The Nanfang / Blog

In Praise Of… Mandopop (It’s not so bad, really!)

Posted: 02/19/2014 11:00 am

The Nanfang is introducing a new series in which it defends a frequently criticised aspect of life in China. This week, we tackle Mandarin pop music, also known as “Mandopop”.

When my former employer used to take us on staff outings to karaoke joints, seeing which Westerner could last the longest was like a bucking bronco competition. Foreign staff would depart one by one describing “Mandopop” music as “treacly,” “syrupy,” “sentimental,” and the most frequently used adjective of all: “lame.”

American-born Lee-hom Wang, who has managed to become a Mandopop superstar, had a similar first impression of the music when he moved to Taiwan as a teenager. In his address to the Oxford Union last year he argued that pop music could be an important soft power tool to help build understanding between China and the Anglophone world. But first, bad impressions such as the one held by my former colleagues must be understood and overcome.

Is Chinese music lame?

The now-defunct blog Chinabounder was primarily known for its author’s provocative boasts about his conquests of Chinese girls. But it also contained a lot of biting criticisms of Chinese society itself. It described Mandopop as being “characterised by softness” and having “no hard edges on which listeners might cut themselves some independent thinking.”

The blogger goes on to berate Chinese music for never covering difficult subject matter. But this issue is neither uniquely modern nor uniquely Chinese. Plato mistrusted music and wanted only two keys to exist, one that stirred patriotic feelings and one that relaxed listeners, according to Anthony Storr’s “Music and the Mind”.

The handful of foreigners who have become well known for singing in Chinese have sung songs that have fit broadly into one of those two categories. Americans Martin Papp and Hong Laowai became well known on television and the internet respectively for singing songs praising China and its government. British-Liberian Hao Ge and American Clay Garner have gained a reputation for singing inoffensive love ballads.

No Chinese city yet has an alternative music scene to rival those of, say, Seattle and Manchester in their day. However, there is room for more esoteric artists to carve out a niche, find a respectable level of recognition and even gain a mass audience.

Zuoxiao Zuzhou was described in an NPR feature as “The Leonard Cohen of China” and “the voice of a generation.” The lyrics go straight at issues such as land grabs and official corruption and the melodies and vocals are “alternative” by any standard.

Although Zuoxiao Zuzhou is an eccentric who was once banned from performing live, he has almost 2 million followers on Sina Weibo. These include such influential figures as social commentator Li Chengpeng and superstar author Han Han.

Cut from a slightly different cloth is the comical singer Chuanzi, whose songs “Happiness Lane” and “I Want to Get Married” cover issues such as the impossibility of affording a house and, by extension, attracting a wife.

Chuanzi is part of a tradition that goes back to the writings of Western-educated Lin Yutang who in the 1920s coined the Chinese word “幽默” based on the English word “humour.” The principle behind it is the belief that it is possible to care about serious issues while remaining light-hearted.

These guys may struggle to get their stuff played on mainstream radio and television. But it’s not as if Radiohead ever played the live final on X Factor, or Leonard Cohen will ever be invited to do the halftime show at the Superbowl.

The satirical singer Chuanzi is well worth checking out, image courtesy of Baidu

As for whether mainstream music covers difficult subject matter: to push the envelope effectively, one first needs to know where it is located. Teresa Teng, the most iconic Chinese-language singer of her generation, dressed elegantly and sang about falling in love and having a good time. This may not seem radical, but compared to what had been acceptable in China during the red years it was “decadent,” according to authorities.

Her persona, which was considered wholesome in Hong Kong and Taiwan, was considered sexy and glamorous in Mainland China, so much so that her work was banned. She never lived to give a live performance in the People’s Republic.

The many mainland singers she influenced can fairly be described as pushing the envelope considering the cultural context. Pushing the envelope just enough to keep one’s medium interesting but not so much that it attracts the attention of censors is common in China, from journalism to comedy. A mainstream Western audience is unlikely to appreciate the extent to which Mandopop tries to push the envelope, but the best of it does.

Anatomy of a Chinese pop song

More important than “softness” or aversion to difficult subject matter in characterising Mandopop are two things. The first is a particular melodic structure and the second is a particular lyrical style.

The four-step melodic structure of 起,承, 转, 合 (which roughly translates as open, develop, spin, unite) goes back to ancient Chinese literature. English songs that have proven popular in Chinese KTVs (think “Hotel California,” “Big Big World” and “Yesterday Once More”) tend to follow this structure.

Songs that have met with blank stares or embarrassed silences when I have played them in China include “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by The Proclaimers, “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, and the entire works of Jimi Hendrix. All are said to “have no tune,” i.e. they don’t follow the recognised four-step melody.

When looking for a lyrical style that runs through much contemporary Chinese pop music, an important concept is that of 意境(yijing) which roughly translates as “scenery.” Lyrics that can tell a story while painting a picture have proven popular. English songs that have abundant yijing include “Flesh and Blood” by Johnny Cash and “Mersey Paradise” by The Stone Roses. Mindless yet catchy lyrics in the vein of “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” tend not to go down too well in China.

A prime example of a popular contemporary Chinese song that uses yijing is “Listening to the Sea” by Zhang Huimei. The image is that of somebody urging a distant lover to write them a letter telling them what colour the sea is and how that will reflect their mood. The imagery it spins owes a lot to the poem “Quiet Night Thought” by Li Bai (701-762). Treacly and sentimental the song may be, but it is part of a tradition that warrants appreciation.

