How Can I Explain: An Incomplete Oral History of Asian Americans and Our Ineffable Love of New WaveEntertainment
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/GMG
Two of the very first CDs I owned, unless my increasingly moth-ridden memory is betraying me, were Erasure’s greatest hits album Pop! and the Pet Shop Boys’ Very, whose bright orange, Lego-like case I can still recall to this day. I ordered them in secret from a Columbia House catalog; their offer of what essentially amounted to free CDs before they made you pay up the nose for shit you didn’t want got me good. Remember that scam, where you started off by buying a handful of CDs for a penny? For a middle schooler, their promise of shackling you to a lifetime of harassment from debt collection agencies felt like an answered prayer. I probably stole my dad’s credit card to pay for my habit after the initial outlay of a single cent, thus confining him and not me to that lifetime of harassment from debt collection agencies. (He never mentioned anything though, so I got away with it, and at any rate, it’s fine now because he’s dead!)
Or did I use cash that I stole from his wallet to pay the bill that eventually came? It was so long ago that the details of how I got those CDs in my hands have faded, but what hasn’t faded was how slipping Pop! and Very into my Discman and pressing play made me feel, and feel things I did, what I would now describe as barely formed lust and longing and joy but what I experienced at the time as just a simple happiness. I could just dissolve into the synth.
It was only when I entered adulthood and met other Asian Americans—mostly, but not all, the children of Chinese and Korean immigrants, and all part of the post-1965 diaspora—that I realized I had caught the tail end of a little-understood but widespread phenomenon. Asian American kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, seemingly no matter where you lived, fucking loved New Wave. (Around the same time, in a related but distinct phenomenon, Vietnamese American kids—the children of refugees, or young refugees themselves—similarly embraced a sort of European disco, dubbed Vietnamese New Wave.) We didn’t just like it—it had become, over time, a part of our identity, a marker that you were in the group, whatever group that was.
My oldest sister, who was seven years older than I was, had introduced me to New Wave, not only Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys but Depeche Mode, New Order, shortly before she and all of her records went off to college in California. Man. I loved this music so much, which for a while felt to me like a strange love—or a strangelove, haha—for a Chinese American pre-teen growing up in south Texas in the mid-’90s to possess. It wasn’t really what my friends were listening to, after all. In high school, I would make mix CDs for them filled with songs by these white English dudes, much to their confusion. New Wave was always what I turned to when I wanted to dial up my emotions—luxuriate in a blue mood, or feel bliss. Having at some point misplaced the CDs from my childhood, I spent a not-insignificant amount of time my freshman year in college hunting down Erasure’s banger “Love to Hate You” on Napster, a song I was desperate to listen to after my high school boyfriend dumped me.
But what explains it? Why was “Bizarre Love Triangle” widely dubbed the Asian American anthem? Why were there so many Asians of a certain age in the crowd at the one Erasure concert I went to on New Year’s Eve in 2014, which was, if I even need to say it, mindblowing? Was it something akin to the well-documented love that Mexican Americans have for Morrissey and the Smiths? How can I explain?
I’m not the first to ask these questions. I’m not sure there are any definitive answers—but I decided to try to find some. So I sought out other Asian Americans from the ’80s and ’90s—New Wave freaks, music critics, academics—and asked them one simple question. Why???
Jim Lee, Asian American Studies professor: I remember the first time I saw a cassette of the Depeche Mode compilation Catching Up with Depeche Mode, it was like 1985, and these guys, these heavily made-up guys. I remember Martin Gore was showing his nipple on the album cover. And I was like, who is this? Who are these people? And yeah, that was kind of revelatory for me. Like this is a completely different kind of style, sound, a completely different ethos.
Oliver Wang, music critic and sociology professor: When Depeche Mode did their big 101 concert at the Rose Bowl, that was the first live show I ever went to, because my cousin and his friends all got tickets and I thought, sure, why not.
The Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, who am I forgetting, OMD, Tears for Fears—it was very much the formative music of my early teenhood before hip-hop ended up taking all of that over.
Jim Lee: The day after Depeche Mode played at Jones Beach [in 1986], the next day, every Asian American had the Black Celebration t-shirt. It was as ubiquitous as Benetton shirts were.
