular music, this suggests a broad market in the artists’ home countries,
other parts of East Asia, and Asian diasporas around the world. The identities of those
who make comments can only be inferred from the comments themselves. From this it
is clear that the vast majority of commenters know English, as there were very few
comments in any other language. The language of the comments also suggests that
many are not native English speakers. Comments in which the users identified them-
selves suggest that they were of various nationalities and ethnicities, with Asian ethni-
cities predominating. Males and females were both well represented. The following
analysis, however, addresses the themes and positions that emerged without attempt-
ing to tie them to assumed identities of the commenters.
The most remarkable feature of the comments on the two videos is their recurrent
focus on language. The singers’ use of English is by no means taken for granted, but is
instead treated as a point for evaluation, alongside other elements of their perform-
ances, and as a crucial dimension of their identities. On ‘Easy Breezy’ one viewer com-
plains that Utada’s ‘perfect voice is being americanized’, another that ‘i kinda like it
when she mixes Japanese and English not full English’, while another says, more posi-
tively, that ‘I like her wether she sings japanese or english’. Contradictory language
identities are ascribed to Utada here – she sings well when she sings in Japanese,
English or both – leading to a variety of evaluative positions on her use of English.
Evaluations are also made according to the viewers’ own language identities or knowl-
edge of the singers’ language backgrounds. One viewer says of ‘Sexy, Naughty,
Bitchy’, ‘im ½ thai and luv it cuz she sings english yeyey’, another that in ‘a country
where people don’t all speak fluent english’, it is ‘cool’ that Tata Young sings in
English. There is also a persistent questioning of the right to use English: on Utada,
‘Why is she singing in english?’, ‘I was very disappointed in her english’, ‘She should
really stick with the Japanese singing or a Japanesey voice singing in English’; on Tata
Young, ‘does she speak english? cause it seems like some1 else sung it’. Others remind
viewers that Tata Young and Utada are fluent English speakers.
The crux of the matter, however, may not be so much their ability to sing in
English as perceptions of the inauthenticity of English in the context of East Asian
popular music, which comes across strongly in one exchange, beginning with the
English and identity in East Asian popular music 29
comment, ‘I love it when artists make their OWN kind of music’. A viewer responds
with a question, ‘I mean do you expect asians to be running around playing tra-
ditional asian instruments, really’, to which the first viewer replies, ‘the least they
can do is speak in an asian language’. This last comment highlights that, for some
viewers at least, the use of an Asian language is crucial to the authenticity of East
Asian pop; once English is used, the music simply sounds American.
Ethnicity enters the picture mainly through the identification of the singers as
Thai or Japanese, or more generally as ‘Asian’, a term often used in contrast to
‘American’. Alongside the view that Asian singers should use Asian languages is a
view that calls these ethnic identifications into question when they use English.
One viewer of ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’ ‘*shakes her head sadly*’ and comments
that, ‘They’re turning into Americans with this kind of crap’; another comments
that Utada’s music has ‘gone down hill since she went american’. Here the singers’
use of English appears to diminish their ‘Asianness’. The fact that Tata Young and
Utada Hikaru are, in fact, both Asian and American is problematic for some viewers.
Comments on Tata Young, for example, include, ‘IS she asian ? She looks european,
behind that thick layer of makeup’ and ‘she doesnt even look like a thai’. Other com-
ments point to the difficulty of matching the style and language of the songs with
expectations of the singers’ ethnicities. One viewer, who had evidently heard but
not seen Tata Young before, writes, ‘I expected Tata to look “Britney Spears” style
– the usual long blonde hair, tight suit or miniskirt etc, I was so shocked when she
was the total opposite of my assumption!’; another writes of Utada, ‘That does NOT
sound like a japanese voice. Wow. Sounds like a black woman’. The blurring of dis-
tinctions between Utada the singer and her character in the ‘Easy Breezy’ video also
creates particular difficulties of ethnic identification. These spill over into issues of
gender identity, as her character role violates an expectation that Asian women
should stick to Asian men: ‘A WHITE BOY?! EW! THAT JUST DOESN’T GO
ALONG WITH UTADA’, or ‘i don’t like this video . . . coz I they make her fall for
White Boys. SHIT!!!!!’. One viewer even goes so far as to withdraw Utada’s right
to Asian ethnicity from her, writing, ‘You’re easy breezy and I’m Japaneze’???? Oh
hel no. Asian card REVOKED!!!!!!!’.
This last comment points to the way in which English problematises both ethnic
and gender identities for female artists. On the one hand, there is an evident intention
on the part of the artists to challenge stereotypical Asian female identities – in Tata
Young’s lyric, which describes her character (and for many viewers, Tata Young her-
self) as ‘180 to the stereotype’ and in the ‘Easy Breezy’ narrative, in which Utada’s
character makes the transition from this stereotype to a more assertive female iden-
tity in the course of the video. Some comments on ‘Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy’, however,
challenge this intention by describing Tata Young as, for example, ‘a total nasty
skank’ and ‘Bringing bad names to thai people’. Others suggest that she fails to
live up to the claims of her song: ‘She does’t look sexy and she doesn’t wear revealing
clothes that look sexy, naughty, and bitchy’, ‘singing about short skirt but wearing
pants . . . next time she could try to match the video and song :)’. There are also
numerous objections to Utada’s use of bright red lipstick, to the apparent sexist/racist
implications of her character’s description of herself as ‘Japaneesy’ (often attributed
to Utada herself as the writer of the lyrics), and more generally to what many viewers
see as a demeaning self-portrayal in the opening section of the video. As two viewers
comment: ‘this is a side of utada i’d never thought i’d see . . . she looks better without
makeup (well, without the cheezy-japanesey lip gloss) . . . Her face is painted up like
30 Phil Benson
a whore’, and ‘OMG! Japanese girl . . . easy to fuck? and in English! if that is what she
sings here, I am shocked as a Japanese man . . . sigh’. These comments are, however,
only one side of a debate over the gender identities of Asian women that appear over
and over again in the comments on the two videos. For every detractor, there are
others who argue that Tata Young ‘isn’t a slut shes just honest + confident with
who she is’, ‘shes so iindependent’, or that the song ‘Makes me wana go out wiv
my bitches! lol x’. There are also those who argue that Utada’s detractors fail to
understand that she is playing out a dramatic role, and that the deeper point of
the song/video is that Asian women should not be subservient to American men.
