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Williams College Professor W. Anthony Sheppard will speak about Asian influences in American pop music and performers including Williams alum U.S.-born Taiwanese singer Wang Leehom.
Williams College Professor W. Anthony Sheppard will speak about Asian influences in American pop music and performers including Williams alum U.S.-born
Williams College Professor W. Anthony Sheppard will speak about Asian influences in American pop music and performers including Williams alum U.S.-born Taiwanese singer Wang Leehom. (Associated Press)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- A young recent college graduate in flannel sits by the window in a city apartment listening to the the sure, fluent movement of Jake Shimabukuro's ukelele on YouTube.

Imagine someone vulnerable, intelligent and unsure.

Imagine someone at the point between having ideas -- and doing something with them.

On Saturday, Williams College will lead from thinking to doing.

The college will hold its first series of TEDx talks. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) started out 30 years ago as a conference to share ideas in these worlds. The series has not only grown, it has inspired talks in the same format around the globe. And the speakers film these talks, so that TED can share them worldwide.

TED's database of TEDx talks -- events in the TED format but organized independently -- now holds more than 30,000 talks from 130 countries.

Here, this weekend, a professor wants his students to understand what they hear in popular music. A senior wanting to understand a movement among people trying to find their feet after college.

Here are Jewish characters in Shakespeare and Marlowe, and epidemics among Tasmanian devils, and colliding galaxies.

Professor W. Anthony Sheppard will speak on "Pop Orientalism," the ways Asian and Asian-American music and musicians have appeared in American popular music.


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He will range from 1873 Tin Pan Alley songs connected to Williams professor Karen Shepard's novel "The Celestials," about a group of Chinese workers brought to North Adams to end a strike at a shoe factory, to "Miss Saigon," one of the most popular shows on Broadway, to Psy (Park Jae-Sang)'s KPop viral Internet hit, "Gangnam Style," and to one of Williams' best-known alum: Wang Leehom, Chinese-American singer-songwriter, producer, actor and director.

The Internet has made it easier for American listeners to find Asian and Asian-American music. But has it changed the way they hear it? Sheppard shakes his head. He sees even a viral hit like "Gangnam Style" as a one-hit wonder.

"Psy is a comic figure," he said.

Many American listeners, at least, have refused to take him seriously. They would accept an Internet parody, Sheppard said, but not a Korean rapper. When he performed at the American Musical Awards, angry Tweets poured in.

Sheppard seems saddened by the meanness of that response.

And he sees caricatures from the 1800s repeated today, even in major awards ceremonies in the last year. The stereotype of Asian women as self-sacrificing and obedient to men is as clear in "Miss Saigon" as it is in "Madama Butterfly," he said, and still exists.

So he challenges his students and his listeners, with all the world of the Internet to explore.

Amy Levine '14 will also consider what it means to find something new and share it.

She studied abroad in the Williams/Oxford program, and there she took a tutorial on literary theory, which got her interested in irony. And irony led her to hipsters.

What is a hipster? The word has existed since the 1940s, and it led to the word "hippie" in the ‘60s, but its meaning has changed.

The definition today is hard to pin down, Levine said, not least because no one is one -- out loud. Those who talk about them may want other people to see them as one but would never admit it.

But among people who use the word, the sense of it converges on a young adult in a flannel shirt and thick-rimmed glasses. He wears expensive clothing that doesn't look it.

He takes on outdated trends and make them new, Levine said. He persues hobbies.

Hipsters are early adopters. They want to be the first to discover something, a new band, a new restaurant: "You've probably never heard of it."

They see the world with ironic detatchment. And those who talk about hipsters see hipsters with ironic detatchment.

Levine remembers Socrates talking to people in Athens who think they know virtue or courage, and telling them that their definitions did not work.

The ideal of being first is a longing to be original. But is being the first to eat at a new sushi bar really original? Is it original to stand in line for a "cronut" with 600 other ambitious eaters, because a blog somewhere has declared it the hottest new food of the week?

Is wanting other people to think you're original actually the opposite of originality?

Her argument goes beyond the irony of wanting to be a hipster, and yet talking with detatched sarcasm about hipsterdom -- or the irony of wanting passionately to be original and joining a mass movement to do it -- or the contradiction in wanting expert knowledge, which means returning to the same thing often, and wanting always to be first and newest.

There is a sadder, more adult irony in this figure with a trained mind coming into a world jammed with endless information -- and not knowing what to do.

Maybe the word has evolved to fit a generation of young people coming from a college that teaches them to know their skills and to be who they are, into a larger world of entry level jobs and loans and fast food.

And maybe a series like this pushes back at that ironic detatchment and that fear. It challenges: Get involved. Find something new and walk away wanting to know more. Listen to Judith Hill or Enka music, or Bollywood, or the Indian raga for this time of year.

If you go ...

What: Williams College will host TEDxWilliamsCollege

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Where: CenterStage of the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance. A reception will follow in the CenterStage lobby.

Admission: Free, but tickets are required and space is limited.

Tickets: tedx.williams.edu/ticket-info

Online: Williams will broadcast the talks online after the conference.

Information: tedx.williams.edu