April 29, 2004

Inspiration Without Talent

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Much ink has been spilled over the William Hung phenomenon. For the unindoctrinated, a brief recap:

William Hung appears as a contestant on American Idol, performing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” while swinging his arms robotically and warbling atonally. The judges can’t contain their laughter, doubling-over frequently mid-performance. Afterwards, Simon Cowell chastises Hung harshly, to which he responds, “I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all.” Hung becomes an overnight sensation, spawning internet fan-clubs, talk-show appearances, and now a record release.

What underlies the success of William Hung? You can’t even go to your favorite Asian buddy for a definitive response. One side argues that, in the realm of possible explanations for the stunning success of William Hung, racism takes precedence. While Idol has seen many spectacular failures come and go, none but Hong Kong Ricky Martin has inked a $25,000 record deal. So why now? It’s because Hung is carrying on the stigmatic torch of the verbally-accented Chinese forever-foreigner. Even Alan Grunblatt, Hung’s producer, admits that Hung’s accent is what makes the music funny.

These critics condemn the culture that would promote the success of such a caricature. Moreover, they fear the damaging consequences of having yet another buck-toothed and socially awkward Chinese man in the public spotlight. What’s worse is that Hung is practically the only Asian male on television. David Ng of the Village Voice has called Hung “the most famous Asian American in the world right now.” The scary thing is that he’s right. I understand the haters because I grew up in a town in Texas where the small handful of Asians at my school shared a row in the yearbook. The only things most of my classmates knew about Asians came from Karate Kid or Indiana Jones (if they were real cultured-like). In my elementary years, bus-rides to school were typically filled with burly white kids coming up to me, gesticulating wildly and shrieking unintelligibly. In high school, my sophomore English teacher turned to me morosely to ask if my undoubtedly troubled relationship with my parents could shed further light on the generational dynamics in The Joy Luck Club. So I fear for those of the younger Asian-American generation that are situated in areas where the perception of Asian-Americans is dominated by what people see on television. They’re going to have it even worse than I did — facing daily serenades of “She Bangs” interrupting attempts to finish their math homework.

William Hung’s supporters do not deny the undercurrent of racism or the exploitation endemic to his success (unless they’re completely clueless), but they like to attribute Hung’s success more to his personality. In contrast to the Hung detractors, his supporters use the lack of success of the other dramatic Idol failures as evidence to support the popularity of Hung’s unique character traits (that are not his Asian-ness). In the face of the irrepressible schadenfreude of Simon Cowell, instead of pouting all diva-like, Hung merely asserts to have given his best. The record is named “Inspiration” because that is what he is to us — he chases his dreams unabashedly, steadfastly.

To support this view, Hung’s supporters can point to past non-Asian hit novelty acts: the mid 1960’s saw an out-of-tune housewife named Mrs. Miller score a #15 smash with a collection of un-listenable covers. Sound familiar? The magnitude of Hung’s popularity is also difficult to attribute solely to racism. A recent Hung performance in a packed multi-floor shopping mall in San Diego has seen revelers screaming, “We’ve been here since seven in the morning!” It’s all very Britney-esque, feeling like a legitimate pop-phenomenon. In fact, it’s so real that it begs someone to explain the difference between Hung and the innumerable other terrible pop acts that are taken more or less seriously.

But in all honesty, I get the feeling that all of this chatter is speculation. I have to wonder: how many of these self-proclaimed pop-life experts have actually listened to Inspiration? How many have watched the accompanying DVD? Well, this honest reviewer has returned from that dark abyss to report that, to this critic, none of the aforementioned explanations are satisfactory. The songs are sung poorly (big surprise), but not so badly that it’s comical. Interspersed among the songs are words of inspiration — that fall flat. However, Hung’s rendition of “Y.M.C.A.” will probably get Details readers’ blood flowing (but be gentle boys, he’s a virgin).

The DVD follows Hung around as he dines in a school cafeteria, records in the studio, plays Pokemon, and responds to fan-mail, all while nerdishly chuckling frequently. Berkeley students are interviewed for their opinions regarding classmate William Hung, and it’s fair to say that their effervescent reactions lie largely in the realm of tongue-in-cheek.

In this situation, I can’t help but think of my own father. As a kid growing up in Taiwan, his two front teeth were knocked out. Being unable to afford quality dental care, he went to some quack who inserted one of the front teeth where two are expected. He’s an obliviously terrible dresser, often wearing the combination of a collared shirt, sport shorts, dress shoes, and a sombrero. He has all the marks of an immigrant: broken English, bad breath, sincerity. I can remember going to the movies with him, seeing people look at him, inundated by all of the feelings of embarrassment, pride, and hate.

Archived article by Walter Chen
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer