by SUNG J. WOO
This past New Year’s Eve, I was on the second floor of Terminal 5, a concert hall in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Leaning over the railing, I screamed, “I love to hate you!” with the rest of the frenzied crowd below me, above me, all around me. As the song reached its end, the singer segued into a countdown, and then he yelled, “Happy New Year!” Gold balloons and white confetti rained down from above, and then we all sang the next song, “I try to discover, a little something to make me sweeter …”
If you are of a certain age and Asian American, there’s a high likelihood that you know these two songs are “Love to Hate You” and “A Little Respect.” This was my first time seeing Erasure. I probably should’ve done this a quarter of a century ago, but back then, I didn’t even know who they were, and more to the point, I didn’t know who I was.
Growing up in the ’80s, music was not a meaningful part of my life. My two older sisters had a small collection of LPs and cassettes, so I ended up listening to their favorite artists, which is why I still have a soft spot for Journey (respectable) and Air Supply (shameful). I listened to what was on top-40 radio and MTV, and these songs became a part of me, but on a background, ancillary level, as if my life were an elevator and what I heard around me was Muzak.
Even as a freshman at college, music didn’t define me in any significant way. At least a band or two came to campus that year to play, but I have no recollections because I didn’t go. But, then, everything changed my sophomore year.
By this time, I’d joined a fraternity (not what you think—worthy of its own future column), and one of the brothers in the house was a guy named Dave, a fellow Korean American. Dave was pretty much the opposite of me in every way—quiet, laid-back and loved rap. But his musical tastes ventured far beyond N.W.A. and Public Enemy because, one day, I heard these lyrics flowing out from his room:
Every time I see you falling
I get down on my knees and pray
I’m waiting for that final moment
You say the words that I can’t say
It wasn’t the lyrics that got me; it was the melody—a layered, synthesized sonic landscape with driving drums; the words, I noticed later.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s New Order,” Dave said, and handed me the double CD. It was all white, except for the name of the band and the title of the album in black, capital letters: SUBSTANCE 1987, five years in the past. Looking over the 1987 Billboard chart for singles now, I can tell you with great certainty that I had listened to the Bangles’ “Walk like an Egyptian,” Whitney Houston wanting to dance with somebody, Bon Jovi living on a prayer and Wang Chung wanting everyone to have fun tonight.
How the hell did I not know about New Order, who had put out this album, which was a frigging best-of compilation? That meant the band had other albums before this one. Many of them. I was glad to have found them at last, but I’d also totally missed out.
New Order became (and still is) my favorite band, but the group also served as the gateway for other artists like them. In this day and age, Spotify and Pandora would make this discovery easy, but back in 1992, human recommendation was the way to go. Dave introduced me to Erasure as well; I can still remember hearing “A Little Respect” in his room, holding onto that jewel of a CD in my hand as I stood in front of his boombox and basked in the synth-pop beat.
One of my favorite pastimes back then was ordering CDs from BMG Music (12 CDs for a penny!), and Judy, a Chinese girl in my Japanese literature class, looked over my shoulder and recommended the Pet Shop Boys. Later that semester, when she invited me to a Chinese Students Association dance and all I heard were these British new wave bands, I turned to her and asked, “Do all Asians love this music?”
She smiled. “Welcome to the club.”
Dancing under the strobe, for the first time in college, I felt like I was a part of something bigger. As my feet stomped to the drums, I knew I was finally at the right place at the right time.
I saw New Order in the cavernous Meadowlands in 1993, my first rock concert, and again in 2005 and 2012. Last year I dragged my wife to the Pet Shop Boys in Philadelphia (thank you, honey), and as 2014 clocked over to 2015, I celebrated the brand new year with 3,000 fellow Erasure fans. Standing next to me with a smile as wide as mine was a woman of Asian descent. She was a complete stranger, but she was also my sister.
Sung J. Woo’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s and Hyphen. His debut novel, Everything Asian, won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Youth Literature Award. His second novel, Love Love, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2015.
This article was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).