Formation Jukebox The Secret Asian American History Behind New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”
I love new wave music for the way it makes me feel—like the cups of my interior and exterior worlds are overflowing. Turns out I’m not the only one.
When was somebody going to tell me that Asian Americans have a special affinity for new wave music? I wasn’t aware of that cultural fact until I read this oral history in Jezebel last year, partially because of its gorgeous illustration—a moody diorama sketch of a teenager’s band-poster-wallpapered bedroom, rendered tenderly in deep periwinkle shot through with white and bubblegum light—and partially because I originally wanted my first tattoo to be the cover of Depeche Mode’s album Violator .
“New wave” is, to wildly generalize, rock’s broodier, goth-leaning but not totally goth sibling. Bands like Depeche Mode experimented with synths and other non-rock instrumentations and sounds, in the process shearing rock of its punkier elements and retexturing that space with something just as visceral but more crystalline. To me, one signifier of new wave is that the songs contain an emotional purity that makes it feel like you’re crying in the rain, like the cups of your interior and exterior worlds are overflowing and you’ve stopped trying to swim against their melancholy currents. In other words, new wave is sad banger central.
It’s the kind of music that I’ve been drawn to for much of my listening life. While reading through the Jezebel piece, I felt an electric shiver of recognition several times. But never was the shiver stronger than at the line “Why was ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ widely dubbed the Asian American anthem?” I clicked through to the assertion’s source .
It’s a post from 2005 (that’s eighteen years ago) on the website for the Asian American magazine Hyphen , with the title “The Wisdom of the Fool”—a phrase I immediately recognized as part of a lyric that reads in full, “The wisdom of the fool will set you free.”* For over two decades of my life, I had—I have —New Order’s song “Bizarre Love Triangle” playing in the ambient space of my brain, somewhere between the level of elevator music and a fictional character’s soundtrack motif. “Bizarre Love Triangle” is (symbolically) my default ringtone, the song that (again, symbolically) autoplays when I accidentally connect my phone’s Bluetooth to a new speaker. And up until last year, I thought my association with it was maybe just a little bit unique.
But according to this lineage of reporting, it turns out I’ve been unknowingly in community not just with a whole generation of people, but a whole generation of my ** people. This recasts my love for “Bizarre Love Triangle” differently. Part of me wants to loudly articulate what the song means to me specifically. But the other, more generous part of me wants to light a beacon as bright as the one that brought Rohan to Gondor’s aid: Hey, look at this touchstone we have in common, despite everything else that would and does drive us apart. Hey, I’d love to dance to this song with you, all together now, at some strobelite party in some warm sweaty space, all of us singing along to words we chose to learn, on our own, but which have brought us together for the same reason now. Hey, whenever I get this way / I just don’t know what to say / why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?
For two summers in my childhood, I went to a camp that masqueraded as “extracurricular learning” but actually taught me about puberty. Some camp firsts: first period; first time meeting someone who smoked cigarettes; first time watching someone dress in drag and feeling some kind of way about it.
But the only first that matters from this era is that this camp is where I first heard “Bizarre Love Triangle,” which the (mostly white) kids abbreviated as “BLT.” What business did a bunch of preteens and barely-teenagers in the early 2000s have imprinting like baby birds on a new wave track from 1986? We didn’t have a choice. The camp we went to had a “canon” soundtrack, an open secret playlist that campers and counselors of yore had put together and passed on like a prized knife to every subsequent generation.
During the dances, which were messy in ways you can imagine and even messier in ways you can’t, campers and counselors alike would request “canon” songs. Some of them had choreo involved—like, major events ended with the entire camp sitting in a circle and singing along to “American Pie,” a memory that makes me lightly gag. But I remember the choreo for “BLT” fondly: Your fellow campers would build a tunnel with their arms and you’d run through the tunnel before joining up with it, locking fingers with whoever had gone through before or after you. All the while singing along to lyrics like “Every time I see you falling / I get down on my knees and pray” with the fervency of actual prayer.
