Thursday, December 13, 2007

To bring it all together

The school bell rang loudly throughout the halls; students burst forth from the classroom doors, spewing into the hallway. Before long, the corridors were clogged and cliques of students grouped together to mingle by half-opened lockers. Within fifteen minutes, the hallways would clear: the athletes had their games, the mathletes had their problem sets, and, well, we had our music waiting for us.

This after school gathering is a student-led, student-run organization called AMOJI. It meets once a week, usually Wednesday afternoons. For me, a recent graduate of Boston Latin School, this club was the perfect case study: every club meeting I went to brought me into the company of fellow music enthusiasts – and not just “regular” music, either. We all had a very selective taste for foreign alternative “pretty boy” bands, particularly (but, not exclusively) those from Japan, Korea, and China. I enjoyed going to the club meetings when I was in high school, and wanted to know what the other club members got out of it. In addition to my prior experience in the club and its accessibility, I wanted to study AMOJI as a musical youth culture because of the efforts the club leaders put into discovering and spreading knowledge of bands in other countries; I wanted to explore how this one specific organization plays into recent trends of globalization.

Racially speaking (and I use the term “race” loosely, as I sincerely believe that it is nothing more than a social construction), the members of AMOJI represented almost every minority group in the school. In the years that I was an active participant, most were Chinese (as were most minorities at BLS), but there was also a black girl, a Hispanic girl, and a Middle Eastern girl. Recently, as of fall 2007, the club has expanded considerably, but still doesn’t have too many Caucasians; I don’t think there has ever been more than one.

Like several of the club members, I am a second generation Asian-American, culturally caught between the conservative traditions of my parents and the headstrong, individualistic, arguably rebellious mentality of the American youth. Everything I listened to growing up sounded like a medley of country tunes and yodeling, in a language I speak fluently, but can never understand in song. By the time I entered high school, it was natural for me to want to break away from my parents and find my own taste in music. It didn’t take me long to find (or fall in love with) rock – not the pop-like melodies with an electric guitar or two thrown in – real rock, music that was hard and pounding. I wanted more from the music – more feeling, more substance, even. I wanted something to connect to. By attending AMOJI, I found music that satisfied me.

Sophia, the founder of AMOJI, described her first exposure and reaction to Japanese rock as such:
“…But I was never truly satisfied with what I heard on mainstream radio. Eventually, I found better outlets that suited my tastes – through rock. I welcomed its unique sound, its ability express, and completely fell in love. It wasn't just any rock though; the first time I was swept away by music happened while I was listening to a song in Japanese. I didn't understand a word the vocalist said, but I could feel the emotions the whole band conveyed in the song. From then on, I was hooked.”

Many of the responses I got from AMOJI members were similar to that above when I asked them why they found foreign alternative rock appealing, even if there was a language barrier. It was the "feel" of the music, the image and persona the artists give off that was infinitely more important.

As Mark said, “The interesting thing about the bands that Sophia introduced to me is that the music speaks to you; the music has meaning beyond the words that are spoken. Despite not being able to understand Japanese, the music has a quality that allows it to be understood.”

Here's an example of such music. The song is "Taoin," by The GazettE.

There’s a pretty interesting article Arun Saldanha wrote about the youth culture in Bangalore, India. According to him, the rich kids in India love to listen to Western pop as they drive because it is a status symbol (Saldanha 2002). It follows the trends of globalization; it shows others that they are better because they have the money and the connections to buy Western music.

Likewise, being fans of D'EspairsRay, The GazettE, or Dir en grey (all Japanese rock, or jrock bands) doesn’t exactly make AMOJI members unique. In fact, jrock is getting so popular within the US that there are now choice awards for the bands. Yet, there’s a certain undeniable sense of pride in taking part of a music movement that is so different and separate from the “mainstream” that you’d have to put in real effort to enjoy the music. Everything that is jrock in America gets overshadowed by “mainstream” rock; little (“little” used in the relative sense) communities do not get the same sort of attention anywhere (Hollands 2002).

Unlike “regular” alternative bands whose albums can easily be found in most retail stores, jrock albums have to be ordered online; you would never know that jrock bands play in the US unless someone who actively checks informational sources like this one or this one tells you. The information isn’t hidden or coded or anything; it’s just that people who don’t listen to jrock wouldn’t care to pass the information along, even if they come across it.

For example, Dir en grey participated in the Family Values Tour in 2006 with KoRn, Stone Sour, Flyleaf, 10 Years, etc, and returned in 2007 to headline their own tour in America. Here's a video of their performance in 2006::

Sophia, Shauna, Dan, and Kay (all members of AMOJI) actually attended the concert in 2006. In a word, they said the concert was “incredible,” “indescribable,” “breathless.” And, well, I’m sure you’d feel the same way if you see your favorite lead singer cut himself on stage with a fish hook. (I’m referring to the video above, for those who didn’t feel like waiting for youtube to load.) I, personally, don’t understand the appeal of that one, but apparently, it was something special.

