Introducing: Floating Room’s “Freakshow”

A new track from the Portland band, plus an essay on it by frontwoman Maya Stoner.

The most successful Japanese song of all time is titled “Ue o Muite Arukō.” 

The song topped the charts in several countries, including America, where, in 1963, it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The title can be translated to mean “look up as I walk,” but that’s not what it was known as when it became a hit in the United States. Instead it was released as “Sukiyaki,” the name of a popular Japanese beef dish which has absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics. The name change was a marketing strategy aimed at making the song palatable to Americans. The label who released the song in America wanted something “short, catchy, recognizably Japanese, and more familiar to English speakers.” 

Sukiyaki is a song any boomer is likely to be familiar with; however it’s unlikely they know the true meaning of the song. The lyrics came to songwriter Rokusuke Ei while he was walking home from a Japanese student demonstration opposing the presence of U.S. Military Bases in Japan and reflecting on the failed movement. The Japanese title, “Look Up As I Walk,” references a line in the song about “staring up in the sky” as you walk, as to keep your tears from falling on the ground.

This is an especially potent image to me as an Uchinanchu person; I also have a memory of trying hard not to cry when I visited a live-in protest of a new U.S. military base spearheaded by Uchinanchu water protectors. My people are Indigenous and so-called “Okinawa,” my ancestral land, was the once sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom before being colonized by Japan. It’s estimated around one-third of the Uchinanchu population died during the war and civilians were treated brutally by the Japanese, used as human shields and “comfort women,” and forced to commit mass suicides. Masahide Ota described the experience of Uchinanchu during the war as being “attacked by tigers at the front gate and wolves at the back.” While Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952, Okinawa remained under U.S. administration until 1972. Despite comprising less than one percent of Japan’s total landmass, Okinawa hosts about three-fourths of Japan’s US military presence. Okinawans are still protesting that new base to this day. 

My perspective as an Uchinanchu American allows me to relate to “Ue o Muite Arukō,”  but most Americans probably just assume it’s a catchy little ditty about beef. I can also relate to this song from the perspective of a composer. I write songs to process heavy emotions and feelings of alienation, and that’s not always clear to the audience. “Freakshow” is one such song. Like “Ue o Muite Arukō,” “Freakshow” is a song about frustration and disillusion. And like “Ue o Muite Arukō,” I knew I’d probably have to conceal that frustration if I wanted anyone to sing along. 

“Freakshow” is about how smarmy people make a show of loving BIPOC, neurodiverse, and otherwise marginalized folks, but how it is often just a show. How can you promote mental health awareness then cancel someone for being messy? How can you support survivors then judge someone for saying “fuck off” when they need to set boundaries? How can you say you love BIPOC then salivate at any opportunity to alienate them? It’s about knowing your worth and accepting these sides of yourself even when others don’t seem to. 

I’ve seen a lot of social progress in the music scene over the last few years, but I’ve also seen people transform into “secular Christians” who are in denial of their shadow selves and who cast judgment on anyone who isn’t. As Marilyn Monroe said, “if you can’t handle me at my cPTSD-triggered-screaming-and-throwing-a-trashcan-down-the-street worst then you don’t deserve the sweet, sweet tunes that come from this demented mind.” Lastly, please buy my new 7”. It’s about delicious beef. 

— Maya Stoner

Floating Room is the musical project of Portland based multidisciplinary Uchinanchu American artist and DIY veteran Maya Stoner. Their newest EP, Tired and True, was written by Stoner and recorded in the summer of 2019 amidst a backdrop of intense transition: She graduated art school, stepped down as president of Portland indie label Good Cheer Records, and wrested creative control of her band from an ex-boyfriend and former guitarist who liked My Bloody Valentine a little too much.

Lead single “Held Open Door” is a meditation on dimming innocence set to jagged guitar pyrotechnics a la Deerhunter and Television. “Freak Show” is a self-professed “pop hit” concerning Stoner’s perceived pariah-dom within Portland’s blindingly white, furtively racist punk scene.

Tired and True is being released independently by Stoner digitally and on vinyl. It features contributions from Jon Scheid (Duck. Little Brother, Duck!, Dreamdecay), Aaron Liu (Two Moons), Jared Ridabock (Anne, Hemingway), and Mo Troper.