Not So Foreign: A Conversation on Writing About Non-Western Music
I chat with fellow writer Michael Hong of the Mando Gap about the thought process behind editing and writing our newsletters covering East Asian music
This is a feature from This Side of Japan issue #27. You can return to the main newsletter here.
Writing about music is certainly fun, but I can also feel lost. A lot of questions come up while I work on my drafts. How should I talk about this subject? Is it OK to use this reference? Would people understand me if I said this? Though these questions can arise for any music writer, it feels a bit tougher when there aren’t many examples to consult as guidance for writing about something specific as Japanese music.
It’s an overwhelming task to discuss music that’s not as covered by Western music publications, for listeners who aren’t very familiar with the scenes and history. Not every genre label translates; “alternative rock” describes different style between America and Japan’s rock music. References can start to get political. How many times have you read that a pop singer is the Asian facsimile of an American one? And my curation has more weight to it when I think about how I’m one of the few providing any recommendations at all. I provide a small window to the country’s music, and it’s up to me to decide what they see and hear.
I’m fortunate to know a few music writers like Michael Hong who I can discuss these experiences with. Michael currently edits and writes the Mando Gap, a Substack newsletter covering new Mandopop releases, and he also reviews pop singles from all over the globe at the Singles Jukebox (where I also sometimes contribute). I wanted to chat with him as a fellow writer covering East Asian music to see if some of the things I thought about was on his mind as well. Mandopop is a scene with its own place in the Asian music sphere, separate from Japanese music, but I was also glad to find some common points in our process.
I also wanted to share this conversation to make our writing and editorial processes more transparent for anyone else out there covering similar topics. Or anyone aspiring to write about them in some capacity. I always stress that it’s music writing like any other, just trying to make something more familiar and richer in context, but there are also some unique obstacles that come up while trying to do so. Hopefully, it can be one guide to look at because I know I can use some myself when I get lost.
Ryo: I got to know you through the Singles Jukebox, blurbing about pop music from all sorts of places, but I don’t know much else about you as a writer. What got you into writing about music? What kind of music did you start writing about?
Michael: I actually got my start writing about music from the Singles Jukebox! Before that, the only things I had written were on my private Blogspot, things that were only for myself. I kind of applied to the Singles Jukebox on a whim, just because I didn’t really have many people in my life who shared the same interests in pop music as me, and I thought that it’d be a great way to get my thoughts on my latest pop obsessions out there and also work on improving my writing.
Ryo: I don’t think I’d be engaging with non-Western music as a listener and critic had I not started writing for the Singles Jukebox. One of my biggest learning experiences as a writer came from trying to blurb about songs from an artist whom I didn’t know, based in a scene and country I was not at all familiar with, sung in languages I did not understand. Have you had any similar experiences writing for the site? How did you get over that obstacle?
Michael: Yeah, definitely. I remember the week I started, we covered Sơn Tùng M-TP’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg. I hadn’t heard any music from Vietnam, so at the time, it was a struggle to try and blurb about something like that. East Asian artists in particular listen not only to Western artists but also each other, heavily borrowing different things. Lyric translations can often be helpful, but the most rewarding thing for me was opening myself up to music from a more diverse background, trying to just be more curious about what kind of music is coming out from different areas. It’s definitely helped me rely less on focusing on any one part of the music, like the lyrics; and being able to pick at different parts, like where pieces of the production might be coming from; and contextualize what a track is doing differently compared to others from the same scene.
“Hãy Trao Cho Anh” by Sơn Tùng M-TP (ft. Snoop Dogg)
Ryo: I want to go back to that point you brought up about East Asian pop artists listening to Western artists. I think it gets missed in context sometimes, that the former is in conversation with the latter. You see a lot of acts influenced by Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and recently Billie Eilish in one way or another partly because Western pop music is just pop music in those countries, occupying the same space in the mainstream as the domestic acts.
I struggle to relay that context in my writing. I don’t want it to read like the many reductive descriptions of “they are the [Western artist] of [East Asian country]” that’s made by other writers because they lack any points of reference outside of Western music. On the other hand, though, sometimes an American artist ends up being the most apt connection to make when talking about a certain record; sometimes that one indie-rock band in Japan really is directly lifting their style from Mac DeMarco. How does mentioning Western music work whenever you write about East Asian music? Do you try to stray away from it? Do you feel comfortable connecting those dots?
