Chinked out

Magnetic North: Staying conscious enough just to hit replay

Published October 20, 2006 6:09PM (EDT)

This post was originally going to be brought to you by nanotechnological rice. Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and technology studies researcher who keeps a close eye on nanotech developments, lumped together a group of links on his blog devoted to the topic of nano-rice. Seemed like red meat for this blog to chew on.

But the first thing I felt compelled to click on was an amateur YouTube video titled "Nano Rice Infomercial" produced by Joel. Joel's MySpace page says he is a 14-year-old living in Alisa Viejo, Calif. His YouTube page says he is 58 and lives in Laguna Hill. I'm inclined toward the first possibility. Judging by his list of favorite videos on YouTube, he's an Asian-American teen with creative inclinations. But while I fully support, in principle, the idea of teenagers making satirical videos about nanotech, the production values are not so hot.

But leafing through the favorite videos was rewarding, a strange mixture of voyeurism and cultural anthropology. Who am I, a 44-year-old white mail Internet journalist, to make sense of the pop cultural proclivities of an Asian-American teenager in Southern California? I may have studied China, lived in Taiwan, and speak a little Mandarin, but I'm still on the other side of a vast divide.

On the other hand, my own kids are hurtling toward full-fledged membership in a culture where discourse is conducted via MySpace and YouTube, and my son is especially obsessed with Asian-flavored pop culture. Maybe I could pick up some tips.

Joel links to a couple of news clips: Chinese training for the 2008 Olympics and the spread of the NBA internationally. There are lots and lots of snippets of martial art action -- Joel's got kind of a ninja thing going. But who doesn't? There was an ultra-melodramatic ballad from Malaysian singer Wang Guangliang who has made it big on the Taiwanese music scene. A little more interesting was another music video, this one from American-bred Wang Leehom, who merges hip-hop, classical Chinese musical elements, and Mandarin and English lyrics into a style that he calls, in a masterly example of cultural reappropriation, "chinked out."

I'm a sucker for cultural reappropriation.

But what really caught my eye was a clip from the animated series Naruto set to the soundtrack of a hip-hop song from an Asian American Berkeley duo called Magnetic North. The graphic novel series Naruto is a huge seller in the United States, a fact that is driven home for me every time I wake my son up for breakfast and his first conscious act is to pick up his latest installment and start reading. A Berkeley Asian-American duo providing the soundtrack to a Naruto video is just too close to my home territory to ignore. It's like they're rehearsing in my attic.

Magnetic North is not available via iTunes and you can't find a review of their first album on PitchFork, but in the era of MySpace and YouTube, that means nothing. I am now fully up to date on them. I have now watched them perform live at the second annual Vietnamese American Student Conference held in Austin, Texas, in March. I've also seen a news feature on them them that ran on "Television Korea." Four of their songs are available to listen to on their MySpace page. The album is easily purchasable, direct from the band, via PayPal.

Why would you want to do this? Well, you could, like me, be entranced by the sweet sound of their hip-hop cover of the '70s classic by Dobie Gray, "Drift Away." You could fully support, in principle, Asian-American U.C. Berkeley grads adopting the language of hip-hop to rap about the stigmatization of their own minority group. Or, you could, while conceding that they might be a little more Disney Channel-ish than another Asian American Berkeley-bred hip-hopper, the up-and-coming Lyrics Born, just groove on the malleability and promiscuous intercourse of global culture. Anime meets hip-hop. Classical China goes MTV. YouTube sucks it all in and splashes it all out. Mix it up, mash it up, chink it out. I defy you to watch a bunch of Vietnamese Americans dancing their hearts out to "Drift Away" and not smile. Globalization ain't all bad. Not when a nanotech watcher in Calgary tips me off to a band from my backyard that does soundtracks for the novels my 8-year-old is reading.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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