What does it mean to be an Asian American artist in the international independent music scene? In this special interview by R Le, Meishi Smile uncovers their roots in the Los Angeles experimental scene and explores their Asian American identity alongside the political tensions faced by Asian American artists and musicians.
Update on December 24, 2017: The author developed this story about Meishi Smile into their undergraduate senior thesis, titled “’Digital Punk Rock Spirit:’ A Spatial Reorientation of Asian American Diasporic Subcultural Subjectivities.” The thesis describes the way that groups of Asian Americans sought self-identification and carved out niches of belonging via their engagement in and their creation of subcultures informed by two primary forces: the domestic racial landscape of the United States and the international, digital influence of Japanese subcultures. It is available for free through the open-access Vassar Libraries digital repository.
Written during July 2016 by R Le
I originally wanted to expose Vassar to an internationally minded music act. At the time, I loved two Japanese Internet record labels: Maltine Records and Trekkie Trax. I discovered Meishi Smile nearly by accident while skimming the Maltine Records releases. When I found out that Meishi Smile was a 4th and 5th generation Chinese and Japanese American living in Los Angeles, I thought I could present Vassar’s Asian American students with a unique model of how it is possible to engage with the cultures of your ancestral homeland. May Yim, the artist behind Meishi Smile, also assembles and curates eclectic artists and sounds through Meishi Smile’s parent label Zoom Lens. The label does not exclusively focus on sounds from East Asia, but the dominant roots in East Asian popular music and netlabel scenes are obvious. Zoom Lens does not shy from its international leanings, but the label’s core mission is to be a haven for unapologetic self-expression.
“Zoom Lens” means to critically look beyond the surface and see what lies beyond, analyzing the personal and individualistic emotions of its artists.” — zoom-lens.org, Summer 2016
I admit that I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of Zoom Lens when I called Yim on the phone. At the time, I was still overwhelmed by the shortsighted novelty of being able to bring an “alternative” programming feature to Vassar that highlighted Asian American artists. “Why would we want to bring Wong Fu Productions? Asian Americans can be punks too!”
I was also a fan of Maltine Records and J-pop at the time, and I was intrigued by a 4th and 5th generation Chinese and Japanese American person curating music from their ancestral homeland. Starting a label and music project is not how most people express their Asian American identity.
I wanted Meishi Smile to model for Vassar what Asian American identity can look like. Meishi Smile refuses a binary where you are either only “Asian” or only “American.” We shouldn’t expect Meishi Smile or our peers to wear traditional garb or even speak daily in the language of their ancestors to prove that one is a “legitimate” Asian American. Instead, we should respect that our fellow Asian American peers come to terms with their identities in deeply personal ways that might not conform to our expectations. The love, respect, and struggle for one’s Asian American identity can manifest itself in ways that are invisible to others.
I sought an artful space for unapologetic self-expression. An event outside of the expectations and ideals of others. A place for Asian American art and culture to show a side that didn’t have to indulge in the unfavorable sides of Asian American identities: hyper-masculinity, oversaturated, heteronormative romance, and even perhaps… a little too much acoustic guitar.
But ultimately, I failed to help my Asian American peers understand. I spent hours, days, weeks, and months promoting and organizing the concert. After a week of posters plastered around campus, some monotone attempts at Facebook promotion, and a sparse Mug night performance in which only a handful of Asian American students showed up, Vassar will only remember Meishi Smile as some kid’s failed attempt to bring “Asian American indie music” to a school that was uninformed and uninterested.
It’s a shame that Meishi Smile continues to be a wildly underrated artist, even at a place like Vassar that likes to believe it is open-minded and keen to artistic talent.
I guess it is only after months of consideration that I can answer the question: What is Meishi Smile? Why does it matter?
Meishi Smile borrows from a variety of sounds to reorient the expectations we place on those influences. In the past, Meishi Smile has turned sentimental J-pop anime openings into dreamy, distant soundscapes— the kind of stuff you’d hear if you could close your eyes and have the wind lift your feet off the ground. Perhaps you didn’t imagine that anime openings could be taken so seriously and sincerely. Or that a mere pop song could stir up such powerful emotions. But Meishi Smile seeks to be more than just J-pop remix experiments.
Meishi Smile seems to be the flagship project of Zoom Lens’ mission to explore the edges of musical emotion. Through ethereal synthesizer textures, Meishi Smile beckons you to ache, to long, to dream. But Yim avoids exotifying or fetishizing the electronic, the digital, and the Japanese elements, merely acknowledging these sounds as natural to Meishi Smile’s heritage. It asks us to resist the urge to romanticize if we want to wholly understand others.