Joan Cheng, managing director at a fashion website: I grew up in fairly rural Ohio, and this was pre-internet. I graduated from high school in 1991. So there was not a lot of access to culture. And I went to one of those nerd SAT camps, the one at Northwestern University. It was a summer program, and some of the city kids… they were super cool, they wore lots of Benetton, and they knew all these bands that I hadn’t heard of. And so they introduced me to New Wave music.
They were more worldly. They came from the East Coast, a lot of them—New Jersey, New York, the Boston area. And for me, it really represents the first time [I felt] there was a whole other world out there, because for me, I wanted a little bit of escapism.
Cynthia Leung, founder of a public relations firm: In fifth grade, my best friend at the time, her name was Nikki Sugimoto… Her older sister was home and her older sister put on Depeche Mode. And I think my brain exploded. I just felt like it was my entire life, and I wanted to know more.
When I started making some money with my allowance, I sent in my one penny to order like 10 cassettes from Columbia House. I would take my penny, cut out that piece of paper, and I sent it in the mail, and that’s when I got New Order’s Substance and I got Catching Up with Depeche Mode.
Hua Hsu, New Yorker critic and English professor: It was my older cousin Yohan, who’s maybe three years older than me, who just suddenly really got into all this stuff. I just remember he was really into that Erasure song “Chains of Love,” which is incredible, these songs are so good. I also grew up in a suburb that was so Asian that this was just the mainstream, the normal music that Asian kids listen to. So at the time, I don’t think I liked it that much because it was just so trendy, and all the Asian kids listened to it. At the time, it seemed so monolithic, which is weird to say.
Cynthia Leung: It’s a triumvirate of New Order, Depeche Mode, and the third spot is always kind of contested. But I was speaking to my best friend, and we were like, we think the third one is Erasure.
JoAnn Yoo, executive director of a non-profit: Growing up in Colorado, I didn’t have a lot of Asian friends. I lived in an Asian enclave, but I didn’t have people my age, I was one of the oldest kids. For me, I didn’t hang out with all Asians. But I still gravitated towards them. There was a cool factor. That’s the whole preppy era. But the synths, this music was not the preppy era look. You could actually have a little edge. Not that I was, like, super edgy. I was a good kid who studied all the time. But it gave you a little edge to know who these groups were.
Lolan Sevilla, non-profit administrator and consultant: I came of age and really developed my own love of music through the creation of MTV. My parents had just split up and so I was spending a lot of time on the weekends with my now-single father who got me cable—previously we hadn’t had cable. I would just watch MTV. Also, my dad had a gambling problem, is a gambling addict. And so a lot of my childhood was spent at different mahjong dens in San Diego, different people’s houses where there would just be a TV, like a communal TV, that all the kids of the parents would go and watch.
I was exposed to music that, you know, I didn’t hear in the hood. I grew up in the projects of San Diego and so very much like R&B, hip hop, freestyle was a thing. And then for my parents, Filipino immigrants, adult contemporary easy listening was sort of the norm in the house. But MTV—not only was it this new, amazing format that blew my mind, but I was being exposed to so many different genres and artists and then New Wave in particular. I loved Duran Duran. I loved Flock of Seagulls. I loved all the New Wave, synth-pop bands that were popular. It would make me happy. Well, let me put it… It would actually make me angsty, which actually is my happy place.
the girl I went to the prom with, we were definitely not romantically interested in each other. our entire relationship was based on our love for Depeche Mode.
Joan Cheng: We would make each other mixtapes. At least for me, my high school was fairly not that culture, not very Asian American, was pretty homogenous, pretty rural white. Sending those mixtapes back and forth was a way to sort of hang on to that feeling and hang on to that part of culture that I wanted more of in my life… You feel very alone. And so this was like the gateway drug to all the other things I didn’t know about in life. And they were good things that I wanted more of.
And then I connected with the four goth kids at my high school… And then it just became this thread, that independently, all the other Asian kids we hung out with in Dayton who went to different high schools had discovered this music too. And we all listened to the same music. I don’t know how that happened, because they weren’t all at the nerd camp with me! But we all sort of glommed together.
