Ever hear of the L.A. Boyz? During the 1990s, this Orange County trio of two brothers and their cousin amassed 10 albums, two compilations and three autobiographies, yet never once blipped onto American pop radar. Instead, the Boyz were huge stars in Taiwan after relocating there in the early ’90s. Compared to Asia‘s bubblegum-pop scene, the Boyz’s middling New Jack swing sound and hip-hop dance steps made them instant luminaries, reaping them status that they would never have found in the U.S. Hardly unique, the Boyz were among a wave of Asian-Americans — including Taiwan‘s top VJ, David Woo, and Seoul’s Korean-American band Solid — who went west across the Pacific in search of fame.
For my clique of Asian-American peers in the States, these sojourners were a source of envy and amusement alike — we coveted their success but poked fun at their kitschy, cutesy fusion-pop style. Certainly, we never thought these prodigal sons and daughters would ever return home to crash the American charts. Yet suddenly we have Coco Lee in our midst.
Like her contemporaries, the Hong Kong–born Lee grew up in the States (San Francisco) and then moved to Taiwan in the mid-‘90s to find superstardom. She’s cut a dozen albums in Asia, to the tune of 6 million records sold, and has a lucrative contract with Sony‘s 550 Music to make the diasporic bounce from Asia back to the States. Her debut American LP, Just No Other Way, dropped recently, and her hi-NRG single ”Do You Want My Love“ is already making the club rounds.
Five years ago, people couldn’t have cared less for an Asian-American singer — anyone remember Motown‘s Gerry Woo? — but now everyone’s all but slobbering over Lee, and not just over her press photos. For one thing, there‘s the understandable desire to champion Lee in her unwitting role as Asian America’s pioneering diva. The last big Asian-American vocalist was Pat Suzuki, a singer who recorded several pop albums with RCA Victor — in the 1950s and ‘60s. Moreover, as a self-professed soul singer rather than a bubblegum popateer, Lee breaks out of the white pop–vs.–black soul binary. Her potential for success could open the door for Asian-American artists long ignored and invisible.
Unfortunately, for all her symbolic import, her talents as an artist fail to compel. Though she’s no worse a singer than, say, Christina Aguilera or Jennifer Lopez, Lee‘s styles on Just No Other Way are derivative at best, a hodgepodge of pop and R&B blueprints taken from Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Madonna, among others. In a market where the ”alternative“ (D’Angelo, Macy Gray, etc.) have prospered by striking notes of difference, Lee‘s material is strictly cookie-cut for the mainstream. The Frankie Knuckles–produced single ”Do You Want My Love“ is paint-by-numbers club fare, ”Can We Talk About It“ sounds like a throwaway R. Kelly track, and ”Crazy Ridiculous“ is an awkward attempt to inject urban slanguistics into a ’70s-inspired disco-funk bounce.
Beyond the album itself, I find it disturbing how Lee‘s potential for success is predicated on pop music’s need for a new flavor-of-the-month following the Latin explosion. The media fanfare is most telling: A Magazine: Inside Asian America has Lee on a recent cover asking, ”Can Coco Lee become Asian America‘s answer to Ricky Martin?“ The Village Voice similarly suggests that ”Lee follows in Ricky Martin’s footsteps,“ and Interview writes that ”Lee has the goods to spearhead the 2000 Asian Invasion.“
After decades spent on WASP lockdown, maybe it‘s a sign of progress that the industry is now down to kick it with the b-boys and butter Ricans. In reality, though, what’s being marketed isn‘t talent but the lure of ethnic exotica. With Ricky’s hips and Jennifer‘s ass becoming bigger commodities than their albums, the industry is quick to tout Lee’s slinky image as proof that Asian America is ready to get chic-y with it, too.
I ain‘t mad at Lee for trying to get hers. With the hordes of other soul slingers attempting to crack the urban charts, Lee’s no less deserving than the rest. But her tokenizing as Asian America‘s ”spearhead“ into the music industry not only overstates her own abilities but insults the work laid down by the dozens of forebearing Asian-American artists who struggled in a time when Asian-ness was drab, not fab. Coco Lee might break through to kick off a new inv(asian) of talent, but what good is a pioneer who only proves that Asian-Americans are just as capable of creating musical mediocrity as everyone else?