Truthfully, the bit role that “BLT” played in the camp playlist could’ve been filled by a million other songs. But unlike other entries like “ Iris ” or “American Pie” or “ Swing Swing ,” “Bizarre Love Triangle” hit me like a slow-release poison. By the time I was counselor-aged, I was an awkward young adult who’d never been allowed to go to concerts and downloaded most of their music illegally from shady source links. But I eventually developed my own taste, and for a time I kept coming back to New Order, to Depeche Mode, to Erasure, to this hybrid electronica-rock music that superficially reflected the darkness in my heart while remaining cathartically danceable. Unlike with emo, which made me want to punch a wall, or East Asian pop, which let me imagine myself as a supernaturally beautiful anime hero, by god I could dance to new wave music, letting loose like a white girl in an indie movie without having to think about where to step, how to move my hands, whether or not I would or could be shamed outside of my bedroom.
If you’d asked me back then, “What drew you specifically to ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’?” I wouldn’t have had the language to answer. Now, I’d say, it’s something about singer Bernard Sumner’s voice, which always sounds like it’s on the cusp of pleading as he delivers cryptic poetry like “I do admit to myself that if I hurt someone else / Then I’ll never see just what we’re meant to be,” and, “You say the words that I can’t say.” It’s something about the buoyant and brilliant but never fully celebratory production. It’s something about New Order’s inherent history as a band, formed in the aftermath of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’s suicide.
As Todd Inoue, writing for Hyphen decades ago, posited, “For many Asian Americans, freestyle and new wave provided a safe harbor. It wasn’t as rebellious as punk or death metal, so as not to bring shame to the family, but offered just the precise mix of melancholy and pre-emo pathos for hormonal pre- and post-pubescents.” In Jezebel , Esther Wang goes further in her reporting , placing new wave music and the Asian American generation that came of age in the ’80s through the early 2000s in the same musical ethnography that ties Mexican Americans to The Smiths, a similarly sociological phenomenon based on singer Morrissey’s affective vocals and the importance of rock ’n’ roll to a generation of assimilating immigrants.
In Wang’s piece, Asian American culturati—professors, critics, fashion folks—try to pin down exactly what it is about new wave music that got them so in their feelings. “And I might be totally wrong, but I think for a lot of Asian American kids, part of your adolescence is marked by a profound sense of loneliness,” one shares. Another muses, “It just reminded me of that moment where you feel like there is an identity, but you’re not stressed about explaining what it is or explaining why it is. You’re just like, oh, all of us like this thing. We’re not going to try and figure out why it is. But we see each other now.”
I know what they mean, because I’ve heard this sentiment before—in “Bizarre Love Triangle” itself no less: “It’s no problem of mine, but it’s a problem I find / Living a life that I can’t leave behind.” The specifics of your identity are real, and your identity brings you in contact with cultural currents that ebb and flow and overtake and strand and unite and divide you. All you can do is live within them, accepting what the tide brings you and what it takes away.
The specifics of your identity are real, and your identity brings you in contact with cultural currents that ebb and flow and overtake and strand and unite and divide you.
*The thing is, the lyric in “Bizarre Love Triangle” isn’t, as I thought literally up until the moment I looked it up for this piece, “The wisdom of the fool will set you free.” It’s actually “ won’t .” Sumner’s pronunciation is gentle but not unclear. The mistake is mine alone.
“The wisdom of the fool” is embedded within “There’s no sense in telling me / The wisdom of the fool won’t set you free / But that’s the way that it goes and it’s what nobody knows / Well, every day my confusion grows.” With “will,” the surrounding lines are straightforward and relatively mature compared to the rest of the song’s naivety and ambiguity: You should pursue knowledge even if you’ll never know everything. Flipped “back” to its intended reading of “won’t,” the lyric is no longer an aberration: You don’t know anything and never will. But you’re compelled to strive, to yearn, regardless and relentlessly, even if it’s against your better interests.
I’d listened to the song hundreds of times in my life, and I still didn’t know it at all. Some fool, some wisdom.
**What is identity as a community marker anyway? The thing that struck me the most in both Wang’s and Inoue’s pieces is the specificity of the version of “Asian America” they invoke. You grew up with new wave music and can articulate what it was from both anecdotal and historical perspectives; you were isolated from whiteness either on your own or within ethnic enclaves during a period of American history when “representation” and “diversity” weren’t social imperatives; you were most likely East Asian and middle-class; you paid attention to music as not just a thing you listened to, but something around which you built your identity—your personal identity as opposed to your racial one.
