In a music video circulating on Facebook, a saccharine girl group dances inside the Wilshire and Western subway station wearing oversized sports jerseys with chunky gold jewelry and sideways ball caps. “It’s an easy ride/and it feels just fine/no parking or traffic lights/choose the easy ride,” the Auto-Tuned pop chorus repeats.
The video is one of a series of ads Metro produced and paid to promote on Facebook, hoping to convince young people, amidst flagging passenger numbers, that using transit isn’t just easy and inexpensive — it’s cool.
The videos feature local bands riding the trains and buses while belting out instructional tunes. They’ve been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Metro paid creative agency Conceptive several thousand dollars to produce each video, according to Metro spokesperson Kim Upton. Then Metro paid Facebook to ensure the videos would pop up in the feeds of the demographic Metro has long insisted will become frequent users of subways, light rail and buses: millennials.
Z. Woods, a 29-year-old Asian-American musician who lives in Koreatown, is Metro’s target demographic. But the Swedish-born R&B producer didn’t come across the catchy videos on social media. His friends sent him the clip during an email exchange as they critiqued and questioned misrepresentations of Asian-Americans in popular culture.
It is one of several Metro videos that has fueled criticism online, including accusations that the mammoth transit agency is exploiting ethnic stereotypes.
Woods viewed Metro’s video as rife with contradictions that seemed to conflate separate Asian cultures: It was shot in Koreatown, yet none of the girls sang in Korean. The three Japanese and one Chinese-American band members shrieked in Japanese, English and Mandarin — three of the languages Metro says are frequently spoken by its riders, according to Conceptive. (Metro’s largest ethnic ridership is Spanish speakers.)
Upton insists Metro gave no directions to reach or represent a particular ethnic demographic.
“K-town is such a huge community, the biggest Korean community outside of Korea, and seeing Metro insensitive to that fact,” Woods says, “it’s just carelessness.
“For me, it perpetuated a stereotype, you know?” he adds. “Especially in the Asian-American creative community, we’re trying to go against this whole stereotype because a lot of talent that’s out there, they’re kind of gimmicky.” He named acts such as the “Gangnam Style” Korean pop sensation Psy.
David Wendell, a partner at Conceptive, who helped conceive and produce the video, was baffled to hear that the videos had garnered pushback.
The intent wasn’t to make fun of anyone, Wendell says. “It’s really just producing absurd situations and having fun with it.”
Upton says the negative comments on Metro’s Facebook page are just “the nature of new media.”
Both explain that the Metro project is an earnest attempt to celebrate L.A.’s diversity and rich music culture by pairing local musicians with useful transit tips.
Wendell says: “Let the bands do what they do well, use their style and songwriting ability to tell the story they wanted to tell.”
The problem is, the Japanese-singing band that irritated Woods and his friends wasn’t even really a band — it was essentially a creation of Metro itself.
Last summer, Wendell found a K-pop group called Unique, but it split up. Some members reunited as English-speaking glam-rock quintet Akari Mon Amour.
Their sound was too heavy for delivering transit tips, decided the male guitarist, who wears a mask onstage and goes by the name Nika Scarecrow. Given the chance for attention and income from a Metro ad campaign, he did what any enterprising artist might: He created a band that fit Metro’s needs.
Cursed 4 candies was born, and Metro had inadvertently created its own J-pop band.
“We thought, OK, let’s just do this and wait for when [the video] comes out, and when it comes out, we use that as a start,” says Scarecrow, who is C4C’s producer but was far more eager to endorse his real project, Akari Mon Amour.
“For us, we don’t want to use this [Cursed 4 candies] video too much for promotional use [because] we don’t consider it a song,” he says, “We consider it a jingle, if you know what I mean.”
That a government agency exercised little creative control over its self-promo may be one reason Metro has attracted negative scrutiny from musicians. Woods, the hip-hop and R&B producer, says that even minor depictions of Asian stereotypes (think: clownish pop groups singing broken English) contribute to racial biases he experiences regularly as an Asian-American artist.
“This is not a small business we’re talking about. This is public transportation — the infrastructure of the city,” Woods says. “For them to portray such bad judgment in terms of creative judgment and control, it shocked me.”
He’s not alone in his disdain toward Metro’s clumsy effort. Shinya Mizoguchi, an independent producer from Japan now living in San Pedro, says the video was a distasteful J-pop parody. “It just pissed me off,” says the artist, who records under the name StarRo. “You know when someone is mimicking a foreign language, it almost feels like you understand but it doesn’t make any sense?”
He’s not even sure who Metro wanted to reach in order to prop up its lackluster mass-transit use. Some lyrics are in Japanese and Mandarin. But the style caters more to Americans, Mizoguchi says.
Wendell explains: “Most of the people we worked with and were talking to felt like J-pop was a more commercially viable way to go to boost ridership, so that was the way we approached it.”
Not every band is bothered by Metro’s campaign. El Conjunto Nueva Ola, the mostly Westside-based rock band from Mexico City, couldn’t be happier, thanks to the Metro video that’s notched more than 110,000 views of Metro’s paid-for Facebook posts.
In the video, the six-piece cumbia group packs its gear onto a Metro bus while wearing the Mexican wrestling masks for which they are known. Lead singer Urbano Lopez serenades riders as the bus cruises through heavily Latino Boyle Heights.
“Most bands would be opposed to something like that because they would consider it cheesy,” says Lopez, who views the campaign as a tool for teaching Angelenos how to use transit. “But our artistic vision usually flirts with humor and that kind of aesthetic, so I mean, we thought it was going to be hilarious.”
He agrees some viewers might see the music video as a racially typecast “nightmare,” right down to the groups’ directive to sing in Spanglish, presumably to appeal to bilingual audiences.
“I see how some people would raise an eyebrow and think, ‘What the hell is this?’?” he says. “To us, it’s work, really. It has helped us. … If I’m going to be seen as the funny Mexican guy that wears the wrestling mask … and a mariachi suit, that’s fine, I don’t really care, because that’s what I am, really,” he adds.
As for Cursed 4 candies, Scarecrow is hoping the band holds together, to explore a more organic, experimental foray into music — on their own terms. They plan to record songs with a new Korean singer in the coming months, but Scarecrow says they are in no rush.
Besides, they have a lot to prove. The Metro video is “not entirely representative of what we can do,” he says. “We can do [music that is] a little more complex and cooler than that.”