Why Asian Pop Stars Have a Hard Time Crossing Over

December 11, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Music, Other | 13 Comments

The world over, in every village and street corner, millions of kids want to make it big in music. Every country has its own “pop machine,” but making the ultimate name (and royalties) for yourself invariably means success in the U.S. market. A few from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Australia have crossed over, but why aren’t there more Asian stars on the U.S. charts?

They have the looks, the talent, the cutting-edge fashion and dance moves. In recent years, they’ve been coached by some of the same producers and talent-shapers behind big U.S. acts. So why are Americans not buying? People who know the music industry have a variety of theories.

A Smaller Launching Pad

With booming populations and rising affluence, Asia is a leader in world markets. You would think that American execs, hungry for sales, would go for artists already filling stadiums in their home countries. Yet despite the continent’s high population density, the Asian music market is half the size of Europe or U.S. markets. Many CDs in Asian countries—especially China— are pirated. So an Asian artist can have a huge following, with small sales. U.S. record execs are not impressed.

Buy American (Dammit!)

The U.S. used to have a vibrant record-store culture. But with the advent of MP3s and the IPod, the overall U.S. record market has suffered. Much of US record sales are in mass retailers. Ever seen a Wal-Mart or Target “exclusive” album? With the exception of Arnel Pineda, the Filipino lead singer of Journey, there are no Asian faces. The people who frequent the big-box retailers tend to prefer mainstream, American acts. Records are just another casualty of the sea change in how Americans shop. We prefer the biggest, most recognizable brands, and they’re just not Asian.

Fundamentally Other

This brings me to another reason why APop stars may have trouble: the “fundamentally other” phenomenon. Many non-Asian people are so fascinated by the seeming mystery of Asian cultures that they forget the “people” in “Asian people.” I’ve written much about Asian actors struggling for non-stereotyped roles—you know, the ones that emphasize the human condition over ethnicity. Asian singers croon about love, lust, and regret, like singers everywhere. But it’s possible that American consumers just don’t feel they can relate to the emotions behind an Asian face. Or perhaps they can—and the record execs are still afraid they can’t.

Token Syndrome

Closely related to Fundamentally Other is the Token Syndrome. America likes “ethnic,” but in a group setting, there has to be just the right “blend.” And it seems there’s rarely room for more than one Asian. Last summer, Audrey Magazine reported on Melissa Reyes, the talented Filipina-American singer who competed in the reality series Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll. Throughout the competition, the show’s handlers pointed up the resemblance between Reyes and Dolls’ lead singer Nicole Scherzinger. Asia Nitollano, a mixed-race dancer with a contrasting African-American look, ended up winning.

Cultural Barriers

Don’t hate me, but now I’m ready to play the other side of the race card. Real cultural barriers can get in the way of entertainment success. From blog and fansite commentary, I’ve learned that some APop stars just aren’t connecting with American consumers. English pronunciation is a big problem. I can speak on this with some authority. I majored in music in college, and know first-hand the difficulty of pronouncing the lyrics of a song in another language. Crossover stars like BoA have recorded in Asian languages other than their mother tongue before tackling English. Pop singers can’t just sing a song straight, like an opera number—they have to meld the lyrics in a street-worthy, kickin’ back style. It’s a tall order when you’re still learning English. The multi-nation marketing results in a lot of tongue-twisters, not to mention the strain of navigating different customs on tour. It’s hard to please everyone.


Musicians walk a fine line between creativity and conformity. Stick with a tested recipe, but add your own spices. But perhaps the APop stars are copying the recipe too well. Some commentators feel that with the exception of looks, there’s not much to make Asian acts different. Perhaps they’re trying so hard for that “American” sound that they miss bringing something different to the table.

The Outlook

There is hope out there for Asian stars. Those who create pop stars in the West are looking in the East, as Asia becomes more prominent on the world stage. But the competition is stiff. Reality shows and Internet promotion can help, as consumers vote by phone or wallet. Attitudes toward Asians are changing, and doors will continue to open. But the competition is brutal. Among APop stars, only those with the strongest will and the greatest flexibility will clear the hurdles America has set for them.

