CoCo Lee: the Case of the Incomplete Crossover
Bicultural pop star CoCo Lee's recent gig in Los Angeles reminds us of the difficulties -- and stakes -- of the elusive Asian musical crossover.
Published: Friday, July 31, 2009
CoCo Lee's "Global Pop" concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 17 had a rather low turnout given her fame in Asia. But then again, public reception of CoCo in the United States has always struggled in comparison to her large following Asia. And it isn't due to a lack of trial and desire, at least not from CoCo and her team.
About a decade ago, CoCo's bid for a crossover to the U.S. was met with lukewarm results. She seemed to possess great potential to be the first pop singer of Asian descent to claim American diva status. After all, mainstream music just had a defining year in 1999, leading up to her English-language debut, Just No Other Way, on February 29, 2000. Prince's signature party track finally became timely. Lauryn Hill set a new record by winning five Grammys for Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – an achievement that capped the already rare feat of garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success. The teen pop genre hit another peak with Backstreet Boys' sophomore album Millennium breaking the Nielsen SoundScan record set by Garth Brooks with 1.13 million sold in its first week. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera each debuted their first albums, followed by Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson.
It was also a turning point for non-Caucasian foreign artists looking to cross over to the United States audience. Ricky Martin had released his self-titled English language album, having singlehandedly hip-swiveled in the dawn of a new Latin movement months earlier with his performance at the 41st Grammy Awards. He would soon be joined by Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony with respective eponymous albums. The notion of crossing over became an enduring theme in the music industry and among music pundits.
Fans of pop singer CoCo awaited a similar Asian-oriented movement when she was assumed to be on the brink of a successful crossover with her English language debut in November. Fans and handlers counted on her dulcet voice, accessible sex appeal, success in Asia, and American background to translate well in the United States.
CoCo had personified the hopes of many Asians and Asian Americans who looked for someone to not only represent, but also to do it well in the exclusive club of crossover artists. Whereas her fans wanted the American audience to recognize her talent, Asian American supporters saw her as a fulcrum to a changing soundscape -- one that may finally expand and embrace singers of Asian descent. Her album seemed fortuitously slated to catalyze such change.
A host of Chinese albums and another English album in 2005, CoCo's superstar status is still mostly concentrated in Asia and Asian diasporas. At this point, she may be best known to American listeners for her songs on the soundtracks of Runaway Bride and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Whodunnit? Suspects and Causes
Marketing campaign: How was the album sold to the U.S. audience?
In the months before the album release, CoCo's promotion team aimed for a mélange of exposure. She was booked on network and cable shows, such as The View and the now defunct The Queen Latifah Show. CNN filmed an interview with her that included a segment of her practicing the single "Do You Want My Love."
Most of the focus was placed on her foreignness, or lack thereof, depending on the media outlet. She shared with many interviewers that her album release in the U.S. marked a return of sorts. Having spent part of her formative years in San Francisco, she had a right to claim her Americanness. Simultaneously, however, there was heavy emphasis on her as a major Asian pop star coming to the U.S. Though neither facet conflicted with the other, the American mainstream media's inadequacy with grappling biculturality was exacerbated by the lack of a central narrative in her marketing strategy.
The heavy focus placed on her ethnicity and nationality took away what little airtime already slotted for the promotion of her album. As an Asian American singer trying to break into a mainstream still harsh to minorities, she carried the yoke of a community's expectations while trying to sell her album that critically may not have been her best. In the end, on matters of race and ethnicity in music, the American public tends to prefer the product peddled by the artist to speak for itself.
How else could CoCo have approached the task of introducing herself to an audience still unused to Asians and Asian Americans in music?
Cultural Accessibility: Was the U.S. ready for an Asian movement?
A rewind to the zeitgeist around ten years ago would reveal an American mainstream embracing all things pop. The media was saturated with boy bands and pop princesses. MTV had just launched Total Request Live, a countdown variety show featuring the audience's top ten favorite music videos. It soon became a crucial element in making and reinforcing pop careers.
Pop culture in many ways can serve as a barometer of the greater social and political landscape. Census reports at the time revealed the population to be 12.5% (35.3 million) Latino and Hispanic and 4.2% (11.9 million) Asian and Pacific Islander. From the Chinese Exclusion Act passed on 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942, there is a long history of xenophobia directed at Asian immigrants and Americans of Asian descent. The practice of racializing Asians has been reflected in media imagery and representation of Asians. In 1997, despite public outcry from Asian American communities, the National Review refused to apologize for its caricature of Bill and Hillary Clinton along with Al Gore with racialized "Asian" features. Abercrombie and Fitch made headlines in 2002 when they introduced a line of t-shirts that displayed historically negative stereotypes of Asians. With music, for every inroad made with a group like Tongan American band The Jets, there are songs like Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" and The Vapors' "Turning Japanese," which prominently featured the "Asian riff".