The conclusions of this study must be tentative, because we lack reliable information
both on Tata Young’s and Utada Hikaru’s intentions and on their roles in making the
songs and videos. More generally, we lack reliable information on the reasons why
East Asian artists and record companies release English songs. What we can say
with confidence is that these intentions are varied and complex; they cannot be
reduced to a desire to break out of East Asian markets; and they also have much
to do with East Asian intra-regional flows. Alongside commercial motives, there is
an evident intention among artists like Tata Young and Utada Hikaru to project
assertive images of Asian women in their English work. This is a significant point,
because English is most frequently used by female artists, and usually in songs
that are more sexually assertive than their Asian-language songs (see, for example,
videos for Coco Lee’s ‘No Doubt’ [2005] and Koda Kumi and Fergie’s ‘That Ain’t
Cool’ [2008]). In this sense, language choices in East Asian popular music appear
to be systemically tied up with issues of ethnic and gender identity.
In this context, YouTube is an interesting venue for music consumption, because
comments sections create spaces in which the identity implications of language use can
be negotiated across a virtual region that encompasses East Asia and its diasporas
around the world. It is also significant that this discussion takes place in English,
because it could not take place on the same scale in, for example, Thai or Japanese.
The language of YouTube videos conditions the language of comments. There are
few English comments on Tata Young’s and Utada Hikaru’s Thai and Japanese videos,
whereas most comments on their English videos are in English. English does not, there-
fore, simply widen the market for artists’ work. As their videos are viewed on
YouTube, virtual representations of this market emerge, which become actual spaces
for the negotiation of identities that match the scale of the market itself. The kinds
of comments that might be made face-to-face to a friend in a particular location are
opened up for public view and negotiation on an East Asian scale.
The particular positions expressed in YouTube comments are, therefore, of less
significance in this paper than the evidence they furnish of viewers orienting towards
questions of identity when they watch East Asian artists singing in English. This
point touches on the question of whether YouTube comments can be seen as being
representative of a wider range of views. Certainly, they cannot be used to calculate
how many people adopt one position or another. Yet the comments analysed here do
seem to point to identity as a key theme in audience responses to the two videos (vir-
tually all substantive comments touch upon the artists’ identities in one way or
another), and to the intertwining of issues of language, ethnicity and gender in
English and identity in East Asian popular music 31
their negotiation. Comments on Anglo-American artists’ videos rarely refer to
language because the use of English is taken for granted. But when Tata Young
and Utada Hikaru sing in English, the language of the performance is by no
means taken for granted – firstly, because viewers are primed to see them as
Asian-language singers, and secondly, because the artists themselves project alterna-
tive language, ethnic and gender identities through the medium of English-language
performance. While some fans resist these alternative identities, others respond to
them enthusiastically. Meanwhile YouTube comments become an important forum
for the articulation and negotiation of positions on the new identities on a regional
scale. The YouTube comments, in other words, point to a kind of transnational tur-
bulence, stirred up by artists’ projections of alternative identities in English record-
ings, that provokes the question of what it means to be an East Asian female in an
increasingly English-speaking, transnational world.
The main point of this paper has been to argue that, in a linguistically diverse East
Asian market, recording in English is one viable option for overcoming the language
barriers that potentially impede transnational flows. It suggests, however, that this is
not the whole story. Recording in English is by no means the most frequently used
strategy, possibly because of the risks posed to artists’ identities. As a transnational
marketing strategy, it is used most successfully by singers who are, like Tata Young
and Utada Hikaru, bicultural and fluent in English. Its relative infrequency is, no
doubt, explained by the fact that few East Asian pop stars match their fluency in
English (a point that is frequently made in YouTube comments on other artists’
English performances). The broader issue raised here, however, is that transnational
flows in East Asian popular music involve much more than the circulation of musical
sounds and products. Our understanding of these flows will be enhanced by more
flows of language and identity that inevitably accompany it.
1. Jolin Love Exercise was published in 2008 in Taiwan
by Mars Entertainment and consists of a CD with
10 cover songs accompanied by a book containing
the English lyrics, Chinese translations and com-
ments on interesting expressions and vocabulary
from the songs.
2. Reported in Eastday, 23 June 2008. http://big5.
(accessed 30 April 2011).
3. I am grateful to Adnan Amin, Beely Huang and
Wendy Wu for their participation in the
research group that generated the idea of
using YouTube comments as research data,
and for collecting and conducting an initial
analysis of the data.
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