Jim Lee: You would go to the dance, whether in high school and college and realize, oh, all these other kids like this music and oh, they all happen to be Asian American. So I must have found my tribe. Like the first time I go to one of these concerts and I’m like, half this audience in Philadelphia—which, you know, there are Asians, but there’re not that many Asians compared to New York or Los Angeles—but half the room is filled with Asian American kids.
There was just the joy of realizing, oh, you also like Erasure, and Depeche Mode, and New Order. I mean, the girl that I went to the prom with, we were definitely not romantically interested in each other. And our entire relationship was based on our love for Depeche Mode. We talked about nothing else. And she was the person that I went to my first Depeche Mode concert with.Lolan Sevilla: For my sixth or seventh birthday, my dad got me this radio with a single tape cassette player that I’d use to record songs off the radio, like every one of my generation. And yeah, I made a compilation of synth-pop songs that I loved.
I was always pining over some girl, even at like five, six, seven, eight. And that was just the soundtrack to my longing. That was my soundtrack to a lot of angst. And I was very much aware of my queerness. It just touched like longing and happiness. And just like I would often have these very elaborate daydreams. Even to this day, it’s what I still gravitate towards. I’ll listen to it just as my background when I just want to feel safe or I want to feel happy.
Cynthia Leung: At my high school [in the South Bay] we had a Battle of the Bands, and it was mainly a lot of white guy bands, and they’re trying to outdo each other on guitar. But I’ll never forget. It was at the school quad and all these kids were rocking, and at one Battle of the Bands, these two people [who were] one class older, Derek Gee and Han Lin, came out and set up two synthesizers and they were so cool. They looked like characters from a movie. They wore all black. They had wedge haircuts. They played a set of Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk and New Order, and everyone was just quiet, but in my heart, I knew, there was [this feeling] like, oh, we get each other. I was so proud. And I think it’s crazy that I still remember their names.
JoAnn Yoo: I remember going out clubbing all the time. That was it, that was the music that we played, and we would find clubs that would specifically play New Wave. Any time they would try to introduce something that wasn’t New Wave, we’d be like, yeah, let’s go get a drink.
Joan Cheng: One of the things I did in one of my AP English classes, which I can’t believe [my teacher] let me do, is that I did a whole thing on New Wave music. I don’t remember the details of the presentation, but I do remember playing for them, in class, New Wave music and what it represented to me and why was important. It was all on cassette tape, which I had to cue up, like at home, and swap out the tapes, which was really painful. I juxtaposed them with poetry, because it was English class. I think they were all very confused, but it was important for me to share, and I think it was important for me to expose my classmates to this other part of myself that I felt represented something different. It was not just about, oh, having good grades and being smart. It was really this other thing that I felt was important. I thought that this was, not my my proof of coolness, but my proof that I was not just another nerd.
Lolan Sevilla: Growing up, my musical tastes were oftentimes described as white. Because in my neighborhood, my folks were listening to Top 40 or R&B or freestyle. And so, my musical tastes, all of that was just seen as white. So it was only in adulthood that I found other folks of color who liked the music that I like.
And that was a very particular excitement as I was getting older and I started finding people who were like, oh, shit, you actually like the random music, white music, that I would get made fun of for, like in my family, for being sad-sack, depressing music.
Jim Lee: It was definitely the soundtrack of this first, second generation of Asian America, post-1965. We were kind of the early phase of this generation, trying to figure out who the hell we were, trying to figure out what Asian American identity was. There were certainly Asians who thought they were white, but I didn’t care about them.
Joan Cheng: If you went to the AA dance, that’s the music they played. It was like the anthem.
Jim Lee: When I was in college, we used to call “Bizarre Love Triangle” the Korean American national anthem, because like there was no other song that got Koreans on the dance floor like New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”Oliver Wang: I don’t actually know why we gravitated toward “Bizarre Love Triangle” as opposed to any other New Order song as opposed to any other big New Wave hit from the same era. That’s just where we landed. And it’s an inside joke. It’s a generational inside joke. In the ’90s when I was in college, like anyone I talked to who was Asian American, we were all in on it. We all understood it.
Hua Hsu: Everyone knew it, everyone loved it. And we didn’t really think about why that was, nor do we know now. It was just cool to have this little shared secret. That was the song everyone would wait for at a school dance.