Thus, at the close of the millennium, American pop cultural notions of Chineseness could still be summed up by Bruce Lee, kung fu films, Chinese food, and racialized imagery in media. With China's economic boom a few years away, learning the Chinese language had not become a trend yet. Parents had not even thought of hiring Chinese au pairs as a way to expose their children to the Chinese language. Nickelodeon's Ni Hao, Kai Lan was at most a vague possibility to its creators.
In comparison, Latin(o) Americans have long permeated American pop culture. Ricky Martin and his hips just happened to be in the right place and the right time. He and fellow members of the latest Latin movement had a foundational platform from which to launch their "crossover." In fact, Martin was a member of the boy band Menudo in the 80s, composed of a revolving group of Puerto Rican boys. Other notable artists include Brazilian Sergio Mendes, Cuban American Gloria Estefan, the late Tejano singer Selena, and Jon Secada, who enjoyed Billboard Top 40 fame in the early '90s. Desi Arnaz's character Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy is an iconic American character. The American soundscape have had threads of Latin influence with genres like samba, meringue, and bossa nova. More revealingly, Spanish was the most sought after foreign language in American schools with 656,590 students enrolled in 1998.
In 2000, the gap in American mainstream awareness of Asian culture was still quite wide. How much did it play in the public's perception of CoCo as an American artist?
Production: How good was the album?
Critics found Just No Other Way uninspiring. People panned it as "queasy listening," whereas Rolling Stone was more specific in pointing out that the album lacked "the bracing grooves that could make her flexible, pretty voice stand out, or even a great hook or catchphrase. All she has are a hundred borrowed vocal mannerisms and a bunch of tunes made with cookie cutters that are blunt from overuse."
What American music critics and pundits did not get to hear was what drove the sales of her earlier albums in Asia. In contrast, Just No Other Way exposed little of CoCo's musicality. Instead, American critics and public with little exposure to her previous work seem to only hear her voice overpowered by unremarkable beats and weak cameo raps. Classics "" (Past Love) and "ÿh" (Every Time I Think of You) from her first Sony Music release CoCo display the airy timbre of her voice that was only hinted at in "Before I Fall in Love".
Based on sales figures, CoCo's album did little to impress the American public as well. CoCo's style of uptempo pop has amassed many fans in Asia. Her particular pop interpretation of R&B and hip hop, however, may not have appealed to the American audience who at the time seemed to prefer their pop stars to be more pop than hip hop and hip hop artists to be like Dr. Dre, Nas, or the late Tupac Shakur. This was a time before Britney collaborated with Pharrell and the Ying Yang Twins or Xtina called upon Redman to get musically dirrty. Justin Timberlake had not gambled on a solo career in the face of public skepticism to introduce a newer approach that blended his pop history with his R&B influences and ambitions. Pink, Kanye West, Fall Out Boy, and Rihanna had yet to challenge industry conventions and mainstream perceptions by experimenting beyond their supposed genres.
Would Just No Other Way have fared better in 2009?
Locating CoCo in "Global Pop"
CoCo took her audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall through a retrospective of her oeuvre. Reflecting both her discography and background, CoCo would switch from speaking Mandarin and English to occasional Cantonese and common isms of female empowerment. The title of the concert evening hovered as CoCo shared her memories of career and hairstyle changes, recalling a time when she aimed for a U.S. crossover. The "Global Pop" concert's mostly Asian audience emphasized CoCo's worldliness more than her worldwide reach.
Perhaps more significantly, it alternately evoked the progress made and growth required. The notion of global is changing as newer media challenges an increasingly outmoded industry perception and practice that places the U.S. as the axis upon which select foreign music and its audiences orbit around. Popular music purveyors may still lump and label music not as established in the American market under the "World" genre. Nevertheless, indelible shifts have occurred since Just No Other Way was released. The annual Korean Music Festival held at the Hollywood Bowl is in its seventh year. Artists of Asian descent like M.I.A., Rachel Yamagata, and Justin Nozuka have gained more respect in the industry and notice in the mainstream. Though CoCo may not have fully crossed over and cast a movement in 2000, she helped to introduce the possibility to a wider audience.