However, anger, chaos, and live performance is absolutely essential to Meishi Smile. Rather than just euphoric sonic reveries, you’ll also find walls of noise and distorted screams that evoke anger, tension, and confusion. An Asian American brought up in White and middle-class Anaheim, CA, the Meishi Smile project is vengeful rampage against a society, place, and culture that denigrates and homogenizes Asian Americans while simultaneously commodifying, fetishizing, and ultimately failing to truly understand them. I sense within Meishi Smile the terror of waking up to realize the uneasiness of being Asian American in a Eurocentric culture. Waking up to reckon with a world that offers you either an uncertain sense of self or security in assimilation— mere lies plastered over in white.
Meishi Smile asks us to consider that we must be fearless and unapologetic, no matter our ambitions and tenuous origins. We must recognize our own voices and paint our own autobiographies with them. Or we can remain silent and lost without the love and understanding that only we can provide for ourselves.
Meishi Smile has never remained stagnant with the questions Yim explores. During the extensive time that I’ve worked on this story, Meishi Smile released an ambient album that incorporates waves of warm guitar textures juxtaposed with distorted screams. But such an intimate work beckons your own interpretations. I’m not sure sometimes how to describe or interpret for others what Meishi Smile sounds like because it all feels as colossal or as minuscule as the imaginations of its listeners will allow.
Within this artistry, I saw Meishi Smile embody the “generative ambiguity” that scholar Jennifer Ho describes as the force within the field of Asian American studies that, as she writes, “opposes concretized and totalizing definitions in favor of an Asian American epistemology that questions essentialist notions of singularity.”1
In simple words, Meishi Smile is expressive, intimate, and grounded upon the self while never closing up the imagination. It is as complex, uncertain, and fluid as we should imagine an “Asian American identity” to be.
Meishi Smile is a uniquely Asian American artist. Despite the fact that Asian American identity was rarely emphasized explicitly throughout the beginning of the project, Meishi Smile could never have existed through any other identity or circumstance.
But how was the show?
Meishi Smile played a show in the Mug for Vassar College on March 4, 2016. It was a small and sweaty crowd. I didn’t see many of my Asian American peers. In fact, many of them hung around upstairs as I stopped them mid-stroll to invite them down. Maybe there were better things to do on a Friday night. I wasn’t sure if they even cared— it didn’t feel like they did. I didn’t know how to coax the rest of my Asian American peers downstairs, and replaying this failure in my mind over and over for months on end drained my spirits.
The guilt and frustration has been troubling. I promised a busy venue and a warm and loving Asian American crowd, and I let Meishi Smile down. I also promised this short video piece that has already been postponed for many months.
But I can only wonder if it could have turned out another way. Understanding your place in this world and the work that you wish to do is uneasy and messy. The doubt never seems to end.
I hope that this story can capture a profile of Meishi Smile’s brilliance. And I hope it prompts you to reflect upon the ways that you seek to claim your own belonging in this world.
In the end, I don’t know what kind of meanings this work will offer for my audience. I can only hope that my viewers will at least consider this: If you are not willing to pore over and love the work of the underdogs, the unsung storytellers who voice the experiences of growing up in a historic generation, racial atmosphere, and cultural reality— those like Meishi Smile and many others— then who will?
— Signed July 26 2016.
R Le: Yay! We’re here, finally doing our interview! You want to introduce yourself to our people?
Meishi Smile: I’m Meishi Smile, I make… electronic music, I guess would be the easiest way to condense it. I’m very influenced by noise music, shoegaze, J-pop— a lot of very contrasting elements. And I also run the label Zoom Lens.
R Le: So what inspires your art?
Meishi Smile: My art is typically not so much inspired by other music. It’s more focused on very specific moments— people in my life. I’d say every single song is about a very specific person, a very specific moment. I feel like it’s best for me to write usually when I have a particular feeling hitting me, and I feel like my process of songwriting isn’t very linear. I’ll typically write lyrics that reflect a certain period and I’ll try to make a sound that feels like the sort of emotion that relates to that feeling.
I’m originally from Anaheim, in Orange County. I think it’s inspired my art a lot, on a… I guess you could say, even sometimes on a subconscious level. When I think of Anaheim, when I think of places like Orange County, I think of the words, “conservatism, assimilation…” I think of the need to not really be yourself, and the need to disrupt that sort of environment.
Anaheim is a very… a lot of areas used to be run by the KKK. A lot of government people were involved in the KKK. Even recently, about two weekends ago, there was a huge rally in a park in Anaheim, and I think that really speaks on a level that— you know— we’re not really living in a post-racial society.
