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 Asias bubblegum-pop scene, the Boyzs 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 Taiwans top VJ, David Woo, and Seouls 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. Shes cut a dozen albums in Asia, to the tune of 6 million records sold, and has a lucrative contract with Sonys 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 couldnt have cared less for an Asian-American singer -- anyone remember Motowns Gerry Woo? -- but now everyones all but slobbering over Lee, and not just over her press photos. For one thing, theres the understandable desire to champion Lee in her unwitting role as Asian Americas 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.
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Unfortunately, for all her symbolic import, her talents as an artist fail to compel. Though shes no worse a singer than, say, Christina Aguilera or Jennifer Lopez, Lees 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 (DAngelo, Macy Gray, etc.) have prospered by striking notes of difference, Lees 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 Lees potential for success is predicated on pop musics 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 Americas answer to Ricky Martin? The Village Voice similarly suggests that Lee follows in Ricky Martins footsteps, and Interview writes that Lee has the goods to spearhead the 2000 Asian Invasion.
After decades spent on WASP lockdown, maybe its a sign of progress that the industry is now down to kick it with the b-boys and butter Ricans. In reality, though, whats being marketed isnt talent but the lure of ethnic exotica. With Rickys hips and Jennifers ass becoming bigger commodities than their albums, the industry is quick to tout Lees slinky image as proof that Asian America is ready to get chic-y with it, too.
I aint mad at Lee for trying to get hers. With the hordes of other soul slingers attempting to crack the urban charts, Lees no less deserving than the rest. But her tokenizing as Asian Americas 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?