Street Spirit vs a Mandopop song

Though I agree with Frank Zappa that writing about music is a bit like dancing about architecture, I will now compare a song by a respected British alternative band to a Mandopop song by a Beijing band. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead and “Hudie Hua by Shuimu Nianhua” are similar both musically and thematically.

Both songs involve sweeping guitar arpeggios in a minor key and both songs are about loss. I think “Hudie Hua” is better and here’s why.

Shuimu Nianhua, image courtesy of Baidu

Both paint a picture of loss and decline but the Chinese song does so in a way that is so much more organic and so much less elliptical. The line in “Street Spirit” that goes “This machine will not communicate these thoughts and the strain I am under” is a great line. But is not connected to any of the lyrics around it, there are no other lines that refer to or symbolise machines. What machine? It is almost vague and noncommittal enough to be a Coldplay lyric.

“Hudie Hua” begins by painting a vivid image of an idyllic childhood, symbolised by the eponymous flower which is a type of iris, literally meaning “butterfly flower”. Unlike “Street Spirit” it has a narrative, suggesting the decline of a relationship between two people as they age.

The sense of loss builds up to a climax in which is sung “Don’t cry, don’t cry and say to me all saplings wither in the end. Don’t sigh, don’t sigh and say to me, all saplings wither in the end.” Because of this build up and the vivid context, it has much greater impact than Radiohead’s line “All these things will deposition, all these things will one day swallow.”

Of course, this is just one example. There are many others and you admittedly have to wade through the chaff to get to them. But couldn’t that be said of the music scene anywhere?


The Spin Doctor – Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Posted: 03/4/2011 7:23 am

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

3.5 out of 5

I fully acknowledge that reviewing Radiohead’s eighth studio Lp, The King of Limbs, doesn’t exactly adhere to the Spin Doctor’s principles of covering lesser-known, independent artists. Radiohead however are one of the few bands whose record releases remain an event; a staggering achievement in the digital age of mp3s and iTunes. Thus I’m willing to skirt the rules a little bit (okay, a lot) to appease my own appetite for all things “Yorkian”; hope you don’t mind.

Radiohead have long bemoaned the pressures of releasing full lengths. Looking at their discography this is certainly understandable. Playing a career-long struggle of one-upmanship with oneself can’t be easy for any artist, let alone a band that has crafted such artistic and cultural behemoths as The Bends, Ok Computer, and Kid A/Amnesiac. Following the release of 2007’s In Rainbows however, things were getting dire. With frontman Thom Yorke going as far as to state that the prospect of recording another Radiohead Lp would kill the band, it was uncertain whether Radiohead would abandon the long-play format entirely. This context is important as it explains a great deal about The King of Limbs, an anti-Radiohead record if ever there was one. Announced a week prior to its release and then released a day early in a downloadable electronic format only (the physical product isn’t available until the end of March), it is the shortest Radiohead record to date, both in number of tracks (8), and in running time (37.4 minutes). As a result, Radiohead have successfully avoided the pitfalls of critical praise/condemnation, the inevitable “return to guitar rock” rumours and have instead decided to let the music speak for itself without all of the hoopla.

Album opener “Bloom”, makes clear that Radiohead aren’t interested in releasing another In Rainbows. The track starts with a frenetic piano line and offbeat drum loops: “Open your mouth wide, a universal sigh” sings Yorke, while brass and synth treatments play through the mix. It’s a pretty opener but rather than progress anywhere interesting its content to simply meander. This is the case for much of the first half of the record. Tracks like “Feral”, which may have been revolutionary for a rock band in the Kid A era, are now par for the course with Dubstep, IDM and other similar genres seeping into mainstream music. Only “Little by Little”, reminiscent of “I Might Be Wrong” from Amnesiac, really works. Using disjointed programming intermixed with a fantastic offbeat guitar riff (by now a Jonny Greenwood trademark); the track seamlessly incorporates all of the collective parts of Radiohead, even though the payoff isn’t what it should be.

The second half is stronger. First single, “Lotus Flower” is the first track on the record to have what one might call a traditional “hook”. With the unfolding of a beautifully minimal synth line, and some excellent drum sequencing, Yorke sings: “Slowly we unfurl, as lotus flowers. ‘Cos all I want is the moon upon a stick, just to see what if. Just to see what is.” This leads into album highlight “Codex”, which stands up among Radiohead’s best. With little more than a piano and drum sequencing, Yorke’s heavily reverberated vocals fill the vast empty space sitting in the middle of the mix until the emergence of brass and string accompaniment halfway through the track flesh it out: “Slide your hand, jump off the end. The water’s clear, and innocent.” The record closes on a high note with “The Separator”. With its charming bass line and shimmery guitar work, the track sounds like a long, lost OK Computer B-side.

The problem with The King of Limbs is that at times it feels more like a successor to Yorke’s solo debut, The Eraser than Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Though In Rainbows was by no means a traditional rock record, the entire band’s presence was recognizable on virtually every track. That’s not the case on The King of Limbs, and perhaps that was the point. Perhaps Radiohead weren’t interested in wearing their “best band in the world” hats and simply wanted to release some new music. I for one however would have liked a bit more from the supporting cast.

I’ve had a few friends tell me that I simply don’t understand The King of Limbs or that I haven’t taken the requisite time to appreciate its intricacies. I think that’s a cop-out. I enjoyed the record, I’d go as far as to say it’s good. To suggest however that The King of Limbs possesses the artistic virtuosity of Radiohead’s earlier masterpieces is quite simply delusional. Such an opinion not only discredits the critic reviewing the record, it discredits new potential fans struggling to understand what all the fuss is about.

- Ewan Christie

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