AMOJI regularly organizes trips to shows at local vendors; at all these events, the girls who go (and it’s always been girls from the club who go to these shows; guys just don’t seem to care as much) love everything about the concerts. (Here is a picture of the girls at a Candy Spooky Theatre performance.) At these shows, they are no longer different individuals; they become like every other fan girl/boy out there the second they step into the vendor. They scream, they cry, they take in every little detail of the performance, and enjoy it collectively, as a community (Mitchell 1989, Auslander 2006). To quote what Auslander says about female fans of the Beatles, “By screaming and closing their eyes at the concert, the young women prevented the Beatles from materializing, so to speak. They forced the Beatles to retain their identities as the virtual poster boys who provided the girls with safe opportunities to express their sexuality and prohibited the Beatles from stepping out from behind the posters to reveal themselves as actual men.” I think this analysis applies to AMOJI members, too.

Not everyone thinks of the alternative artists as “virtual poster boys”; in fact, Kay said that the appeal was in knowing that “popular musicians are just normal people, too.” Yet, none of them could deny that they enjoy watching them perform because they were “pretty boys” (there are links a few paragraphs up that show these bands) – musically talented, with beautiful androgynous faces, and such intricate hair and makeup. To be able to watch them, even if it is only through a projector in a high school classroom, is to idolize their existence and lifestyle. This appreciation, if not, physical attraction, to the way these alternative rock musicians dress and present themselves is definitely something that everyone in AMOJI can relate to.

I would like to consider AMOJI a “regional scene” of alternative rock, in the sense that every member of the club contributes to the music that is shared and distributed. It is not the same as a citywide or statewide scene, where actual nightclubs and venues collaborate for events, that gives the regional scene of a genre or subgenre its distinct characteristics (O’Connor 2002). Yet, because of each individual’s personal taste in music and fashion, the music that gets played after school when AMOJI meets is unlike any other musical gathering at BLS. Since the members of the club actually get together for performances, they are unlike internet communities (like this one on facebook) that only discuss bands of interest. Being in Boston is important, too: if not for the metropolitan atmosphere, AMOJI members would not be able to see these concerts. It is a very small-scaled regional scene, but nevertheless qualifies as one.

Works cited:

Auslander, Philip. 2006. “Music as Performance: Living in the Immaterial World.” Theatre Survey, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 261-269.

Hollands, Robert. 2002. “Divisions in the Dark: Youth Cultures, Transitions and Segmented Consumption Spaces in the Night-Time Economy.” Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 153-171.

Mitchell, Tony. 1989. “Performance and the Postmodern in Pop Music.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 273-293.

O’Connor, Alan. 2002. “Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punks and Theories of Cultural Hybridity.” Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 225-236.

Saldanha, Arun. (2002) “Music, Space, Identity: Geographies of Youth Culture in Bangalore,” Cultural Studies, 16:3, 337-350.

Monday, November 5, 2007

More fieldnotes - SWITCH OF TOPIC

In the last two weeks or so, I had the current student president of AMOJI send out my questionnaire about the club to the members. I've only gotten a handful of responses, but from what I have so far, I feel the need to change my topic/thesis a little.

At the beginning, I thought it would be interesting to find out exactly why there were so many students, particularly those in AMOJI, attracted to the visual aspects of musical artists and their performances. More specifically, I was thinking fashion, makeup, how the singing/dancing/thrashing looks. Personally, I thought the one overarching characteristic all the music videos and clips from live shows share was the extreme emphasis on appearances and visual aesthetics. The band members were more often than not clothed in a clash of chains and buckles, leather black, white, with occasional bright colors here and there. They always wore makeup: dark eyeliner and shadow, colored contacts. Their hair defied gravity, always looked like it had taken hours and an entire team of stylists to style. When these bands started playing on stage - and especially in music videos - they looked like they commanded the world. There was confidence in these bands that set them apart. They didn't just move with the music; they commanded it with every strum of the guitar, every grip of the microphone stand. Everything was so staged, each movement so precisely planned, that it was amazing. Their music came to life through their looks, through their attempts to look and feel beyond the ordinary.

Or, well, at least that's how it was for me. To a lot of these current members of AMOJI, there isn't anything too "unique" about the bands and music that is shown during the club meetings. Their reasons for participating fall more within the realms of a social youth culture, rather than a musical one. It is a place for these kids to hang out after school, meet new friends, and not do homework. While the music is definitely something they enjoy, it is not the primary factor for a lot of the members.

And then, there was the whole appeal factor that was missed altogether. I left that question open-ended because I really wanted to know what made these kids want to go to the club meetings, week after week. With the exception of the founder of the club, none of the interviewees made any reference to the way the artists look. It may be just poor questioning on my end, but I am surprised that no one had mentioned it. The email that got sent out had this introduction:

"This is part of an ethnographic project for my Musical Youth Cultures class. I've chosen to study AMOJI as an example of student-led youth culture; in particular, I am interested in the appreciation for the aesthetics/visual appeals of performers, since that was what originally drew me to the club. I know that AMOJI has undergone changes throughout the years, so of the questions below, please answer whatever is applicable to you. I am interested in anything you have to say about AMOJI, regardless of whether or not it is related to music."