Michael: There have definitely been comparisons of East Asian artists to Western artists that have felt extremely lazy—a big one is how G.E.M. has often been referred to as “China’s Taylor Swift” and even she herself has struggled to find any commonalities beyond being a popular woman writing her own music. Whereas, there’s comparisons like the influence of what The Weeknd and Dua Lipa were doing with the 80’s synth-pop sound on K-pop. The former comparison comes out as lazy and dismissive of G.E.M., as it doesn’t really help contextualize who G.E.M is or what she sounds like; the second at least tells you a lot about the music. Comparisons between these groups of artists help you understand where you might have heard that style before and where these artists are coming from when they produce something that sounds so similar.
“Light Years Away” by G.E.M.
Michael: I think the second kind of comparison can be especially helpful to any readers who aren’t familiar with that scene. These comparisons don’t just highlight specific influences of an artist, but they can also help readers understand the shape of the scene, like what prevailing trends are popping up in markets. It’s the former comparison I try to avoid, the one that begins and ends with a “Asian [Western artist].”
When I draw comparison between Asian artists back to Western artists, I try to strike a balance, to help create a sense of familiarity for those who might not be as into the scene as I am while also allowing the music to stand on its own. Back to one of your examples, many Asian artists are definitely listening to Ariana Grande and incorporating parts of her sound into their own work, but as much as the comparison may help contextualize it, as a writer you need to go beyond that. Readers should be able to understand what a track sounds or feels like without having to rely solely on your comparison to Grande.
Ryo: I realized that the opposite can happen too, where I can keep my references too close within the scene I’m writing about, and so readers outside of that scene won’t understand the comparisons you’re making. Like you said, there’s got to be a balance.
Sometimes, an artist or a type of music is so unique to the scene that it’s challenging to describe it other than itself. I encounter this a lot writing about mainstream Japanese rock music. A term like “alternative rock” has too much of a Western connotation to properly tag as it such, but “J-rock” either sounds too nebulous or too dependent on the reader’s own understanding of it. Does Mandopop have any music like this? How do you get around this problem?
Michael: Recently, Mandopop has mostly taken the traits of established styles from other scenes. For example, the R&B/hip-hop scene tends to mostly take from American R&B/hip-hop, the idol pop scene sees a lot of electro-pop and bubblegum pop that takes a lot of inspiration from the J-pop and K-pop scenes. But there’s a certain style of music, known as zhongguofeng (中国风) within Mandopop that can’t be described using other styles.
In its simplest terms, zhongguofeng, which translates to “Chinese style,” is essentially the combination of contemporary pop music and Chinese elements, for example lyrical motifs specific to Chinese culture, Chinese melodies, and Chinese instruments, like guzheng. It was more popular in the 2000s, from artists like Jay Chou, David Tao, and Wang Leehom, but as of recently has kind of become less and less prominent, so I haven’t really had a chance to cover it.
“赵方婧” by 音阙诗听, a current-day example of zhongguofeng
Michael: Because zhongguofeng is kind of its niche, it becomes a lot harder to cover a standalone single when you address the genre without going too in depth. Pentatonic scales and Chinese instruments may be more discernible to casual listeners than lyrical motifs, but all the elements that make it that combination style are definitely worth discussing.
One thing about zhongguofeng that’s worth mentioning is that because it’s fallen out of favor, a lot of the Western components become more noticeable, easier to separate from the Chinese components. I almost covered VaVa’s “Eazy Life” for my December issue, but the way this track is constructed lends itself a nice introduction to the genre: it’s easy to cover the elements that might be familiar to foreign audiences (VaVa’s rapped verses and the Auto-Tune layers on the chorus) and move deeper into the Chinese elements, like the background string instruments that make it so specific to zhongguofeng.
But more often, these styles become inseparable, and for me to introduce a zhongguofeng-style track without giving readers any background on it, it’d often be more surface-level discussion on that style. It’s a kind of a trade-off: you get to promote some of the zhongguofeng music that’s not really addressed elsewhere, but you don’t get to go as in-depth as you may like to discuss its pieces. In the future, I’d love to do a piece more dedicated to the style, so that it’d be possible to cover zhongguofeng tracks and projects in the future.
