Japanese Breakfast’s ‘SNL’ performance was a triumph

Michelle Zauner has her very own header for SNL

Last Saturday marked the end of Saturday night live 47th season, one of the most eventful and diverse in recent memory. With such an explosive (and fantastic) host as Natasha Lyonne, many viewers were a little puzzled by the show’s musical choice: Japanese Breakfast, an indie band described by various reddit users as a “niche.”

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

I’m here to tell you that, considering all of that and more, their performance – and the fact that they grew – was nothing short of an absolute triumph, both for the band and for the lead singer, Michelle Zauner, who has worked tirelessly throughout her life to establish a career in music. If nothing else, their story is an inspiration to anyone who finds the slightest commonality with them.

The Life of a Brekkie

In 1989, Michelle Zauner was born to an American father and a Korean mother in Seoul, before the family moved to the (then) sleepy town of Eugene, Oregon. Michelle grew up there, finding inspiration in both the art and music scenes that always surrounded 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 with Bryn Mawr, then as a singer in various bands.

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

His mother died shortly after this move, an event in his life that cannot be adequately summed up in a single article. But to cope and reflect on all that had happened, she continued to write songs, eventually founding what became Japanese Breakfast. The project was initially a solo thing, where she and various other musicians (including Slutever, Frankie Cosmos, and Florist) would post one song a day to various tumblr accounts.

The name was meant to symbolize the juxtaposition between America’s fetishization of Asian (mostly Japanese) cultures and the subsequent blending of experiences for AAPI people from all walks of life. I feel the need to point this out because, during a reading between her and SNL’Like Bowen Yang, someone asked the question, “Don’t you think this name appropriates 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.” In any event.

Finally, J Brekkie’s first studio album, Psychopomp, was recorded with the help of various friends from Philadelphia (including Zauner’s husband, Peter Bradley), and soon after they were signed to the Dead Oceans label. From that point on, his career (and the band’s career as a whole) began to take off, with several chart-topping hits and even a spot as songwriters on the video game. Sable. Zauner even wrote a book, Crying at the H-Marta memoir about his life and his relationship with his mother (and a damn good read).

There is still more that I leave out for the sake of brevity, but the bottom line is that Zauner’s career was nothing short of miraculous from start to finish. It’s hard for an indie band to achieve that level of notoriety, let alone a woman of color project, and while it was an uphill battle for Zauner to get here, there’s really no doubt about the value of the trip.

SNL performance

The songs performed by J Brekkie (Be Sweet and Paprika respectively) were both taken from their latest album, last year’s. Jubilee. While their last two albums, Psychopomp and Sweet sounds from another planetcarried themes of mourning related to the death of his mother, Zauner wanted this album to represent themes of joy and light.

And that’s really cool on its own, but Zauner is also a director, which is to say she has a great sense of style for optics, which made the band’s performance even more remarkable. I find the best musical guests on SNL are those who mix their best songs with a serious performance and a fantastic presentation. Zauner delivered both in spades: her outfits were eye-catching and totally her, the lighting blended beautifully with the set design, and the joy that went into the album was contagiously present in the entire band’s performance.

It’s typical of a J Brekkie gig in general, but it worked so, so well for SNL, far exceeding the performances of some recent mainstream artists. And while many might say that SNL is a relic of the past, it’s still a staple of the network, and it’s nothing to scoff at getting airtime, especially for indie artists and actors of color.

I really hope this not only opens the floodgates of airtime opportunities for more artists like J Brekkie, but I also hope it tells more viewers and listeners about the wide range of talented women like Zauner herself. And I know many might say Phoebe Bridgers has already done it with hers SNL performance, but on the one hand, we need to stop comparing the successes of women towing the line for creative aspirants, and on the other hand, 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 find was BTS, and it’s not like the K-Pop industry is emblematic of all top Asian musicians. That’s yet another thing to celebrate about this performance, especially since it contains many little nods to Asian culture, from the iconography of the khaki to the gong, of course.


Zauner said she hopes her influence will inspire other Asian creators to get involved in music. I know, personally, that she inspired me when I was younger, and I know that she inspired countless other musicians, Asian or not. So with that 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 is also much more than that. Zauner and his group have nibbled at the industry for years and accomplished what many of their peers can only hope for. It’s a ruthless industry, yet they’ve managed to take it over with sheer genuine, creative genius. As a lifelong fan, I’m incredibly proud of this massive achievement. And I can’t wait to see what good comes out of it. As for those of you who have just discovered the band, I can only envy that you now have the pleasure of listening to their discography for the very first time.

(featured image: NBC)

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