And I think growing up in that environment, sort of having these people with a hidden agenda forces you into this shell. You’re sort of always paranoid about who you are, who you’re with, what you’re trying to do. I’d say who I grew up with, where I grew up, has influenced my art in a lot of ways and what I’m trying to speak about.
R Le: Yeah, I heard about that. And I was so shocked. I was just like, “Wow, this sounds like a scene pulled straight from 1960.”
Meishi Smile: Yeah, and people got stabbed! And the way they wrote about it, was not very… It seemed like they didn’t really care that the KKK were there.
R Le: That’s such a striking image to come from somewhere like that. When you started making music, did people know about your music? Who did you share it with?
Meishi Smile: I first started making music that I feel, relates to Meishi Smile back in high school. I started getting into a lot of Japanese noise, and pop music. I had a lot of bands back then with Alex of Plaster Cast, and he was sort of the person who always pushed me to be where I am now. We had a lot of noise groups back then, sort of inspired by Boredoms, Animal Collective, those sort of groups. We even played “battle of the bands” and whatnot, and people really hated it, of course. They had this silly thing where they had a score sheet and it said, “How well did these people play their instruments? How was the performance?” They just disqualified us because they rated everything so low. So it’s that kind of environment. We were just trying to make something… From the perspective of a teenager trying to be subversive, but also in a neoconservative environment, you want to try to do something different. Nobody really understood it. Everybody just… People in “rock bands” and whatnot would be like “Oh, you make ambient music— you make noise music— that isn’t ‘real’ music.”
Even in a sense now, when I try to talk about the disparity of pop music, It’s almost a sort of “fuck you” to those people. [But] it’s not just those elements. I feel like what I do, even though it’s noisy or a little experimental to people— even though I don’t consider myself or my music that strange… I think it’s quintessentially pop music still. I think I’m just trying to do something that tries to relate to the greater spectrum of people who that relate to me, and vice versa.
R Le: So, can you tell us about the first song you wrote?
Meishi Smile: The first song I feel, felt very real to Meishi Smile [were] the songs PALE and AJS off my first album, LUST. I wrote those songs when Tumblr was first starting to become popular. It was sort of about feeling this dissociation and feeling infatuated with a lot of images and people that come up there. I was sort of into this particular person who was online, and I really wanted to convey that sense of longing through a digital means. I think that’s sort of when Meishi— at least, for when it first started— it sort of took on this role of someone who is experiencing very real emotions through a digital divide and trying to ground themselves in a sort of fantastical reality that’s primarily stemming from Internet subculture.
R Le: Yeah. So it sounds like something that’s really influenced you is the digital world. I’m wondering, who did you share your music with in that time then?
Meishi Smile: One of the first people who really supported me and that sort of music was actually one of my collaborators— one of my best friends— and whom I work with all the time: Brian Vu. He was running a blog back then, and he posted my music. He would always share it. And I think it goes to show a lot, that we still come together now and we collaborate. And that even though we’re not always talking, we came from a very similar background, we grew up in the same area, experienced the same things… So even though we aren’t always in constant communication whenever I want to collaborate with him… Whenever we want to make something together, I tell him exactly what I want. I tell him, “This is the sort of feeling I want to convey” and he always understands it. I think that really speaks to a subconscious bond that we have.
R Le: Do you think geography is important to you, in terms of art?
Meishi Smile: I used to not think so much about it. Zoom Lens, it was at the beginning, really focused on international pop music— and it still is— but I found out I really want to build a foundation here first. I grew up with Alex, who’s still one of my best friends. He makes music under Plaster Cast. Thought Tempo, Oh My Muu and other people in CA such as The Bilinda Butchers— we’re all very close. I think that sense of community, being somewhere together is very important.
And I think a lot of Internet subculture, although I do appreciate it, I feel like a lot of it is stagnating. And I think a lot of people who want to fall under the label of being a Net artist fail to realize, that… The Internet should reflect what you want to see in real life. And so I think that’s why a lot of my music now— A lot of Zoom Lens is trying to take sort of a more humanized approach, as opposed to just a digital approach. I want to show the disparity between the two and also show the ways that they merge and relate to each other as well. I think you always need both.
R Le: I definitely feel that. I think I can sort of hear that in the differences between LUST and …Belong. I think you always get this question. Why did you start Zoom Lens?
