The Indelible Power of Mixed Asian Women in Rock

From Gen Z's Olivia Rodrigo to OG Karen O, these ladies have changed the face of music

This fall, I’ve had GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo’s knockout sophomore album, on repeat. I’ve also been spinning Mitski’s new LP, The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We. With these two acts so frequently playing back-to-back, I began to hear parallels. Like the fact that both have songs with the word “American” in the title, which sonically begin as soft, acoustic ballads before building to screams and shredding electric guitar. Lyrically, in both, the singers compare and contrast themselves as Asian women with the iconography of white Americana and conventional Eurocentric femininity: Rodrigo’s “All-American Bitch” and Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.”

Of course, Rodrigo and Mitski are far from interchangeable as artists. The former is a 20-year-old pop star on her second record, while the latter is an indie darling with seven albums and more than a decade in music under her belt. Rodrigo deals largely with big, earnest youthful emotions, while Mitski’s lyricism is often more poetically oblique. But their juxtaposition in my playlists prompted me to reflect on my own listening habits and why I find these women artists of mixed white and Asian descent who make guitar-driven, alternative-leaning music to be so particularly compelling. Beyond smashing stereotypes as Asian women rock stars, the open emotionality of these artists in particular resonated with my own experience as a mixed Asian American.

An important entry in this musical niche is Japanese Breakfast, the indie band fronted by Michelle Zauner. Beyond their broad musical similarities, Zauner has specific ties to Mitski. Japanese Breakfast’s first-ever tour was in 2016 as Mitski’s opening act, and in a 2019 New Yorker profile of Mitski, Zauner called Mitski’s “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” a shimmering, melancholic track from the 2016 album Puberty 2, one of her favorite songs.

Despite the band’s name, Zauner is not Japaneseshe is the daughter of a Korean mother and an American father of European Jewish ancestry, an ethnic background I share. The aforementioned Rodrigo was born to a Filipino American father and mother of German and Irish ancestry, while Mitski’s mother is Japanese and her father is a white American.

With the explosive popularity of her 2021 memoir Crying in H Mart, Zauner has become a bit of a poet laureate for mixed Asian Americans, as many of us resonated with her sentiments about struggling to find oneself and reckon with their place in their ancestral cultures. Indeed, Rodrigo is also a fan.

“That book fucking destroyed me,” she told Rolling Stone’s Angie Martoccio in a recent profile. “It’s fantastic.”

It’s also in the pages of Crying in H Mart where we might identify the foremother of the recent rise of mixed Asian women in alternative music: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In the fifth chapter of the memoir, Zauner describes the impact she felt watching a concert DVD of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Karen O was the first icon of the music world I worshipped who looked like me. She was half Korean and half white, with an unrivaled showmanship that obliterated the docile Asian stereotype,” Zauner writes. “Karen O made music feel more accessible, made me believe it was possible that someone like me could one day make something that meant something to other people.”

Born Karen Orzolek, the daughter of a Korean mother and Polish father, O led the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the forefront of aughts-era indie rock. With the band’s incorporation of post-punk distortion with moody synths alongside O’s soft-yet-fierce vocal approach, it’s easy to hear their influence on younger artists like Japanese Breakfast and Mitski. Though Rodrigo’s more classic pop soprano belies her career beginnings on the Disney Channel rather than in the underground punk scene, she also acknowledges O’s influence. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone piece, Rodrigo speaks admiringly of O and Zauner, dubbing them “the coolest girls in the music industry.” Zauner crossposted the article to her Instagram story, proclaiming the three of them the “cool wasian club.”

As Zauner herself observes, there’s something inherently thrilling and defiant about being an Asian woman rock star. The tension between societally defined conventions of femininity and the rough, confrontational nature of rock, particularly the punk-derived alternative umbrella, exists for all women in the genre. Indeed, it has proven to be a rich inspiration for plenty of artists over the decades. For Asian women, crass tropes like the “eternal foreigner” or the submissive, hypersexualized “lotus blossom” provide all the more dramatic contrast for an assertive, charismatic, all-American rock singer. Beyond that, the messy, raw emotionality of their music shatters stereotypes of Asians as cold and unfeeling.

