Michelle Zauner has her very own header for SNL

Japanese Breakfast’s ‘SNL’ Performance Was a Triumph

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This past Saturday marked the end of Saturday Night Live’s 47th season, one of its most hectic and diverse in recent memory. With a host as bombastic (and fantastic) as Natasha Lyonne, many viewers were a bit perplexed by the show’s choice of music: Japanese Breakfast, an indie band that was described by various reddit users as “niche.”

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I guess I’ve been lost in the indie-rock sauce for too long, because to me, they were an obvious choice of musical guest that I’d been looking forward to for a while. But I realize that, to the average viewer, they were a pretty random, if visually stunning, choice to end the season on.

I’m here to tell you that, with all that considered and more, their performance—and the fact that they went up at all—was nothing short of an absolute triumph, both for the band and for the lead singer, Michelle Zauner, who has worked tirelessly her entire life to establish a career in music. If nothing else, their story is inspirational to anyone who finds even the slightest bit of commonality with them.

Life of a Brekkie

In 1989, Michelle Zauner was born to an American father and a Korean mother in Seoul, before the family relocated to the (then) sleepy town of Eugene, Oregon. Michelle grew up there, finding inspiration in both the art and music scenes that were always around her, and a sense of alienation that came with her mixed upbringing. Both factors would become defining influences in her trajectory as an artist, first as a creative writing major at Bryn Mawr, and then as the frontwoman of various bands.

When she moved to Philadelphia, she fronted the emo-rock band Little Big League, which had a modest following that still holds up today. But while she struggled to find a sense of balance in her life, her mother, back home in Eugene, was diagnosed with cancer. Zauner ended her time with Little Big League to move back home.

Her mother passed shortly after that move, an event in her life that cannot be summed up properly in a simple article. But as a way of coping and meditating on all that had happened, she continued to write songs, eventually founding what came to be Japanese Breakfast. The project was initially a solo thing, where she and various other musicians (including the likes of Slutever, Frankie Cosmos, and Florist) would post one song a day to various tumblr accounts.

The name was meant to symbolize the juxtaposition between American fetishization of Asian cultures (predominantly Japanese), and the subsequent blending of experiences for AAPI people of all backgrounds. I feel the need to point this out because, during a reading between her and SNL’s Bowen Yang, someone asked the question, “Don’t you think that name is appropriating Japanese culture since you’re not Japanese?” Way to miss the point, White Knight McGee. Guess what: Asian girls still won’t date you just because you “know a thing or two about Hong Kong.” Anyways.

Eventually, J Brekkie’s first studio album, Psychopomp, was recorded with the help of various friends from Philly (including Zauner’s husband, Peter Bradley), and not long after, they were signed to the label Dead Oceans. From this point onward, her career (and the band’s career as a whole) began to take off, with several hits topping the charts and even a spot as composers on the video game Sable. Zauner even wrote a book, Crying at H-Mart, a memoir about her life and relationship with her mother (and a damn good read).

There’s even more that I’m leaving out for the sake of brevity, but the gist of it is that Zauner’s career has been nothing short of miraculous, from start to finish. It’s difficult for any indie band to reach this level of notoriety, let alone the project of a woman of color, and although it was an uphill battle for Zauner to get here, there’s really no doubt about how worthwhile the journey was.

SNL performance

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3mHfQgQY1M

The songs that J Brekkie performed (Be Sweet and Paprika, respectively) were both from their most recent album, last year’s Jubilee. Whereas their last two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, carried themes of grief related to her mother’s death, Zauner wanted this album to represent themes of joy and light.

And that’s really cool in and of itself, but Zauner is also a director—i.e. she has a great sense of style for optics, which made the band’s performance stand out all the more. I find that the best musical guests on SNL are the ones who blend their best songs with an earnest performance and a fantastic presentation. Zauner delivered both in spades: Her outfits were eye-catching and totally her, the lighting melded beautifully with the set design, and the joy that went into the album was infectiously present in the entire band’s performance.

This is typical of a J Brekkie concert in general, but it worked so, so well for SNL, well surpassing the performances of some recent mainstream performers. And while many might argue that SNL is a relic of the past, it’s still a major network staple, and getting airtime on it is nothing to sneer at—especially for indie artists and actors of color.

I really hope that this not only opens the floodgates of airtime opportunities for more artists like J Brekkie, but I hope it also clues more viewers and listeners into the wide swath of talented women like Zauner herself. And I know many might say that Phoebe Bridgers already did that with her own SNL performance, but for one thing, we need to stop comparing the successes of women who tow the line for aspiring creatives, and for another, Bridgers is a white woman whose career was more streamlined than Zauner’s, so the comparison therefore falls flat.

On that note, how many Asian musical guests have there even been on the show? When I did my research, all I could come up with was BTS, and it’s not like the K-Pop industry is emblematic of every prominent Asian musician out there. It’s yet another thing to celebrate about this performance, especially since there were so many little nods to Asian culture in it—from the persimmon iconography to, obviously, the gong.

Wrapping It Up

Zauner has said that she hopes her influence will help inspire other Asian creatives to get involved in music. I know, personally, that I was inspired by her when I was younger, and I know that she’s inspired countless other musicians, Asian or not. So, bearing this in mind, the fact that so many newcomers to her music got to see her perform live on SNL is part of what makes the performance such a triumph.

And it’s also much more than that. Zauner and her band have been chipping away at the industry for years and have accomplished what many of their peers can only hope for. It’s a merciless industry, yet they’ve managed to take hold of it through pure authentic and creative genius. As a longtime fan, I’m so incredibly proud of this massive achievement. And I truly can’t wait to see what good comes of it. As for those of you who are newly introduced to the band, I can only envy that you now have the pleasure of listening through their discography for the very first time.

(featured image: NBC)


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Author
Image of Madeline Carpou
Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).