Meishi Smile: Zoom Lens was also created in the space of noise and experimental music. In Orange County, there’s actually a lot of noise music and experimental musicians that are trying to do stuff out there, and I was in that for a while. I knew a lot of people who started their own labels and one of my first releases was under my old project called Yūko Imada. My friend released it on a 3-inch CDR that he just made at home, and I saw this and was like, “Wow, this is something that you can do yourself,” This is something that you don’t really need others to dictate and you can form your own space and just be yourself and so I saw that, and I wanted to start Zoom Lens also because I was pushing against that scene at the time. I was taking interest in wanting to start a project that sounded more like my influences— a lot of Japanese pop music like Yasutaka Nakata. I showed that music to those people in the noise scene…
As much as people like that want to say they’re being so subversive and in a sense, subversive being “very open-minded to a lot of different things,” they would always dismiss that music. They’d say, “Oh, this belongs on the radio… this belongs… this place, or this place,” I was like, well… I’m making what I consider pop music even though it has elements of noise— all these other experimental elements— I’m trying to convey that, in a sense. But nobody really understood it. So I had to really break off from that, and that’s why I started Zoom Lens, and started releasing my own music by myself and just trying to branch out and meet other people.
R Le: So it sounds like pop music is really important. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Meishi Smile: I guess the word “pop” is very general. I consider it as something— as I mentioned— something that is trying to reach the greatest general capacity of people. I think my music is pop because I’m trying to convey something that relates to the people that are going through similar things I am. And the reason I started to say Meishi is a pop project was really inspired by Japanese pop music. When I first heard Perfume, and groups like that like Saori@Destiny, Aira Mitsuki… Those groups have this really contrasting sense of melancholy to them, and it really related to my sort of, ongoing depression and mental health. It was really strange to see the sadness in it, but also see how happy it is, and I think that speaks on the ups and downs of emotions that I have and that I’ve seen in others as well. And so that’s why I think I like to call it pop music because it’s about disparity and it’s about contrasting feelings, something that’s never really set in stone. Pop music is always changing, it’s always— you can interpret this as you want— borrowing from subcultures. But sometimes, it will become something bigger and actually realize and speak on something like that. Movements like grunge and whatnot, you still have people who came from those backgrounds, and they know what they’re talking about. But they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and it spoke to a lot of these people who didn’t really listen to it. I hope that’s what Meishi can do. I want to push in that direction.
R Le: I guess, who is your music for then? Or, who is your art for?
Meishi Smile: My art is for, I think ultimately, I created it for myself. And if the product is that other people can relate to it and enjoy it however they want and get a positive experience out of it, I don’t really care how they interpret it. I think that’s the beauty and freedom of it… Hopefully they pay the same respect to me and how I’m treating music as my therapy and as one of the only voices I really have to talk about how I feel in other ways that I can’t.
R Le: I feel like this is a topic that never gets talked about among circles of musicians of color… I was wondering if you could talk a little about your cultural and ethnic heritage?
Meishi Smile: Well, I was born as a half Japanese, half Chinese. Fourth generation, fifth generation, respectively. I never really met that many other people [whom] their family lineage was considered so American, but yet they were Asian. That’s always posed its own set of problems growing up. I was always “too Asian” for White kids and “too White” for Asian kids. I never really fit in with other people of color, per say. I was always considered very “whitewashed” or “too Asian” for people. So I think that the themes that are consistent in Meishi and Zoom Lens is always duality. And that duality, I’ve come to realize the past few years, is because I grew up the way I did as a person of color. I think I want to make my music reflect that and reflect such contrasting elements of genres because hopefully people can understand that and be like, “I feel these sort of waves of emotion too,” and “I feel this contrast all the time.”
I think that’s something that people of color do relate to a lot, because there’s so much identity crisis, there’s so much assimilation, so much [of] them trying to… not even realizing that they aren’t who they are sometimes. And when that hits, hopefully, they can see that one day and not be completely assimilated. I think it’s a very… strange experience. It can be enlightening, but it can also be— I feel like it’s mostly very angry for a lot of people too. [Likewise] I think my music is also very light hearted, but it can be very visceral.
R Le: Do you think your art can be identified as “Asian American?”
Meishi Smile: I think it can. I think there are a lot of Asian people I met who see that reflected in my work, but at the same time, I think what I’m doing hasn’t completely been accepted amongst a lot of Asian people either. It’s interesting because one of my biggest influences is Giant Robot, and Eric Nakamura, the person who started that, he said in an intro to one of the first zines that he published recently that, “At the time, I was just doing what I liked.”
