Friday, June 17, 2011

Rise of the comic book album

When a band is established and widely respected, fans will spend hours parsing lyrics that were written in a minute. But if you're a complete unknown, no one will spend a second bothering to understand a line that took you days to write. When it comes to discovering and judging new bands, most of us are only willing to give a single perfunctory listen at best, all the while asking ourselves just one question: "Do I dig it, here and now?" This isn't a judgment of anyone's priorities; I do it as well. Time is precious, after all, and there are just too many other bands out there waiting in line to be heard.

But in any case, this means that when you're just starting out as a band, you're at a huge disadvantage if you aim to create music laden with deeper meaning that's evident only after repeated listens. Time and effort are finite resources, after all, and while you're busy investing them in things you won't be given any credit for as an unknown band, plenty of other bands are happy to focus solely on those features that are immediately visible at the surface. In the end, they're the ones who have the best chance to become viral sensations on Fluxblog and Stereogum, not you. In fact, you're really not part of the competition at all.

I learned this the hard way after getting zero critical reception from my forays into doublespeaker rhyme on Yearling's Bobtail. So for this next album, I vowed to drastically simplify my songwriting, and I think I've been pretty successful for the most part. Still, I found myself writing lines like, "As a clamp for cords ties the slack in her gown." Rosalind Franklin had ovarian cancer, you see, yet ironically, she was placed in the hospital's obstetrics wing. So, you know, umbilical cord clamp, emaciated body in maternity gown... In theory, a listener paying full attention would make these connections by the end of the song. However, like I said, when you're an unknown band, such thoughtful listeners don't actually exist for you in reality.

And that's how I came up with the idea for this comic book album. With pictures arranged in sequence, the meaning behind my songs can be readily understood upon first listen, while the music itself remains perfectly uncompromised. At the same time, the sheer presence of a competently drawn, full-colour comic book might help to signal the album's seriousness to record labels and music critics in ways that all the bluster of an accompanying one-sheet never will. Of course, this isn't just a marketing ploy, but an artistic endeavour in its own right as well. And thank heavens for that, since I am the nobody I am today at least partly because I find unabashed attempts at self-promotion so unpalatable.

I don't plan to make any more comic book albums beyond this first one, though. Don't get me wrong, it's fun, it's challenging, it makes me a more well-rounded individual, but man... drawing panel after panel is really, really time-consuming! Plus, beyond artistic satisfaction, I really only have one purpose for it in mind, and that is to get my foot in the door. So if my little experiment succeeds, then there won't be any impetus left to keep doing it, since there are so many other uncharted paths to explore. And should I really want another comic book album to my name, I'll just storyboard it and use my newfound leverage to hire an illustrator.

Anyway, if I can set a precedent by getting the indie rock community's attention as an unknown band with this comic book album, I foresee two things happening. First, the playing field will be just a little more level for music that's less conducive to live performance. Good live bands have always held the natural advantage and always will, of course, but that advantage has become untenably lopsided in recent years due to changes in how music is distributed and promoted. Setting music to sequential art won't counter the imbalance for every innovative songwriter out there, but it could help a few.

And second, the notion of how unknown bands pay their dues might finally be expanded to include the time-consuming effort that goes into writing thoughtful and innovative songs. In the world of indie rock, respect is earned by winning over a new crowd every night, not by sitting alone hunched over a desk for hours. But no one in the world of comic books feels this way. And this isn't a minor issue. How much we credit a band with having paid their dues enormously affects how charitably we approach their music and how much we're driven to impress it upon others. So those few of us dedicated to songcraft at the expense of opportunities for performance have a vested interest in allying ourselves with those of a like temperament in different fields. It's always good to have strength in numbers, and those like us in the world of comics are especially many.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Subjectively better versus objectively better

Indie rock is largely about discounting hard work and cultivated talent in favour of more intangible qualities. No one here has a problem with this, since we're all aware that many of the most admired works of the past century followed this principle. But the thing is, the default advantages associated with work and talent are not arbitrarily handed out by some overseer; they are intrinsic to the very nature of work and talent themselves. In other words, if you keep working hard and developing your talents, you will eventually accrue enough advantage to overcome the disadvantage of anyone else's personal tastes being disposed against your favour. At that point, you will be the better band by all possible measures.

