The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator

Douglas S. Ishii

“Square Peg”: Or, Asian Americana in Yellow Rose

The soundtrack for the 2019 independent drama, Yellow Rose, opens with Eva Noblezada, 2017 Tony Award nominee for Best Actress in a Musical, singing the film’s title track, “Square Peg.” The music film, set around the Austin music scene, begins as the coming-of-age story of Rose Garcia, played by Noblezada--a Filipina American high schooler and aspiring musician. However, the stakes escalate when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents apprehend her mother, and initiate deportation proceedings when she is discovered an undocumented citizen. The film proceeds as Rose, also an undocumented citizen, searches for sanctuary, discovers her first love, and comes into her art through the pain of her everyday life. This presentation is a critical karaoke to a film perhaps understood as quintessentially karaoke, as Philippine/Filipinx people have been understood as imitators par excellence. That is, I sidestep the perhaps obvious interpretation, that the film claims Asian Americans’ cultural citizenship through its homage to Americana.

Thinking alongside “Square Peg,” I deploy Christine Bacareza Balance’s theory of disobedient listening, which highlights those postcolonial ruptures in the ideological education of the Filipinx subject, and Jose Esteban Munoz’s theory of brownness, which tends to a sense of the commons in response to racialization’s dehumanization. As a beginning to a project on Asian Americana, I ask: how does Yellow Rose mobilize the desires embedded in the country genre imaginary toward a common brownness?  I am interested in the racial performances that converge in the film: Rose’s appellation as Yellow Rose, which suggests her Asian American racialization, amidst a deportation regime more associated with the anti-Latinx border violence of Texas, in a film that features Noblezada and Lea Salonga, the Filipina performers of the Viet Nam-set Broadway musical Miss Saigon, through country, a genre associated with conservative whiteness despite rich contributions by Black women.

Douglas S. Ishii is assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Washington.  He has presented at PopCon on Asian American racialization through musical genre in indie, alternative, and pop.  His academic writing has appeared in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies; Global Asian American Popular Cultures (NYU Press, 2016); Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Literature, History, and Media (Rutgers, 2015); and the forthcoming Queer Asian North American Voices (Temple, 2021).