Cynthia Leung: I always think of the dance floor as a metaphor because that’s when you see when people go deep into whatever song is playing. You don’t need to know the title, but they all have this collective reaction where you’re like, everyone knows this song. I think even to this day when people hear,
especially New Order, they all bond.
At our senior prom, “Bizarre Love Triangle” came on randomly and the entire dance floor cleared. And then it was Ben Cho, Eileen Tsai, and me and my prom date, and we’re just going all out.
Certain Asian Americans, when they hear the call, they know what to do and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful
Oliver Wang: It’s one of those songs where, and I’m saying this now as someone who’s been a DJ for 25-plus years… if nothing else works, you can always just pull out “Bizarre Love Triangle” and bam, like instant dance party. Everyone’s rushing. When Phil [Yu] was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his website [Angry Asian Man], he or his wife decided to throw a big celebration party. And she or Phil asked me help to DJ it. And there was a section where me and my co-DJ, who’s ten years younger but also Chinese American, we decided, let’s just go straight-up classic. And so we just start dropping all of these ’80s synth-pop hits. We knew at some point, there’s no way we’re going to DJ a party for Phil Yu—who is kind of my generation, he’s a little bit younger than me, but he knows this phenomenon—it’s like there has to be a moment where we got to drop “Bizarre Love Triangle.” And there’s no way that in this crowd, that song is going to fail. And sure enough, we put it on and it’s like, I mean, you could just feel the energy in the room completely elevate up several levels.
Cynthia Leung: Certain Asian Americans, when they hear the call, they know what to do and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It actually still makes me emotional thinking about it right now.
Jim Lee: Erasure definitely was one that you heard when you went to high school, like when some student Korean group put on some dance at a local whatever. I don’t think this was fully kind of articulated at the time, even though Andy Bell had always been more or less out, but his sexuality was kind of an unspoken but very much known thing. So I think it also allowed some Asian Americans to play into that exploration of identity.
I think both Andy Bell and then Vince Clark’s previous singing partner, Alison Moyet, both of them are like very white soul, right? Those white soul singers are able to open up our Asian American hearts.
Hua Hsu: There’s something about Erasure that did sound like very liberated and free. My cousin Yohan’s anime club, they were just really into anime and they were really into Erasure. And there is just something there, something like fantasy that I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around.
Lolan Sevilla: It very much was connected to liberation. Erasure to me is very much encapsulated by my last two years of high school when I started actually embracing my queerness and actually started finding community and in particular, my senior year when I started living more out and I had a mentor and I went to my first Pride. “Chains of Love,” “Oh L’Amour,” all of that was very much tied into my summer of my own personal liberation and finding community, finding queer community.
“Chains of Love” is directly the song that is connected to a feeling of liberation for me, and I have some very specific memories. Like my first Pride parade, that was actually playing on many different floats, it was also playing at different parties. Like, I feel titillated and I feel fearful because it’s bringing me further away from my family, further away from my neighborhood. So, you know, in the way that true liberation is being on the precipice of newness, but also like a lot of fear about letting go of what I knew as my norm.Joan Cheng: Still even now to this day, there is that emotional trigger. If you hear the first notes of those songs and you’re at a party, you immediately pick up and it just takes you back and it makes you happy. I love hip hop. I love ’90s hip hop, it’s still the best, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t give me quite that same pick up that those tones of the intro to “Oh L’Amour” does.
Lolan Sevilla: Even to this day, when Erasure comes on, it brings a joy in my body that is very, very particular. “Chains of Love, “A Little Respect,” “Oh L’Amour,” I continuously put them on mixes. It’s not like Erasure’s ever been dormant. With Erasure, it was never a nostalgic thing because I carried them into adulthood.