Elena Stevenson is a contributor for Ningin.

Source: Ningin



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  1. I think it’s cuz the Asian race is still a minority…

    I really don’t understand why stars would want to crossover to the US music industry…For the past decade or so the music in the states have been horrible with ppl who can’t sing or rap *ahem*T-Pain&Akon*ahem*

    The US is influential but no one wants to listen to crappy music…

  2. ummm. are you stupid? asians are definitely the majority of the world.

  3. I also don’t see why they would want to crossover.. Mainstream US music these days lacks variety and places too much emphasis on sex :/

  4. Hello, Seoulfull, and thanks for linking here. Stay tuned to http://elena.ningin.com for more Asian entertainment news…

  5. Cindy, Asians are majority population in the world but in America we’re the smallest minority group. That’s what this whole article is about “Crossing Over in AmeriKKKa.” But it’s not quite as bad, who would’ve ever thought we would have a black president? Not me, at least not in my lifetime.

  6. lolol NINGIN? God I hate the pretentious writers and users there.

  7. calm down.
    she meant in the US.
    and yes it is obvious that asians are a majority of the world.

  8. haha. this is really funny. some are true.. some are.. i dunno.. for me, HARD TO BELIEVE. they say, APop is copycat? it’s not.. thay are just trying to BLEND. just like what u said: “greatest flexibility”. hehe. anyway.. TVXQ is the best APop.. hope the WEST knows that. 🙂

  9. …Asian pop stars need not crossover, if they’re really good producers/recording companies will seek them out…audiences world wide will look for and buy their albums, in whatever languages they use to sing, but to succeed here in the US, one has to be able to sing in English well, it does matter, and you mentioned Filipino Arnel Pineda of Journey who sings very well but how about the new Dvid Foster child star, Charice, another Filipino who at sixteen has gone a long way just a year after her guesting in Korea’s Star King? But hers is a unique story.
    …BoA, although well known in East Asia will have a hard time here considering there are a lot of American artistes in the same genre…and sad to say, she has nothing new to offer the US market…she could have done concerts though for her fans here.

  10. lmfao at the first comment
    the asian race is NOT minority
    buh yeh~ sometimes i wodner why these pop stars try to crossover
    ok personally i think its becoz they, for some reason, think making it in the US market boosts their rep and success to unbelievable heights. the reason for this ….some believe that western culture is betta than asian (i dont get it)
    ok sounds far-fetched
    buh srsli
    if u watch a few asian dramas ..u notice how the ‘cool awesome character’ knows english (even though wen we watch it sounds weird to us hahah)
    well thats my theory

  11. Well it’s really hard for all Minority Races in the US Blacks,Asian,Indian,Pacific Islanders don’t you see white poeple are so jealous of us they try to hold us back.

    That’s why The Minority Races needs to stick together and we can make a change just like we did for voting for Obama,the next President may be an Asian America (I hope so)

    White people are so jealous of us that’s why there trying split the minority races Asians,Blacks,Indian but we need to stick together. Let not split our cultur up just because they have no culter.

  12. 🙂

    That’s Right!

  13. It’s because Asians, specifically East Asians who have high dreams of crossing over to the US send the wrong talents. Wonder girls? Seriously.
    And I think they’re using the wrong method too – the money milking record companies. And I think English to is a thing. I don’t mean the accent but pronunciation and enunciation. Upon hearing WGs ENGLISH version of Nobody, it’s hardly distinguishable from the Korean version. Even in the ENGLISH version, the only line I understood was Nobody, Nobody but CHCHOOOOHHH. Maybe, these aspiring people need to take their English lessons serious.

    Charice was able to get her time to shine on Ellen and Oprah because of…youtube

    In parallel to that, Neal Schom of Journey discovered Arnel Pineda, the new vox of Journey via youtube and literally plucked him out of the Philippines.

    Maybe, East Asians should start turning to YOUTUBE and uploading vidoes of people with REAL talend

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