And if the scene continues to ignore you after that, it doesn't really matter, because objective talent can steadily deliver in a way that subjective aesthetics simply cannot. You will eventually make it, even if it takes much longer than expected. Once that happens, though, everyone loses. You end up looking bad for competing with bands below your paygrade. And they look bad because in a scene that's all about celebrating the underdog, suddenly you're shown to be the real underdog, not them. No one ends up looking good, obviously, so it's in everyone's best interest not to let this kind of thing happen too often.

Thus, we should keep in mind that in a scene where subjectively better bands are valued above objectively better ones, an objectively better band might still prove to be the better band overall. We'll find out in a year or so whether my argument is correct. And if I'm wrong, well, you probably won't chance to read this blog post to begin with!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bias in reasoning and vision

I'm currently working on a comic book, but I'm just an amateur. I haven't devoted years of my life perfecting my craft. I spend hours drawing lines and shapes that I can visualise in my mind, but I'm constantly making value judgments with my eye because my fine motor skills are not developed enough to have what I want always be what I get. And sometimes what I think I see is not what's actually there. My mind easily wanders as I draw, and recently I drew a comparison between the way we see and the way we think that fits well with my last post discussing the possibility of racial bias in indie rock.

I talked about bias as if it's always this bad thing, but really, a bias is just a mental shortcut, nothing more. We need them because every minute of every day we are bombarded with information overload. If we're to get past the four-year-old stage of our lives, when we're constantly marveling "Look, a tree!" every ten seconds, then we need to form biases to help streamline the way we think. So we construct narratives out of random events, we group objects into neat categories, and we place value judgments on things that have no bearing on their actual existence.

It's no different from the way we see. When we look at a picture, we instantly recognise straight lines and sharp angles, symmetry and recurring patterns, facial expressions in moons and clouds. It all happens so instantly and automatically that it never occurs to us that what we're taking in might be anything other than what's objectively there, or that it could ever be possible to see in a fundamentally different way. This is why optical illusions are so jarring, because they provide a naked glimpse into our evolution as branch-swinging simians. So like our reasoning, our vision is primed more for efficiency, and less for accuracy, than we assume.

Of course, we can always whip out a ruler to determine whether two telephone poles that look to be of different height are indeed the same. There's no similar standard for measuring hiccoughs in our mental observations, however. I can only compare my thoughts to yours, which might be just as hopelessly subjective. It's only when we look at the bigger picture, and note that more than half of us consider ourselves above average, or that blacks are less likely to be hired for white-collar jobs than similarly qualified whites, that we can begin to detect the presence of this particular bias or that.

Which goes back to the idea of racial bias in indie rock. I don't think this scene actively creates them, but it certainly doesn't take steps to correct whatever might already be present, either. There's no centralised committee tasked with that kind of oversight. And when an indie label insists that it's run like a family and not a business, filling its roster with like-minded friends, our response is to feel warm and fuzzy inside, not to call the EEOC. But the key is to look at the bigger picture. Who gets lauded, and who gets left out?

Finally, I should point out that I myself am chock-full of racial biases. Some of my most unforgiving are those against Asian-Americans, and I'm an Asian-American! I'm also a social progressive, so I take steps to correct them, but my good intentions can only last so long before I become too tired or distracted. Because, like I said, biases are mental shortcuts, so we naturally resort to them in situations where we just don't have the time or energy to process information fairly and objectively. Like when passing a stranger in a dark alley, for example, or when slogging through a thick stack of resumes. I guess I assume that any intelligent and self-aware person would admit the same.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that I can't ever know with absolute certainty the way anyone else thinks, so I still stand by my word that I'll believe anyone who insists on not being susceptible to any biases. But my faith ultimately lies with those who fully understand how human it is to have them.