Hua Hsu: I remember listening to the Pet Shop Boys or Erasure and just being very unclear about what kind of people these were. Listening to the Pet Shop Boys and Neil Tennant, he just had this very kind of flat, monotone way of singing. And I have a very flat monotone speech and my teachers were always trying to get me to emote more or to be more dramatic. And I was just like, well, that’s just not how I talk and that’s not how people in my life talk, in English. They talk like that in Chinese. But I think there is something about like Neil Tennant or Barney Sumner of New Order, like the song sounds so euphoric, but it just sounds like he’s talking or just trying to sing, but not trying to sing his best. So there’s definitely, for me, something about the voice.Jim Lee: It was music that was a really great soundtrack of loneliness and alienation, but it was also something you could dance to, and you could imagine dancing to it with other people, even if you were sitting on your bed by yourself. So I think it was like that combo for me.
Joan Cheng: I went to a Pet Shop Boys concert maybe five years ago. I was with a girlfriend who is Asian American from the Midwest. And we were like, oh, wow. It’s like all old Asian Americans and old gay guys. It’s a very specific demographic.
Lolan Sevilla: I saw Erasure in college in the Bay [Area], it was at an AIDS danceathon. We’d have these AIDS danceathons, and you’d get people to sponsor you for this, I want to say it was a 24-hour dance party. And so throughout the 24 hours, different artists would come, Crystal Waters, Salt-N-Pepa. And Erasure was there.
It was in San Francisco at the Moscone Center. The crowd went wild, and it was predominantly a lot of gay men. That was the first time I’d been in such a huge space where other people just were having a collective experience of joy, and it was when “Chains of Love” came on that the whole room just erupted. It was thousands and thousands of people.
Hua Hsu: There was just something that was not as craven or aggressive or just like macho compared to American music. And I think that kind of matched who we all were. The weird thing is just that for whatever reason, it just kind of turned into everyone at my school wearing black. Weirdly, I remember a lot of kids, especially guys, just having, like, really long bangs. And I think that that was part of it, too, there was some kind of innate shyness that I think the songs spoke to as well.
Cynthia Leung: You don’t see these portrayals of Asian American kids who are listening to, again, the triumvirate of New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, and you’re listening to them so hard because they’re so emotional, but out of synthesizers. The coldest means, but so emo.
It was music for people who were like, we are misfits. We’re not part of your conventional, normal culture. And I think there’s also this dark side.
Lolan Sevilla: They just looked fucking cool. It was really great music. It was danceable. You could just dance to it. You could just sit, listen to it, ponder to it, it was multifaceted for me. And also the visual, aesthetic piece of it. I don’t know, I grew up with a lot of folks who were in gangs. I think I also had a very traditional, child of immigrant-like experience in the ’80s and ’90s. And this was just something that was very different than what I knew.
Jim Lee: I remember one day I went over to [a friend’s] house and went out to go play tennis, and it started to rain. And so we went to his car to wait out the rain and he puts in Black Celebration and in the rain, I’m listening to the last song on the American version, which is “But Not Tonight” and the lyrics begin, “Oh, God, it’s raining. But I’m not complaining. It’s filling me up with new life.” And I still feel that feeling when I put on that song, equal parts nostalgia and a certain kind of joy of just being with friends and just, you know, just not doing anything that important, not having to worry about what parents are thinking, not thinking about school.But it’s also this kind of morose thing that the rain also continued to speak to, my underlying sense of loneliness that was a mark of being an Asian American kid at that time. And I might be totally wrong, but I think for a lot of Asian American kids, part of your adolescence is marked by a profound sense of loneliness, in a way that I don’t think that Asian American kids living in the San Gabriel Valley or even living in Sugarland feel today. At least for me, being kind of in some ways existentially sad was part of what I understood to be, oh, this is what it means to be a teenager in the United States. And specifically as an Asian American teenager.
Cynthia Leung: Not only are you fragile because you’re a teenager, but you’re fragile because you feel different and you feel different, not only because you’re a teenager, but because you’re a minority and you’re not part of conventional culture, or you’re not cool enough to be a goth.
Hua Hsu: Around 10 years ago, I found the Violator CD, and I started listening to it again, and it sort of transported me back to my cousin Yohan’s room and listening to these songs and thinking that I understood something about him based purely on the fact that he was into this music and trying to figure out what that was. And to have that memory now, it’s so vexing, because it’s so easy to explain so many aspects of identity. You know what I mean. It’s almost generic for people to say, like, oh, as an Asian American, I grew up listening to hip hop because I related to, you know, being a person of color or there is something about the struggle narrative, or I was into classical music because that’s how you assimilate.