The specter of identity, the ways in which it obviously and subtly influences not just how people act toward you but the ways in which you carry yourself, has been haunting me for some time now. Several times in Q and A sessions I’ve been asked about how to balance writing queer representation with race representation, as though I and so many others aren’t living examples of “why not both.” The experience makes me wonder if/how I and anyone thrown into the role of creating/affirming “representation” can do so genuinely, with grace.
And thus I return to “Bizarre Love Triangle,” which places me in conversation with people with whom I share both superficial and real similarities. It’s a coincidence and a cheat code at once: The “triangle” in the song’s story is obliquely about an unbalanced love triangle, but it can also be read, at least to me and everyone else who’s down for a deeper listening, as an ode to the impossibly gnarly cultural placement(s) of “otherness” in American culture: caught between your heritage, your immediate surroundings, and yourself, an interior island unique to you.
When I move through the world, it’s not “as” an Asian American person, let alone a “queer” one, let alone a “trans” one. I’m just a body in motion, trailing the debris of my identity behind me not as a fairy-tale candy trail but as a comet’s tail: I combust at my borders as I hurtle through space and time. When I collide with culture—books, movies, and of course songs—I also receive their histories into my identity.
The exchange doesn’t really go both ways; the things I encounter are generally not made more “Asian American” by the fact of my encounter. The same goes for “Bizarre Love Triangle,” however deeply a specific generation of diaspora—Gen X slide tackling into the millennial era—imprinted on it. There’s a salient “right place, right time” aspect to this whole framing. As far as I know, my later-in-life love of new wave isn’t as common as it once was, even if the things that drew me to the genre ended up mimicking the affection of my forebears.
It’s also worth noting that this Asian American fondness for new wave, with its predominantly white British and male progenitors (though a whole separate piece could be, and has been , written on the inherent queerness of the genre’s aesthetic), is only a surprising cultural footnote because the way we listen to and relate to artists has also shifted significantly. But strictly speaking to this latter point, there are definitively more Asian American artists than ever making music that grasps at the hollow loneliness and alienation, but also the reflective intimacy and catharsis, that Wang and Inoue’s contemporaries sought from new wave in their time. If new wave was a mirror, this rising class of musicians makes their own glass.
When I collide with culture—books, movies, and of course songs—I also receive their histories into my identity.
I can’t crown an Asian American heir to new wave’s sonic hallmarks, mostly because clear borders between musical genres collapse as artists increasingly take a “more is more” attitude toward influences, driving “genre” into the event horizon of amorphous vibe playlists. But if you like R and B–tinged nihilism, you can tune into Yeek and Deb Never. For R and B–tinged sweetness, Raveena and Umi. For pop running the gamut from avant-garde to stadium, Mitski and Hayley Kiyoko. For indie-rock angst and rapture, Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som—and I’m eliding hundreds of mega- and microstars to keep it brief.
Though I usually don’t hesitate to champion these artists, of course, not all of their music hits for me. Still, it’s a task, generally impossible and usually only asked of creators and consumers “of identity,” to make and share work that speaks to your “lived histories.” So I’ve spent most of my life trying to build myself a “more” representative shell, cobbling a hermit crab home with pieces that wouldn’t always fit together. The shell I did eventually create, though—when I see other people with similar-looking bits and bobs in equally ramshackle but enduring creations, I feel protective and openhearted at once. I know what it took, what it takes, to build that shell. I think I know why you chose those particular pieces, even if they don’t “represent” you in the way we’re trained to seek representation, just as I can detail the history of such and such fragments, how they ended up embedded in my living shield.
I’ve never been in a crowd of Asian Americans when “Bizarre Love Triangle” comes on and have never experienced the conditions detailed in those reported pieces, but I know exactly what it’s like to hear its opening bass line and feel like all the burdens of the world, of being myself in the world, have floated away. And as I wait for that final instrumental break to crack open, releasing its recklessly heavenly wash of sound, I think about the song’s strange, secret history. “Bizarre Love Triangle” is a way to communicate without speaking, a shared experience that’s felt and understood but that’s too slippery for studied scrutiny and too uneasy for modern context. And yet I’m trying to do just that, but I’m a fool feigning wisdom. After all, the song itself is clear about its power: It says the words that you can’t say.