I want to talk about Asian pop culture, even though at the time, no Asian people liked it. And that’s how I feel that how Meishi and Zoom Lens started. But I think as my voice gets clearer, I know how to speak through those avenues. And there are other people who find out about it and can relate to it instantly. Hopefully, it is a place where Asian American people can see it as something that is distinctly so, but also something that can relate to anyone who feels marginalized or outcast.
R Le: I feel that borders are particularly powerful part of Zoom Lens, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Meishi Smile: Like… international?
R Le: Borders of any sort.
Meishi Smile: Hm… I think a lot of Zoom Lens is about trying to break out of who you are, and trying to almost break the fourth wall, I think Zoom Lens is about creating a reality that is very specific to yourself.
As I was saying, I think a lot of art needs to be grounded in reality but is still fantastical and out there, because I think, going back to being a person of color, I think that’s how we deal with a lot of reality. We sometimes need an escape, but at the end of the day, we have to face that there are these situations we need to take care of, coming from who we are, and we need to speak about those issues or else nothing really changes. So I think creating both is a good environment because you’re saying, “There is an escape.” But how can we make this sort of… sub-reality that we’re creating, our own space? How can we make that bigger? And how can we have more people [become] a part of it?
R Le: So where do you think the future of Zoom Lens is?
Meishi Smile: I guess the general answer is that I want to take it as far as it can go. I really want to bring out a lot more international artists. I really want to have that foundation established here, where the artists I love on Zoom Lens, like Ulzzang Pistol [now Moon Mask], yeule, LLLL… There’s so many that haven’t been to the US before and I think there’s still such a stigma about East Asian music— music of any place that isn’t from very Westernized backgrounds and… hopefully create that space for them. But not as a space of… where people can just say, as a trend, “Oh this is so quirky and so different because it’s not American.” I want it to be like, this is who they are as a person, and they just happen to make amazing art and see them for who they really are. But [listeners should] still understand the implications of their differences and their art; they are all different backgrounds. And I guess, creating a bigger acceptance of that and expanding on the community aspects of it.
R Le: Do you think art is political?
Meishi Smile: I’ve thought about this a lot. I had this conversation once with Mark Redito. He was saying that from what I remember, that it is both a fortunate and unfortunate situation growing up as a person of color and being an artist, or anyone who has a voice, is that you’re sort of thrown into this situation where no matter what you do, you have a voice that people can see and be like, “Oh, this is an Asian person,” for example, who is doing what they do, and suddenly it becomes political because they are who they are.
I guess people can take that however they want. Maybe they don’t like the term, “Asian American,” or they just want to be who they are. But I think my music is very political. I feel like I’m really trying to relate to people who are going through those same experiences of being marginalized or a person of color.
R Le: What are you excited about for the show tonight?
Meishi Smile: This is my first time playing for an Asian American student alliance, And so I’ve never done that before. I never really played to something that’s… I know that it’s not only going to be Asian people. It includes everyone still and I think that having that space is really good. I think it’s going to be a positive experience. Hopefully there are people who, even if they haven’t heard my music for the first time, they can enjoy it and perhaps see what we just talked about, in terms of an Asian person creating art that’s very trying to be disruptive, trying to come to terms with who the self is and how those experiences are very truly [of] being a person of color. Or just being anyone who has just felt… different, I guess.
R Le: Yeah… Welcome to Vassar! How’s Vassar treating you so far?
Meishi Smile: I’ve only been here a few hours, but I really like the campus and I think it’s a good feeling being here, playing to the people that I’ll be playing to tonight so that’s what I’m most excited about.
R Le: And what do you think about New York?
Meishi Smile: I really enjoy New York, I think it’s such a contrast from being in LA. I haven’t really experienced it too much out of playing shows, but the friends I have here are some of the most inspiring friends I have. So I think that speaks on a lot of levels of the sort of environment that is fostered as far as music goes.
R Le: What’s going on tomorrow?
Meishi Smile: Tomorrow we’re having a release party— two shows, actually— with Foxes in Fiction, and Alex of Plaster Cast. It’s his release party and we’re having a lot of other people in Zoom Lens such as Stevie R and Tallinn performing as well. It’s sort of the first Zoom Lens party that’s happened and I’m happy to say that because I haven’t played a show with a lot of these people, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how people react here as opposed to what we have in LA.
R Le: What’s something you hope that your art can say to someone who is sort of in a similar situation?
Meishi Smile: I think it’s very general and simplified, but I think the message is always just to be yourself and respect yourself. And to know that what you’re placed into, what people expect of you… isn’t always who you should be, and you should try to take the steps necessary to realize yourself and— I guess— belong to your own.
Stay connected with Meishi Smile at meishismile.com