I guess a lot of the kids just didn't read that first sentence. I did say that I wanted them to answer openly, and tell me how they perceive the club to be, regardless of whether or not it has to do with music, because, well, if they're not there for the music, their responses don't exactly help me. And I didn't want to be biased. I wanted to really know who was there for the music, and who wasn't.

Anyway, from here on, I think I will switch my focus from visual appeals to language barriers. A lot of the interviewees mentioned this "feel" the music has. This, too, is interesting. AMOJI is a club that emphasizes international rock and alternative, which means that a lot of times, the songs are not in English. Yet, people still enjoy the music.

Here are a few more bits of interview responses to the question "What's so appealing about the perfomers?" all related to the "feel" of music:

From "Dan":
"Their music makes you think, and it is based on things that you may not relate to, but that can inspire you."

From "Kay":
"The music, for me. The sound of the vocalist' voice, the guitar, the beat. Also, the personalities of the band members, particularly LM.C. They are such dorks, haha. It's nice to know that popular musicians are just normal people too. Asian artists tend to have tons of behind the scenes + fun footage, so they give their fans a good glimpse into their lives."

From "Shauna":
"They have an awesome sound and actually put feeling into their music. They write songs about real things, real problems, not about getting money or sex or killing people. They inspire me to make good music myself - I play guitar and try to write songs, but it doesn’t really work out - and I feel connected to the lyrics, identifying with the things they say."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Notes (a tad overdue)

I've been interviewing people on the phone, recording through Audacity, but it's not clear enough. After getting frustrated with recording, I decided to send out a survey to some past and present members of AMOJI instead. I'm waiting for responses. For now, here are excepts from 3 interviews that I think are useful (I'll post the interviews in their entirety later, I promise!):

From Sophia, the founder of AMOJI.

Jess: What is more appealing to you, the looks, or the music itself?
Sophia: well.. I usually listen to the music before I see what the artist looks like
Sophia: so.. I still don't know what A Perfect Circle / Sevendust and such looks like. and I didn't know what Dir en grey looked like when I started out.
Jess: So, looks were always secondary?
Sophia: for me, yeah. looks were a plus
Sophia: but not the main thing that enticed me
Sophia: there are fans that just loves the looks though
Sophia: and though the VK fanbase is all over the world, we'd be kidding ourselves if we said we didn't love the uniqueness and .. emphasis? on looks the bands have
Sophia: a lot of the fans are also adolescents. but I think it's more because it's during this age teens find new stuff to wrap themselves as opposed to the performers intentionally seeking out this age group

From "Mark." He was 17 when he first joined AMOJI.

Jess: So, tell me a little about what you liked in the club's choice of music.
Mark: The interesting thing about the bands that Sophia introduced to me is that the music speaks to you; the music has meaning beyond the words that are spoken. Despite not being able to understand Japanese, the music has a quality that allows it to be understood

From "Ann." She was 16 when she joined AMOJI.

Jess: In particular, tell me about your musical experiences there. (Do you find new music to listen to? Do you bring your own music for others to sample? How do you feel about the musical atmosphere?)
Ann: I started listening to some of the artists that were introduced to me there - i.e. DBSK [a Korean boy band]. I didn't go to the club that many times to bring my own music in to share, but Sophia had a nice way of bringing in all different kinds of music genres, and not all just from one.
Jess: What's so appealing about such performers?
Ann: They were super hot in the "Triangle" video and have pretty voices.

Short analysis: Music always comes first -- but looks still bind the youth culture together.

Oh, and I was wrong in the first post: AMOJI was created in 2005, not 2003. Sophia had started a club in 2003 as well, but that one had nothing to do with AMOJI. I just got them mixed up. Sorry!


Here's a running list of articles I've found useful:

Mitchell, Tony. 1989. “Performance and the Postmodern in Pop Music.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 273-293.

Auslander, Philip. 2006. “Music as Performance: Living in the Immaterial World.” Theatre Survey, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 261-269.

O’Connor, Alan. 2002. “Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punks and Theories of Cultural Hybridity.” Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 225-236.

Hollands, Robert. 2002. “Divisions in the Dark: Youth Cultures, Transitions and Segmented Consumption Spaces in the Night-Time Economy.” Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 153-171.

Monday, September 24, 2007

All Music Of Jammin' Internations

AMOJI, All Music Of Jammin' Internations, is a student-run organization at Boston Latin School that emphasizes on sharing and spreading international art and music. When the club was first created in 2003, the focus was on Japan -- its music, its manga, its fashion. Although AMOJI is a school-based group, the members regularly attend performances by local and mainstream music artists outside of school. During high school, I was only a part-time participant; I occassionaly dropped by during their Wednesday afternoon gatherings, stayed to watch a music video or two, then went on my way. Still, I felt a connection to the other members of AMOJI because we all had something in common -- an arguably obsessive love for the visual appeals of artists and their performances: clothing, makeup, the way they sing, the way they dance. For this project, I hope to explore this obssession, find out why high school students aged 13 to 18 are so drawn to the visual aspects of music.