Ryo: It’s also hard to approach a niche topic when there are not many examples in which to approach it. How do we talk about something that’s not very often talked about? And it’s daunting enough to just put words on a blank page to begin with. Are there any writers or writing you consult as a guide whenever you write about Mandopop or any other foreign music outside of Western music coverage? What do you take away from them as sort of an inspiration?
Michael: There’s only currently a few English publications that even bother to touch Mandopop. Asian Pop Weekly has some nice features, including interviews with Mandopop artists that strike a really nice balance between art and the personal and some really great features that go in-depth on the context of Mandopop scenes. The other place for Chinese music coverage is RADII; however, most of their coverage focuses on indie music. That’s an interesting thing about Chinese music coverage in the Western sphere. I see so much more coverage of the indie scene than I do of the pop scene. If you’re interested in Chinese music outside of pop, one of the best people to follow is Josh Feola, who’s great at highlighting the particular influences of artists and providing context to understand what makes their music Chinese to anyone unfamiliar with the scene.
In terms of pop music coverage though, I tend to look outside the Mandarin context. Your newsletter was actually a huge inspiration for me when starting Mando Gap and I love the way you balance things. Because Mando Gap is written for an audience unfamiliar with any kind of Chinese music, I had to ask myself questions like: how much do I need to talk about certain production elements and how Chinese they are? Do I need to translate lines or is it enough to highlight the meaning only? How much context do I need to give behind an artist? Behind a scene? It’s not something someone has to worry about in quite the same way when they cover English music, and I love the way you balance things, giving enough to understand an artist’s intentions without overwhelming and distracting from the music.
I also took a lot of inspiration from Joshua Minsoo Kim’s year-end coverage of K-pop back on the former version of Tone Glow when I was writing my year-end list last year. I love how he showcased the diversity of the K-pop scene and how his writing feels so personal beyond its explanations of why the music was so great. Apart from that, I also love looking at how other writers on the Singles Jukebox approach music from a scene foreign to them and seeing what particular elements they might focus on, what kinds of things people are listening for.
Ryo: What I like to read, too, to get my writing brain going are columns like Passion of the Weiss’s The Rap-Up or Bandcamp Daily’s monthly genre round-ups—columns where the writer specialize in a certain beat. It helps me get into the perspective of a reader and what they look for from writers introducing them to a certain scene that their audience might not be too familiar with.
I find it interesting how you pointed how English-language publications tend to cover more of the indie or the underground more than the pop and mainstream. It’s only natural for coverage to turn out that way, I suppose: as a music writer, people should focus on highlighting the under-represented, who tend to be the artists operating on the fringes. But it becomes another dilemma when the pop stuff relatively lacks coverage as well. The scale starts to tip in an opposite direction where the audience might know all this music outside of the mainstream, but they have no grasp of artists and records commonly known by people living in the respective country.
It might not be the end of the world for someone to not know the pop hits—there are plenty of folks living in America who have ignored what has happened in pop in the past decade—though as a writer as well as a curator, I do strive to allow my audience to gain the most complete perspective of Japan’s music. So with this in mind, there goes a lot in choosing what to cover. And as you might imagine, it can be a daunting task when you only have space for three songs to feature for every newsletter issue. What goes on in your mind when you’re picking what you should cover? How do you determine a song or an artist is worth covering?
Michael: It definitely all goes back to your point about showcasing a complete perspective of a scene. For any writer, it’s never going to be possible to show someone everything; they’re limited by both their tastes and what they’re actually able to discuss. There’s scenes within Mandopop that I’m just not really that interested in, which I’m less inclined to cover. Then there’s also those tracks that I’ve loved but haven’t been able to put words into other than an easy little “this is great.” Because I’m focused on a scene that has such little coverage, sometimes I do see it as worthwhile to cover a song like that. But more often, I try to stick to music I can actually put something meaningful behind. That tends to mean being able to write about something that I can go through and talk about all the moving parts at length, that I can build a personal connection with, or even sometimes just something where I can go in-depth on the context behind it.
With every issue, I try to show that Mandopop is more than just one thing, and so I’m often pushing myself out of my comfort zone to cover a broader range of music. It’s not always just focusing on the specific things that excite me, but covering the things that lie slightly outside of my field to better represent the scene. For example, covering tracks that might represent the heights of a specific subgenre really well or projects that could represent trends within the scene or new directions that the scene might take. It’s good to remember that especially in these niche publications, you’re not just writing to help readers contextualize what they’re hearing, but more often, to help people discover new music. I try to keep that in mind, and make sure I’m balancing the things I’m excited about with the things that are really important to understand the genre or the various subgenres.