In a 2022 Rolling StoneMusicians on Musicians” feature, also by Martoccio, Zauner and O spoke about their experiences as mixed Asian women in rock: “I really didn’t like feeling like people were projecting some kind of stereotype on me in a way that I had no control over,” Zauner said. “I never wanted anyone to think of me as docile, or agreeable, or hyper-feminine. In some ways, my personality morphed into something that was in direct opposition to that.”

In that same conversation, O also noted that it has only been in recent years, with the emergence of artists like Zauner, that interviewers and the media have seriously noted her ethnic identity.

“The question I always got was, ‘How does it feel to be a woman?’” O said. “Being part Korean—and just Korean culture in general—was invisible growing up in the States. I’m still getting more in touch with that aspect of me, because it was invisible for so long.”

“The question I always got was, ‘How does it feel to be a woman?’ Being part Korean—and just Korean culture in general—was invisible growing up in the States. I’m still getting more in touch with that aspect of me, because it was invisible for so long.”

In her 2011 book The Souls of Mixed Folk, scholar Michele Elam observes that people of multiracial backgrounds have often been understood by the mainstream less as people and more as metaphors for society. In the eras of slavery and segregation, narratives of the alienated “tragic mulatto” exemplified the toll of anti-Black racism and Jim Crow segregation. Since the late 20th century, the post-Loving v. Virginia rise of mixed race people in the United States has conversely been understood as a harbinger of racism’s demise, ushering in the liberal, integrated, post-racial future.

This oversimplification of mixed experiences can also manifest within Asian diasporic communities. Henry Golding’s appearance gets picked apart in the public sphere to settle whether he looks “Asian” enough to play a “Crazy Rich” one. Interracial dating is a contentious, oft-discussed topic, yet less discussed are the viewpoints of the mixed-race individuals who come from such unions.

Whether demeaning or well-intentioned, these popular conceptions of multiraciality-as-metaphor never much consider mixed-race individuals as fully formed human beings, endowed with the same depth of feeling and thought as anyone else. It’s here where the music of Rodrigo, Mitski, Zauner, O, and others is a powerful corrective. Despite their evident stylistic differences, all of these women are crafters of evocative, deeply felt lyrics and music. While the details are often personally or culturally specific, the emotions are universal. Regardless of your background, when you hear these songs, you inhabit a mixed-race Asian woman’s anger, her joy, her heartbreak. Her full human complexity is undeniable; you have felt it as your own.

These artists’ existence in the broadly defined indie rock space is also meaningful. (Though Rodrigo is a pop artist, sonically, GUTS is as influenced by acts like Elvis Costello and Weezer as by Taylor Swift, and it’s earned her, as The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang put it, a noted contingent of “Gen X dad” fans. ) The style has long been a place for lyrical emotionality and introspective rumination, but it has also been a genre whose public faces were, by and large, white men. This contingent of artists has laid new claim to this genre, using indie rock’s emotive capabilities towards fresh ends.

Indeed, Rodrigo, Mitski, Zauner, and O are far from the only artists who fit this description. Looking to the aughts, Meg & Dia, the Warped Tour-adjacent alt-rock band-turned-indie-pop act fronted by mixed Korean American sisters, could be placed in this burgeoning canon. So could Michelle Branch, the pop-rock singer-songwriter whose mother is of Dutch-Indonesian descent. Looking ever so slightly adjacent to the realm of non-mixed Asian women indie artists, the gentle math rock arpeggios of Yvette Young and the intimate lo-fi of Jay Som fill a similar sentimental space.

But there’s a reason I began with Rodrigo. Though the other artists discussed are certainly well-known names in music, their success pales in comparison to Rodrigo’s. She’s become a household name, arguably the biggest new pop act to emerge in this young decade. Some of the biggest music in the world is by a mixed-Asian woman making thrashing guitar music about big emotions. Growing up mixed, it can be easy to think that no one gets you. But this new canon of mixed-Asian women artists has crafted anthems that have everyone singing, crying, and shouting along.

Published on December 13, 2023

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.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.