The Twofold Power of Cuteness in Kawaii Metal, Lo-Fi, and Classical Music
The popular cultural Japanese term for cute, kawaii, translates to ‘capable of being loved’. Characterized by its “vulnerability, simplicity, charm, and childlikeness”, cuteness as a modern aesthetic has pervaded our contemporary world. Recently, its debate in a vast range of fields has stretched beyond modernity to topics from Christian commodity culture and Shakespeare plays to political figures Kim Jong-Il and Donald Trump. My research will examine the aesthetic and cultural functions of cuteness as a musical expression in the popular genres of kawaii metal and lo-fi hip-hop as well as in the standard classical repertoire.
Music of the last decade has steered towards the growing tendency across arts, media, and consumer culture to fuse the aesthetic of cuteness with themes of violence, sexuality, surrealism, and dreariness of everyday life. Kawaii metal uses complex musical and performance aesthetics to invoke cuteness as inherently weak, vulnerable, and tied to girlhood while deforming its ‘lighter’ qualities in jarring and unexpected ways, ultimately transforming the cute into a powerfully subversive form. The lyrics, while made less hostile than heavy metal by cutified language and nonsense syllables, often address underlying cultural and social issues.
At the same time, lo-fi hip-hop artists are reclaiming the “light” side of cuteness, using the simplicity, intimacy, and approachability of the diminutive aesthetic to create sounds that are ‘warm, soothing, endearing, and healing’. But why have critics dismissed this microgenre as ‘repetitive, amateur, and clichéd’, categorizing it as passing internet meme? This response is closely tied to the association of cuteness with cheapness and triviality. Long before the age of kawaii metal and lo-fi, cuteness can be traced in music from Mozart’s comic operas to Shostakovich’s horrific symphonies and Prokofiev’s cynical ballets. Classical music has used “cuteness” as an important foil for other aesthetics and expressions, yet it is rarely defined as ‘cute’ due to the former’s association with ‘higher’ aesthetics of the beautiful, tragic, and sublime. How can “cuteness” be recognized in and applied to different genres of music, and what is its function and significance?
More than providing a historiographic survey of cute music, my project aims to better appreciate cuteness as an important aesthetic category in both traditional and popular genres, allowing for its application to future studies and artistic creation. The creation proponent of my research will apply my theoretical understanding of musical “cuteness” to a new composition and performance. I will collaborate with Estonian-American composer Jonas Tarm to co-create the multi-genre work, “Labyrinth of Cuteness”. Our project will present a musical storytelling of the twofold power of cuteness by combining the forms of operetta and triple-piano concerto and synthesizing the distinctive styles of Kawaii metal, Lo-Fi, and classical music.
The original fantasy storyline of the operetta follows Kanza Nightingale, a shy wizardry schoolgirl and her struggle with dissociative identity disorder. Inspired by the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, Kanza’s three alternative selves embody the aggressive, sexual, and vulnerable tendencies of cuteness - the assassin, the courtesan, and the child. Musically, the operetta will alternate between various vocal styles and the triple-concerto will alternate between piano, celesta, and toy piano to parallel Kanza’s three identities. The contrasting musical forms and genres will highlight Kanza’s multiple personalities and their conflicts, differences, and ultimately coexistence through the link of “cuteness”. The score will illustrate my theoretical research using signifiers of musical cuteness and present the aesthetic and cultural functions of the cute in both classical and popular music. For the broader public, this original work will bring a new musical experience to the audience and portray the complex multitude of light and darkness in the cute, ultimately wielding its power to humanize and familiarize difficult issues in contemporary life.
Canadian pianist Tong Wang performs in a variety of styles, settings, and actively leads new creative initiatives in the arts community. As a soloist, Tong has performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Red Deer Symphony Orchestra. She is the recipient of awards including the International Chopin Golden Ring Competition, the Canadian Music Competition, the Alberta Arts Graduate Scholarship, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal of Performing Arts, and the Canada Graduate Scholarship. Tong has been involved in various social and entrepreneurial initiatives including the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Music for Food, and New England Conservatory’s Community Partnerships and Performances program. Her current engagements include the performance tour “Song of Praise”, which explores Chinese-Canadian culture, a dissertation research-creation project on “musical cuteness”, and the interactive sound novel “The [blank] Journal”. As a writer, Tong’s fiction, poetry, artwork, and essays have been published in the newspaper “Penguin”, the academic journal “Hear Here!”, and the literary project “carte blanche”, where her work was shortlisted for the 3Macs Prize. As Co-Executive Director of the arts initiative, “Zenkora”, Tong leads a team of artists across genres to produce interdisciplinary orchestra concerts that illustrate the stories of an original fantasy universe. Tong is an active member of Lincoln Center Stage and TAG Duo. She has been a member of the Kuma Trio, the Z4 Quartet, and the Montreal Musicians Collective, performing at venues including Salle Bourgie, Victoria Hall, Christ Church Cathedral, as well as residencies at the Beijing Central Conservatory and the Lunenburg Academy of Music. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Piano Performance from the New England Conservatory and the McGill University. Tong’s mentors include Boris Konovalov, Bruce Brubaker, and Kyoko Hashimoto. As a winner of the Nordic Strings Academy "China Tours" International Competition, Tong will perform her solo recital program "Homecoming" across China in 2021. Tong is a 2021 Global Leaders Cohort, leading and collaborating with international organizations on initiatives to drive social change through music.
Supervisor(s): Kyoko Hashimoto