Why what I want from Hawaiian music will never become a reality

I’ve spent the last few days visiting family in Hawai`i, and I’m reminded of the one genre that I probably dislike as much as garage rock: Hawaiian music.

It shouldn’t be surprising that someone who grew up in Hawai`i would develop no taste for the indigenous music. When I lived in Texas, I met more than my fair share of people who grew up there and felt no affinity for country music, let alone Tejano.

I like exactly one song in the Hawaiian music genre: “Moonlight Lady” by Gabby Pahinui. I like it so much, I even recorded a cover of it — in the style of My Bloody Valentine.

Hawaiian music is rooted in the spirit of aloha, a word that means affection, peace, compassion or mercy (so Wikipedia tells me.) That’s where my disconnect with Hawaiian music resides — I’m not very affectionate, I’m too cynical to buy into peace, my compassion has its limits and mercy? What’s that?

The focus on affection and peace means Hawaiian music is, by nature, sentimental, sometimes to the point of toothaching sweetness.

During this visit home, I walked into Jelly’s Comics, and the in-store music was some Hawaiian artist covering “Lost in Love” by Air Supply. My reaction summed in a tweet:

Hawaiian music: a genre where Air Supply covers are legitimate artistic statements.

I’m not sure it’s possible to cover Air Supply ironically, so there goes any potential justification for hipster douchebaggery.

The emphasis on peace in the aloha spirit results in a genre of music that, to my ears at least, sounds fairly static.

I know there are subgenres of Hawaiian music: slack key, territorial, popular and that abomination known as Jawaiian. But the gradations between these divisions are too blurred to be meaningful, and a lack of friction within the genre means there would never be a style of Hawaiian music that could be labeled “underground” or “alternative”. See hip-hop and rock, respectively.

(Side note: for the longest time, I thought I disliked reggae. In reality, I disliked Hawaiian artists playing reggae. Willie K still needs to be shipped off to the Hague for the crime against humanity that is his cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)

But what do I know? I went through high school listening to Kronos Quartet, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Camper Van Beethoven, while all my classmates dug their Guns N’ Roses, L.A. Dream Team and Exposé.

I’m open to just about any kind of music so long as I know there’s an element to it that’s challenging its mainstream. Hawaiian music, from what I can tell, has no such stream.

The genre does not have an Astor Piazzola, who made tango the basis for his modern classical works. It doesn’t have albums like Bee Thousand or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, watershed works that demonstrate where the genre could go. If it has an OutKast or an Emmylou Harris or a John Zorn, I’d love to hear about it. If Zorn can forge a Radical Jewish Culture, what’s stopping a Radical Hawaiian Culture?

If someone could make Hawaiian music weird, I just might listen to it. But it will never happen because it’s just not in the music’s DNA.