“Rendezvous” by Julia Wu & Taichi Mukai
Ryo: While we are trying to diversify our tastes and views within Mandopop or Japanese pop, we listen to music that’s a bit beyond our selected beats. We touched on some of these earlier, but we follow K-pop, keep up with Western pop and indie, and come across music from other East Asian countries like Vietnam or Thailand. How do you think this diverse listening helps with what you do as a writer? Is it necessary to keep tabs on everything?
Michael: A lot of it is related to what you mentioned earlier, how artists are in conversation with one another. Artists are constantly updating their sound with things they’ve heard. They’re collaborating with others, and not just those in their scene. The best artists are curious. I don’t see why the same shouldn’t apply for writers. Your writing can only improve by being curious of other scenes. You’ll be able to better contextualize the sounds you’re hearing and the influences of different artists.
Back in 2018, Julia Wu collaborated with Mukai Taichi—a writer who’s familiar with both the Mandopop and Japanese pop scenes on at least a basic level is going to be able to understand what parts of the production are coming from Julia Wu’s side and what parts from Mukai Taichi’s. They’re going to be able to contextualize how it fits into each scene and perhaps how it might go beyond them. They’re going to be able to understand and write about it better than any writer who’s knowledgeable of only one scene, no matter how deep that knowledge runs.
Right now, both China and Japan are running these Produce 101-style competition shows that branched off from the original South Korean version. There’s some really interesting discussion that could go into comparing these shows and the groups that come out of them, like how does the reception differ across the markets? How well do they each fare at capturing national and international attention? Are there major similarities and differences in their music styles? By limiting yourself to a specific scene, you’ll only be able to contextualize how that Produce 101-group performs within its home country, but you’re going to miss being able to look at these interesting discussions that could come out of being disciplined in multiple scenes.
These similarities and differences go beyond that example of the Produce 101 shows. By surveying scenes from a cross-genre approach, I try to look at those differences to see what makes the Mandopop scene unique, what styles and elements make it so different from another scene. I could also take a look at the similarities to show not only that these artists like Julia Wu and Mukai Taichi are listening to one another, but point at future directions for the scene. The mainland Chinese idol pop scene has always lagged behind the Japanese pop and the K-pop scenes and adopts so many of its ideas from them. But what might its future sound like? Listening to Japanese pop and K-pop that these groups are modelled after might provide some hints. Perhaps it’s possible to write about a scene and only listen to music within that scene, but by opening yourself up, being curious of other scenes, you’re only going to broaden the conversations you have behind each one.
Ryo: East Asian pop is certainly very exciting to follow right now because many scenes are in conversation with music from other countries. If you think it’s fun following Japanese music, wait until you recognize acts from neighboring countries looking over at genres like city pop, idol pop or J-rock as influences. There’s so much happening all over, and I wish more writers were actively covering it because I could definitely use more context to what I come across. If you, reader, are thinking about starting a blog, a newsletter or something on the subject, you should! I really encourage it. Is there anything else you wanted to touch on before we wrap up?
Michael: I think Asian pop is one of the most exciting scenes right now. It’s this interrelated body that’s so interesting, the way artists are both creating music that’s so specific to their genre and adopting these trends from the West and other Asian scenes. But at the same time, because there’s so much out there, it becomes a little daunting to start exploring, to learn about, say, Vietnamese or Indonesian pop. Where do you start?
For Mandopop, there’s this really poor perception that the genre is insubstantial compared to both Western and other Asian pop. I’ve definitely fallen into that trap at times before too. But it’s such a diverse genre that there’s likely at least one sub-discipline that’s interesting to you. I started Mando Gap mostly as a way to help people discover new Mandopop, and it’s still been a really rewarding experience. It’s been fun to look more critically at the genre, to examine trends and how different songs and projects fit into the genre. And there’s so much freedom in the way you can write about things since so few people are doing it. I think the rise in these niche publications is so great—they’re providing a great starting point that’s not being made elsewhere, giving not just context behind an artist’s music but allowing entry for any new listeners to get invested into the scene.