Gen Z Asian Americans are making indie alternative rock cool again

Meet some of the up-and-coming artists incorporating their racial or cultural identities into what's historically been a very white genre

Juliet Ivy's debut full-length EP is called "Playpen."

Caity Krone

It’s an interesting time to be an Asian American musician—and a fan of Asian American-made music. Artists from across the Asian diaspora are gaining greater prominence and recognition, yet much of this recognition has been for genres with greater mainstream appeal, like K-, J-, and C-pop, which often become the focal point of discussions of up-and-coming Asian talent in the music world. Beyond the glitzy pop sphere, though, a particularly exciting rising tide of artists is emerging from the broadly defined space of indie and alternative music. Beyond more established genre leaders like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, a new generation of Gen Z Asian Americans, many based out of New York City, are making the indie space all their own.

Though their music often involves new and diverse genre experimentations, this new wave of Asian American indie artists share in the sensibility that has fueled alternative music for decades. Even in decades past, when the genres' faces were predominantly white men from foundational bands ranging from Pavement to The Smiths, those artists were regularly inspired by a sense of outsider status, channeling feelings of frustration and isolation into artistic expression. By incorporating topics of racial or cultural identity into this melange of emotional influences, these up-and-coming artists are ready to reinvigorate a storied style for a new generation.

One act seeing a rapid rise is Juliet Ivy, a 23 year-old New Yorker of Chinese and Colombian descent fresh off a slot at Head in the Clouds New York. Ivy’s calling card is the single “we’re all eating each other,” from her debut full-length EP, Playpen. Its lyrics see Ivy reflecting on the inevitability of death, and finding beauty in the fact that it is these cycles of life and death which power the beauty of nature. It also serves as a neat encapsulation of Ivy’s artistic identity, contrasting dark or existential themes with soft, shimmering soundscapes, creating a vibe Ivy describes as “a rabbit hole tied up with a big pink bow.”

“The concepts of death and life and death have always been so scary to me, so writing [‘we’re all eating each other’] really helped me find a way to look at it through a beautiful lens, and have more peace with it,” she says.

As someone who was raised with roots in multiple cultures, Ivy explains that she doesn’t think twice about combining what some might think to be incongruous elements in her music. “I think that growing up like that, with two totally different sides of me, but then finding a way to have them both be me and not having to fit myself in one box, has carried over into everything I do, including music,” Ivy says.

At the moment, Ivy’s sound primarily inhabits a soft, acoustic-driven indie pop space, a style which can also be heard on her latest single, “is it my face?,” a heartfelt ode to insecurity. But she also has one toe in the world of hyperpop, the ultra-saturated style made famous by acts like Charli XCX and 100 gecs that pushes pop tropes to their breaking point with twinkling synths and highly processed vocals. Ivy’s 2022 debut single, “MY LIL PONY” is full-on hyperpop, and traces of the style still pop up in her newer material, like the speedy electronic percussion on “boytoy,” a track from the Playpen EP.

“I think I carried over my favorite elements of hyperpop and sprinkled them throughout this new sound,” Ivy says.

A young Asian man with black hair, in a black top, looks down and to the right, against a light blue background.

Harry Teardrop's stage name was inspired by Frankie Teardrop.

Courtesy of Harry Teardrop

Harry Teardrop, another one of Asian American indie’s most intriguing up-and-comers, shares this genre-neutral approach. Though he drew inspiration from his stage name from “Frankie Teardrop,” an infamously grim and harrowing 1977 song by the proto-industrial duo Suicide, his own music leans more towards the wistful and reflective.

Teardrop, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, grew up on a multifaceted musical diet. Though he wasn’t alive until the decade’s final year, he took a particular liking to the Britpop and pop-punk styles of the 1990s, as well as 1980s alt-rock titans The Replacements, influences evident in melancholy yet upbeat guitar-pop songs like “Discolor.” Teardrop was born in and currently lives in New York City, but in between, spent formative years in Portland, Shanghai, and Orange County, California.

“I always felt like an outsider because I grew up moving around a lot,” Teardrop says. “When I was living in Portland, I was one of the only Asian American kids. Then, when I moved to China, I felt ‘too American.’”

Perhaps as a result of this global upbringing, Teardrop has embraced international collaborations. His 2023 single “Aftershow,” a bilingual English-Japanese track performed with the Japanese band SATOH, melds indie rock rhythms and electric guitar with synthpop’s whirring synthesizer tones. “The underground scene in Japan right now is very in line with what I’m already doing, in terms of mixing hyperpop with rock,” Teardrop says.

Teardrop currently produces his own music, meticulously arranging tracks for his desired sound. He particularly takes pride in his drum tones, he explains, because his first instrument was the drums. Growing up, Teardrop would often play alongside his brother, Grey Li, now a guitarist and vocalist in the shoegazey emo-rock band Push Ups.

Indeed, in addition to genre experimentation, collaboration seems to be one of the defining characteristics of this new cohort of Gen Z Asian Americans in the indie sphere. One such collaboration is the song “Yearbook,” a 2020 track by the Korean American singer-songwriter James Ivy which features Teardrop alongside indie electronic artist Instupendo.

James Ivy shares a similar predilection for wistful, Britpop-influenced indie rock, but with a hint of airy electronica, less brash than the hyperpop edge of some of his contemporaries. It’s this touch of synthesizers that feels like the connective tissue to explain his sharing a bill with EDM-turned-electropop artist Porter Robinson on the latter’s 2021 tour. Despite the similar name and genre space, James Ivy shares no personal connection to Juliet Ivyit’s a stage name for the former, and the real given name of the latter, a nod to her parents having met at Cornell University, an Ivy League institution.

A young Asian man in a blue graphic t-shirt and headphones around his neck, stands leaning to the left, with one arm across his chest.

James Ivy's predilection for wistful, Britpop-influenced indie rock shines through in his music.

Courtesy FADER Label

The passion for collaboration, in which these musicians come together in a space where they can work with, bounce off of, and influence one another has allowed this scene to blossom in just the past few years. Teardrop notes that early in his career, he felt that others often expected him, as an Asian American artist, to put out pop-R&B music, in the vein of popular acts like Keshi and Joji, rather than the rock and alternative sound he was passionate about.

“When I started putting music out, it felt like I was one of the only Asian American indie artists that I knew of,” Teardrop says. “Now, it feels like there’s a community.”

Published on June 20, 2024

Words by Oscar Kim Bauman

Oscar Kim Bauman is a multimedia journalist, freelance arts and culture writer, and recovering emo kid from and based in New York City. You can follow him @oscarkimbauman on most social media, read his portfolio on his personal website, or subscribe to his Substack.