The performance of gendered racial stereotypes is a powerful tool for fostering belief in essentialized human categories. In the early 20th-century United States, supposedly Chinese and Japanese orientality was enacted by white people playing Asian Others and by Asian and Asian American performers widely believed to embody authentic racial difference. As modes of representation and grounds for interpretive acts of reception, these practices could offer troubled meetings of music, ideology, and cultural hegemony. In many such moments, sonic experience gave specifically musical weight to raciological ideas about orientality, whiteness, and Americanness.
White Americans made diverse but hegemonically guided meanings from experiences framed by white nativist and other dominant discourses. In contexts fraught with anti-Asian racism, ideas about music, race, the voice, and the body could support belief in a dangerous (male) "yellow peril" or a safely distant, aestheticized (female) orient of kimono and fans. Reinscribing such tropes along with narratives of exclusion or assimilation, performance gave deceptively compelling support to typologies of difference.
Naturalizing rhetorics of authenticity suffused European American responses to Tamaki Miura and other Japanese sopranos performing "Madame Butterfly" and to Asian Americans in vaudeville. Many listeners heard Tomijiro Asai's oratorio excerpts as singing his assimilation. Notions of mimetic skill underpinned reviews of white orientalist performers. Blanche Bates and Walker Whiteside recounted experiential grounds for their yellowface techniques. Pantomimes, operettas, martial arts, and society balls fostered children's and adults' amateur mimesis. The ta-tao, an ostensibly Chinese social dance, offered an antidote to tango-induced moral panic. Orientalism in popular music could promise exotic alternatives to the supposed dangers of African American practices or hybrid novelty with "jazz" gestures.
Some white performers sang orientality through mimetic practices examined as "yellowvoice." Sheet music supported domestic singing, and recordings document professional acts ranging from comedy monologues to fox-trot choruses. Musical aspects of silent cinema exhibition supported orientalist spectatorship of works including Griffith's "Broken Blossoms"; some presented scenes of music-making. Hollywood film scoring and other recent practices often echo earlier acts. This interdisciplinary work offers connections to Ethnomusicology, American Studies, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, and Media Studies.
Lancefield, Robert C., "Hearing orientality in (white) America, 1900-1930" (2004). Dissertations. Paper 2.
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