But I still don’t know how to explain why this music had such a hold on me then, on my friends then, on this generation. It’s kind of like the thing where a lot of Asian immigrants grow up and their parents, for whatever reason, keep their remote control in the plastic. Who started that? I have no idea. Why did we do that? It’s so hard to explain to someone why it is.
Oliver Wang: I’ve been very curious about that same question for 20, 30 years, actually, at this point. Jesus.
Cynthia Leung: The themes that are consistent and constant in many Erasure, Depeche Mode, New Order songs, it’s always melancholic, there’s always a yearning. Oh my God, like “Regret” from New Order, it’s a later New Order song, but the intro is like pure yearning. I just think it’s like a cocktail of teenage melancholia. The Asian aspects of it, that’s like the great debate.Hua Hsu: Every Asian American I know, knows exactly what we’re talking about. But there’s no explanation. There’s no starting point that explains it. And I think that when I started listening to Violator again, it returned me to that moment of confusion and discovery, and there’s just so little confusion like that anymore. We kind of have to know why we like things, or liking something becomes a position. And nobody thought about it that way at the time. Maybe there was one incredibly cool, mopey Asian person who started listening to the first New Order record and then like, yeah, we all live in their legacy. It just reminded me of that moment where you feel like there is an identity, but you’re not stressed about explaining what it is or explaining why it is. You’re just like, oh, all of us like this thing. We’re not going to try and figure out why it is. But we see each other now.
Jim Lee: I think given the outsized role of the church in Korean American communities and the set of expectations Korean American kids were supposed to do, both at school and at home via the church—all this kind of the regimentation of Korean American adolescent life—the otherworldliness that was the sound of these bands allowed, certainly for me, this kind of other space. Foucault calls it heterotopic space, right?
When at first when I first heard these groups, it was a sound that I had never heard before. By the time I hit the age where I was wanting to think through my identity, through music, my junior high school friends, they were just full-on into the hard rock shit… this deep legacy of white guys, and a certain kind of white guy. Then you had these other white guys embracing these alternative ways of being and dressing and just comporting themselves, and then categorically rejecting that phallic symbol of the guitar, yeah, fuck the drums, all these emblems of white straight masculinity. We’re just going to get rid of them and we’re just going to do this other thing.
Oliver Wang: I knew people at high school who were really into Guns N’ Roses, but that never felt like it belonged or could belong to me. To put it bluntly, that felt like white people’s music. And I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. It’s just that it didn’t feel like it ever could belong to me. And partly it’s because you watch the music videos and you listen to the music and the performers are very much at the center of it. Whereas with a group like New Order or Depeche Mode or Erasure, even though their voices are front and center, there was just something about the performance of it. It’s not so much about, what are the lyrics saying and what did the lyrics reveal about somebody’s background or their outlook? It’s more like, I moved to this. And so I think there’s kind of a layer of identity anonymity that comes with with dance music that makes it easier for it to be universal in that sense. I think other genres of the time felt like they were much more tethered to different kinds of racial communities that especially as Asian Americans, we didn’t feel like we belonged to in any way.
One of the great things about New Order, specifically on the dance floor, is that it’s a release from language. There’s no, oh my God, do you have an accent or not?
Joan Cheng: One of the reasons why I think that Asian kids really gravitated towards it, is the dancing. Asian kids love a dance party in a circle; for a certain generation that is your experience of being at a party. And that kind of music suits that kind of dancing. It’s not like moshing, it’s not super sexy or sexualized. It’s a certain kind of dancing and it’s the right amount of poppy, but it’s also just a little bit more of an outsider feel rather than the mainstream that I think appealed to Asian kids who probably felt a little bit on the outsides and had a little bit of sadness, but not too much. It was just like the right balance of danceable, but also a little bit moodier.
Cynthia Leung: It’s often more linked to classical music. It’s not verbal. It’s like Chopin, if you want to get extra romo. It’s Bach if you want to get, like, superpower chord, or Mozart. One of the great things about New Order, specifically on the dance floor, is that it’s a release from language. There’s no, oh my God, do you have an accent or not? And that’s an indicator if you’re an FOB, fresh off the boat, and your parents don’t speak perfect English. As a dance floor person, what helps the deep, deep emotional pull of New Wave music is that it’s really not about a spoken verbal language a lot of time.
