Amy Chua is trying to kill music!

Thought I’d throw my two cents in the ring and see if they float about this whole Amy Chua “Tiger Mother” parenting imbroglio. No, I haven’t read the book. But I’ve learned enough about it from various reviews and articles to form a vitriolic, blog-alicious opinion anyway! So let’s go!

Now I credit Chua for shocking the Western reader with her case for a strict upbringing based on humility, manners, and hard work. It’s the kind of orientation that has helped East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China rise mercurially in the world economy over the last 60 years. This much is fine by me.

But they way Chua brings music into the picture — she advocates requiring children to take up the piano and violin and practice incessantly till techniques are mastered, pieces memorized, and auditions nailed — I just can’t stick. Music in this scenario is reduced to a brain teaser for overachievers, completely stripped of its power to develop a CREATIVE mind.

The result of this type of parenting in places like Korea, China, and Hong Kong (all of which I’ve worked and/or travelled in) has been a popular culture all but devoid of originality. Nearly all music I’ve ever heard playing in record shops in East Asia has been either (1) a direct rip-off of American/European hip-hop/dance pop sounds or (2) a dreadful type of twinkly, syrupy, echo-y, piano ballad that sounds, not surprisingly, like something a Tiger Mother would approve of.

(At this point, since I could honestly write a book about this topic, allow me to apologize for my generalizations and admit that America also churns out its fair share of sentimental pap. Also, there must be some garage band somewhere in Shanghai or Seoul that could totally make me turn my head. But why hasn’t that band made waves in today’s level Internet music playing field?)

As we all know, it’s not the notes you play but how you play them; not how your performance sounds but how it feels; and in most cases, less is more. The setting of boundaries can occasionally aid the creative process. Jack White is famous for waxing philosophical about the White Stripes’ signature two-person sound: “70 to 80 percent of what we do is constriction, and the other 20 to 30 percent is us breaking that constriction to see what happens.”

But the idea of mastering an instrument for the sake of it (or a production style, or a look for a video) is not art, full stop. Virtuosic playing will always pale next to original style. Hendrix will always be hipper than Clapton, Lennon edgier than McCartney, and the Velvet Underground cooler than everybody.

It’s important to remember that unlike the West, East Asian countries have had to survive multiple decades of war, revolution and repression that in many cases caused artists to lose touch with their folk traditions. (Imagine if the U.S. had a Cultural Revolution next month and we suddenly forgot how to play the blues!)

But East Asia will come around.There are already a number of acts from Japan exporting some truly diverse music (like Boris, Mono, and Shugo Takumaru). I look forward to hearing more from other countries. But first we need to sort out this whole Tiger Mother mindset. Because — don’t you see? — Amy Chua’s book is the topic of this post. No, I didn’t read it. No, I’m not yet a parent. Yes, my children will be given piano lessons. But if they don’t want to practice, then I ain’t gonna make ‘em. Now THAT’S the American way!


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