Friday, June 3, 2011

For the record, I hate talking about race

I wrote my last post, the one about hip hop, the day after Gil Scott-Heron died. That was a coincidence. Actually, I was musing on what I would say if some Asian-American kid were to ask me for advice on getting started as a musician. My impression is that, as a whole, they tend to view the world of hip hop as being most favourable to their prospects. I'm not sure they're wrong, but in any case, I gave my impartial thoughts on the matter.

So I've actually been thinking about race, and contemplating how best to broach the subject. For the record, I hate talking about race. It's not a subject I enjoy discussing; I certainly don't base my identity on it. Most of my friends are white, for better or worse, and my girlfriend is a white girl from Arkansas. I go days without being conscious of my skin colour, and if I could go an entire lifetime, I happily would. But to the outside world, I am first and foremost an Asian boy. One of the earliest reviews of Yearling's Bobtail likened it to J-pop, for example. So I think about race not because I want to, but because I have to. Nothing less than my fitting into this world as a functional and well-adjusted human being depends on it. So here goes.

Indie rock isn't just a particular sound and musical style; it's also an image, an identity, an affiliation, all strongly correlated with race. In the same way that hip hop is ultimately defined by what black kids do, indie rock is ultimately defined by what white kids do. That's not to say that minorities aren't welcome to participate; it's just that they aren't given the same leeway to push the boundaries of the genre before they end up pushing themselves out. Which is a problem if you're a minority hoping to leave a mark making unprecedented, influential music because, well, pushing boundaries is exactly what influential bands making unprecedented music do. So it's all well and good to argue that minorities are perfectly free to fit into the mould of an older, respected band, but I'm not looking to be the Asian-American Pavement here.

Let me propose a thought experiment. Sufjan Stevens and Beirut are two amazing bands who have successfully created their own archetypes. They're also relative outliers in the world of indie rock, in terms of both style and methods. Now, imagine if Sufjan Stevens were in fact some bespectacled Asian-American kid with bad acne wearing a band camp shirt from two summers ago. Imagine if Beirut's Zach Condon were actually a sweaty, middle-aged Mediterranean man sporting an unironic moustache. Would they be any less indie rock? More importantly, would this change in physical appearance and identity make their music less authentic or emotionally resonant in any way?

If your own answer is an unequivocal "no" to both questions, and you insist that you aren't prone to such biases yourself, then of course I'll believe you. But now here's a tougher question: how do you know that your musical tastes aren't being limited by the biases of others? That is to say, how can you be certain there isn't an entire legion of bespectacled Asian-American kids and middle-aged Mediterranean men out there making fantastic, mind-blowing music that you won't be hearing any time soon, due to the hidden biases of those sources you trust to expose you to new music?

Because, well, I can offer at least one example of a bespectacled Asian-American kid who put his life on hold for five years to create music that was objectively inventive in many ways, the "Ulysses of rock albums" as it were, and subsequently failed to make any impact whatsoever. In a truly unbiased world, wouldn't the number of people moved by that feat stand to be higher than, let's say, twenty? At the very least, I'd guess a number greater than the five or so who actually did buy Yearling's Bobtail and don't know me personally.

Of course, it would be dishonest of me to say we weren't ever given a fighting chance: Slim Moon, who at the time was doing A&R for Nonesuch, and Secretly Canadian both really liked our music and said so, even if they ultimately nixed the idea of signing us. I was never told why exactly, since of course I couldn't engage them in conversation as an equal, so all this time I've just been left to guess on my own. I certainly never believed it was due to any conscious bias on their part, and I'll believe them if they insist that unconscious bias played no role either. Perhaps they judge each band by the same unbiased criteria, and we just happened to fail some or all of them. That's fair enough, but can they be so sure that those criteria aren't affected by the biases of others?

