Several years ago, my friend Nick hosted my birthday party on the roof of his nice Soho apartment. I know. Lucky me.
Very few people showed up. Some, including the person I was dating at the time, interpreted this lack of attendees as an embarrassment, and then feeling sorry for me, called their friends to populate the deck. One of these tertiary guests was an Asian woman from South America in a floral body-con dress, accompanied by a “most interesting man in the world” type older gent toting an expensive guitar.
She announced herself thusly: “I want to sing you a song for your birthday, because I am trained in opera.” The air was warm and balmy. From Broome Street we heard faint murmurings of New Yorkers having the time of their lives. It was a beautiful night. A song by an opera singer! Wow sure. Why not. The deck went quiet as the guy started plucking at the guitar. She started singing Moon River.
The following morning when I returned to help clean up after the party, Nick said:
Who was that awful woman who sang Moon River for you? Oh my god how horrible.
This is why I love Nick. “I thought she was one of your friends!” I exclaimed. We joked she must’ve come with my boyfriend, we laughed and fought a hangover while cleaning, and would record our own music that summer.
I am positive Moon River Lady would have found what we recorded awful. It’s possibly unlistenable to any human ear but ours.
While I was working at Vertical in the early 00s, we curried several proposals for lifestyle books on tea ceremony and home cooking. The editorial director would point out that the “Japanese housewife” market would be ripe for these titles.
The “Japanese housewife” or shufu (主婦), is a phenomenological icon that I will go more into depth in another post. Suffice it to say for this post, I want just to define the Japanese mom as the woefully overlooked master and keeper of information on highly valued Japanese arts and culture. Anything you know about tea, or umami or shibori dye, or seafood, you may think you learned from Monocle or Jiro but it’s actually been 100% put in your head by the shufu.
Though we never disdained the shufu at Vertical, the talented matriarch was first and foremost a consumer and never the author or talent. We would never publish a book on tea ceremony by a Japanese housewife. That “honor” would be reserved for real masters—men, 100% of the time. (This has thankfully changed since the early 2000s but you’ll still know I’m telling a truth.) Untethered by their gender, family obligation; men are not prompted to master-level achievement by practical enthusiasm but rather by some so-called spiritual inspiration.
I recently shared with a friend that I am playing music again. I tell her I’ve bought a keyboard.
“That’s right. You played the piano. I mean wow, an Asian who plays the piano, right?” she says in a drawn out sarcastic tone.
“Also drums,” I whisper defiantly.
I know she’s made an innocuous comment but it depresses me and I decide never to mention music to her again.
I watch the Yo-yo Ma interview on Desus and Mero the other night and laugh at his rendition of The Thong Song. I remember that someone on Asian Twitter made fun of YYM when footage of him playing his cello while in line for the c19 vaccine went viral. He posts: does Yo-yo Ma have nothing better to do than subject strangers to his cello?
Conan O’Brien said once on his podcast that he loves playing guitar so much but it’s too embarrassing to admit. He started a band with some trained musicians, but when he sent a recording of his band to a producer on his show, to express how happy he was with it, the producer immediately sent back a Youtube of a commercial for Viagra featuring a band of grey-haired men rocking out to “Viva Viagra.” They laugh but I feel awful for him.
I said recently to an Asian American mother who is encouraging her daughter to prioritize creative arts so she doesn’t ever think her family wants her to follow a more lucrative service career in accounting or medicine: I don’t think making a career as a creative person is the hard part. It’s negotiating between the absolute dread and the excitement of making art.
I will literally never know what it’s like to play music without these dreadful feelings. The first time I quit playing music, I did it as dramatically as possible because of the dread. I dread the dread.
But each time I come back to music I’m surprised at how eventless it is. One day years ago, a friend said she didn’t want to hang out because she was going through a divorce. I hadn’t played anything in years but said, “if you don’t want to hang out we should play music instead.” She loved this idea. Suddenly we had a band and sang about nothing but pussy.
I keep picking up a guitar I never really learned. Why the fuck do I still “play” (read: make sounds with) this flute. Years go by. I’m invited to participate in a musical audience that doesn’t make sense on paper. My writing partner in LA loves the performance. I tell him I’m literally buzzing but it sounds like I’m being metaphorical. I hear shortly thereafter one of the performance’s organizers is letting friends play his drums. It’s confirmed, and he tells me I should do it. I am over the moon. He becomes my favorite person in the world to talk to.
It feels so good. I do not have a single concern about whether anything sounds good when I play. While I play, I forget about dick pills, Sheila E, Suzuki methods, Henry Mancini. I don’t care that I’m bad at it when I play. I get over the fact that I once had an award-winning Beethoven in me. I think it is actually because I am bad at this that I like it so much. I want more than anything on earth to get better.
I cannot say how good it feels to play now. It is obscene, and like most obscenities there is no evidence of it. It lives beautifully in my head. And the reason it’s all so beautiful in my head is because it is in my head.
The dread returns. It always returns, and I know it, too, is all in my head.