Jim Lee: I think it definitely is, again, an alternative sound that spoke in some ways to your own sense of alternative identity, this kind of [sense that] you’re marginalized or your marginal sense of identity. And it was seen as not just acceptable, but celebrated. So it allowed for us to create these other spaces of celebration. I wasn’t fully immersed in the dance culture of it all, but it was something very appealing to me, and it was very clear that it was appealing to a whole category of non-white kids. The high school that I went to, of the non-white people, it was predominantly Asian American. So it offered a musical alternative to the kind of white hegemonic forms of music that were a way of saying, “You don’t belong.” And so this was a way to create an alternative community.
Oliver Wang: What pop music ever felt like it belonged to us? There were no Asian American pop stars that we could look to. We were basically cut off from pop music in Asia. We probably wouldn’t have necessarily heavily identified with that because we were trying to prove to everyone that we were Americans. And so a music style that itself already felt like it was made by outsiders, I could see how that would appeal to people who ourselves felt like outsiders.
Lolan Sevilla: I’m one of only like three people in my family who’s left San Diego. When I think about this music, it also was a portal to a different world than what I saw around me. I knew I didn’t fit in for a variety of reasons, mostly at the time related to queerness. But now it’s also gender and my politics and once I got to be an adult, what I would value in my life. It’s the world that this music created for me, like there could be something different than what I know. Just how I dressed and how I saw myself and how I wanted to express myself and in the world. In that context, it was about alienation and my sort of otherness in the community and family and my world that I grew up in, that I gravitated towards.
Cynthia Leung: I do think for Asian Americans, a lot of New Order and a lot of Depeche Mode, a lot of New Order especially, is not about the words. You don’t even know what they’re saying half the time.
I do have a theory that the Asian-ness comes from all of the suburban Asian American kids who were forced to take piano and hammer at Chopin and Bach and Mozart. Again, it’s not about language. When you’re really hammering out scales and really also speaking East Asian tonal languages, I legitimately think that there’s some underlying psychology and cultural groundwork that you already have. And then as an Asian American, if you feel like you’re different, when someone drops New Order, Erasure, Depeche Mode on you and you’re already kind of like, oh, my parents suck, get me out of suburbia, like, get me out of this town… If you want to escape, if you think you’re a misfit, this is your anthem.
Hua Hsu: My friend Kris and I [also] had this theory that we came up with one night that we really liked, and it involved the fact that so much of this music is played on synthesizers. You already have all these kids who are learning how to play the piano and the violin, discouraged from playing the guitar or the drums. So you’re already practicing the piano, sometimes maybe you put headphones and just played whatever you want. But you’re seeing this pop music that’s very much driven by a keyboard. And the synthesizer could also replicate the orchestra sounds, so you could practice and play “Bizarre Love Triangle” or whatever. But to your parents, you were just practicing the piano. And so I think there is something about the keyboard dimension of it. That’s sort of as far as we got.
Oliver Wang: I think the one [theory] that I tend to gravitate more towards is that especially as kids growing up in suburban environments where we were outsiders because of our ethnicity and our race… A lot of these groups like Depeche and New Order, these were young people growing up in these kinds of post-industrial, abandoned cities in the UK, other parts of Europe, and so a lot of their songs are about alienation and about marginalization. And on some level, even if the social, political, economic context wasn’t the same in Reagan’s America, as children of color who really didn’t fit into any of the existing landscape ethnically or racially or culturally at the time, there was a kind of a resonance with that, that sense of alienation. I don’t think these things were necessarily hyper-obvious to us. It’s just that what we heard there somehow spoke to the experience that we had, even if we weren’t able to articulate exactly what that relationship was.
Hua Hsu: Other than these weird speculative stabs, nobody really has any idea. But I think that’s sort of what Asian American identity is in general. There’s this thing, but if you think too deeply about it, it could all fall apart. But the fact that there is this sense of community or there is this connection, that’s really cool. And sometimes it’s forged around the most random thing.