For example, we invited Slim Moon to one of our shows. He came, poked his head through the door, saw Dave and I onstage without a drummer playing to a mostly empty room, and promptly hightailed it out of there. To this day, I still hear crickets chirping when I replay that scene in my head! I laugh about it now, but at the time, I was pretty depressed. We never heard from him again, and I sort of understand why: for the founder of Kill Rock Stars, self-reliance in getting ahead is surely an inviolable principle. But it's not like I never tried hard to promote my band or to find enthusiastic bandmates; for some reason, I just do those things badly. And how much of that incompetence might in fact be due to how I'm perceived by others based on my physical appearance?

I'll tell you my nightmare scenario: through the years to come, the indie labels can easily keep rejecting Bobtail Yearlings album after Bobtail Yearlings album, all the while signing any other band that isn't fronted by a bespectacled Asian-American kid, and as long as it's always possible to argue that no bias affects these decisions, then few will be bothered by this, and nothing will ever change. I have no way of knowing whether indeed this will forever be the story of my life, regardless of what I do, and it feels damn scary. It would be scary for anyone. Sure, I can assure myself that I'm only being paranoid, but like Kurt Cobain said, just because you're paranoid...

Now, some black professionals deal with this perpetual runaround by gutting half their resume, leaving off any hard-won achievements that might instantly reveal their blackness, for the short-term benefit of simply getting their foot in the door. And the actor Kalpen Modi changed his name to Kal Penn, instantly getting 50% more audition callbacks. But I don't need to resort to such measures, because I'm not trying to make it in the cutthroat world of business or the superficial world of Hollywood. This is indie rock. We're the good guys here. The only struggle here is in getting myself heard, not in being understood once I am heard. As long as my argument is reasonable, I'm confident I can get a sympathetic ear from each one of you.

And my argument is that at present, the ambiguity of whether indie rock might be biased against bespectacled Asian-American kids has indeed left us in a world where zero bespectacled Asian-American kids are recognized for pioneering inventive music, despite evidence that their numbers may in fact be greater than zero. This requires honest inquiry, and since it's clearly for my benefit most of all, I'm happy to be the one to press for it. This isn't a witch hunt; I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. I'm just asking everyone, including myself, to humbly recognise that none of us has rock-solid evidence to say one way or the other, so each of us is really just choosing and defending the one interpretation out of many available that most agrees with the world we wish to believe in. The sooner we all accept this, the sooner we can talk to each other, not past each other.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the company I keep is mostly white kids, so I totally get it that people really hate being accused of even the slightest hint of racism. I understand why someone would feel the need to insist that no bias exists. But I think you can also understand that I don't want to spend the rest of my life putting out an endless stream of albums that would easily be critically acclaimed if they could just get a minimal amount of public attention, only to see them rejected and ignored time and time again because they don't possess that elusive, indescribable "it" factor, and then tearing my hair out in manic paranoia wondering if "it" really is just code for "someone who looks and talks like me, i.e., not you."

So I'm simply asking everyone to consider that some bias might indeed be present, and it's not really important to pinpoint where exactly. Perhaps it's no more than just a droplet here and there, and perhaps each droplet is obscured by the much larger fluctuations of so many other random variables that it's hardly worth mentioning. But even tiny droplets on a small scale can add up and snowball to effect significant differences in outcome on a large scale. Who knows, maybe all it takes is just one harried music journalist mistaking Joycean lyrics for an immigrant's comically garbled Engrish to stop "the Ulysses of rock albums" dead in its tracks.

And how do we solve this? Truth be told, I don't know. But I think just being more alert to the possibility is by itself a really, really good start. And rest assured, the minute I get signed to a label, or once Pitchfork stops tossing my unopened demos straight into the garbage bin, this job of unwelcome gadfly will be going to someone else. It definitely won't be me.

Because, for the record, I hate talking about race.