From Vancouver to Beijing, Chinese pop music betrays infinite love sickness
Too many gushing Chinese love songs leave The SinoFile desperately searching for Faye Wong on YouTube. She wasn't afraid of boredom, being misunderstood, or loss.
Chinese music has by and large sucked in the past decade since famously weird superstar Faye Wong left the recording studio.
Innovation in style and lyrics has been stymied.
But don't blame the artists, blame the fans. In my experience, many Chinese audiences love a good old helping of cheese – a chronic stream of gushing love songs, NutraSweet enough to give one the runs.
Among my Chinese friends, many most loved her cheesiest, most Disney-esque song, 红豆 (hongdou -- red bean), which until today is more often played on Chinese radio stations than any other:
Faye Wong was soon replaced by whining melodramatic divas, generic boy bands, fully-grown women dressing and singing as lovestruck schoolgirls (a kind of fetishist-mongering black face, really), and mediocre attempts at rap and R&B.
All almost entirely lend their craft – the good, the bad and the ugly – to love: professing it, bemoaning its loss, longing for it. Surely, there are other emotions, in a place as diverse in experiences as the massive -- in population and geography -- Greater China Region?
I've linked to some of the not-so-hot love songs above. This one's OK, but also conveys how profoundly love-obsessed China is, particularly in the chorus: “I just want us to be together,” the desperate vocalist repeats. Typical.
This one – from Vancouver-based singer songwriter Qu Wanting – is also decent, but the song, like so many others, relies on love as a crutch – as if the only way to touch audiences is through their libido and/ or heartstrings. In it, she describes her first meeting with her lover, and how despite his absence, he'll “continue to survive on in her deep consciousness, her dreams, her heart, her song lyrics.” Whatevs.
Know what, folks -- I almost find this stuff insulting and politically offensive to the MANY people who've never experienced love, as it exists in what is allegedly art. I'm sure I'm not the only one. If you're in a relationship, I'm sure you realize that it has been made less exciting by the great expectations we learn in moody, little songs like these.
But she also sang of boredom,
(In this song, entitled 闷 – men, stuffy/ boring – Wong describes how security and a lover aren't her objectives in life).
(In this song, 脸 – lian, face – she sings an incomprehensibly poetic refrain and the chorus, which touches me most goes:
zui hao meiyou ren mingbai wo shuo shenme
It's better that no one understands what I'm saying
zhiyou ni tingdong wo xiang shenme
You're the only person who understands what I'm thinking
meiyou, meiyou... ni yilian chenmo
No, no... now, you're totally silent.
shenme, wo mei shuo shenme
Nothing, I never said anything at all.)
of death and loss,
(In this song, 不变 – bubian, don't change – she sings:
ni zoude hao yaoyuan
You've gone so far
xiaoshi zai wo shengming de dipingxian
Disappeared on the horizon of my existence
jinsheng de xi yu bei
The happiness and sorrow of this life
bu zai you ziwei
Have lost all their flavor
These lyrics meant all too much to me after the death of my beloved grandfather, who acted as my father until I was 16 and inspired me to educate myself and eventually write about ongoing movements for political, social and economic development in his home, the Arab World.)
(In this song, 你快乐所以我快乐 – ni kuaile suoyi wo kuaile, you are happy, so I am happy – Faye Wong sings about taking care of her own newly born child. This is an altogether different kind of love song – not about romance or sex, but about truly adoring something so much that you can finally be perfectly selfless.)
a desire for freedom and meaning
(In this song 誓言 – shiyan, vow – there are elements of the love song, but a lot held true about life in general, as I traveled from city to city in my early adulthood, looking to start my career in journalism:
qianmian de lu yexu zhende bingbu tai qingchu
It may be that the road ahead really isn't that clear
fangxin di zoule yihou, yexu hui juede xinku
After traveling it calmly, sometimes we may find it tough
yexu hui xiangting, ye tingbuzhu
We may want to stop, but can't.)
As we see in this last song, Wong sang, but just as often howled and moaned her way into a track.
Wong's song 烟 – yan, smoke – where she repeats that she “戒不掉” （jiebudiao – can't quit) is particularly true to me now, as I try to quit smoking. The song is beautiful, as is the music video. A kind of liberated, flamenco beat in this style is relatively unheard of on Chinese radios today.
Listening to these songs as I write this post, I realize that the project of good art -- including journalism -- is to accurately depict or speak to different elements of life. I don't know that I have or haven't experienced romance in my own, so I find it absurd that Chinese songsters expect 1.3 billion people to sympathize with the singular emotion they are peddling these days.
I started listening to Faye Wong (王菲 – Wang Fei) in high school, at a time when I was also fascinated by Albert Camus' The Pest and, more generally, existentialism. Wong appeared to embody that philosophy in the persona she had invented for herself.
I bought some of her music videos in Chinatown and watched them repeatedly. At her concerts and in her music videos, she vacillated between rolling around on the floor like a madwoman to just standing there.
She often said in interviews, she sang for her own pleasure. She had no responsibility to meet expectations for performances. “People can buy tickets or not,” I once heard her say, perhaps a little self-satisfied with the fact that they inevitably would.
She didn't talk too much at her recent post-hiatus concerts in between songs, she told CCTV, because she "had nothing to say" and doesn't like to "没话找话 （meihua zhaohua -- speak emptily without any reason)."
Many of Wong's songs got me through the harder times of adolescence and early adulthood – if only for the lyrics she sang and the wild freedom with which she seemed to sing them. Of course, famous composers like Lin Xi had penned much of her lyrics. That didn't seem to matter. To me, it was important that these words had been sung. By anyone.
In her own right, Wong had initiated my love affair with the Chinese language by exposing me to the capacity of Chinese poesy to so accurately convey the human experience.
When I first moved to Beijing to study Chinese, I wanted to meet Faye Wong. Various friends – allegedly with good 关系 (guanxi – connections) – said they knew and would introduce me to her, but that never happened.
I went to Beijing hot spots where she was commonly spotted: Xinguantiandi Shopping Center in downtown Beijing, where they generally shut down the entire outfit for her shopping excursions – no luck. Cashbox/ Qiangui Karaoke in Chaoyang District, where she was known to sing in a private room with her friends – no luck.
I didn't need to become friends with her or talk to her. I needed to witness someone who had made life more tolerable for me with her music, and she was no longer in concert at the time.
Eventually, Faye Wong returned to the stage after nearly a decade with a few concerts in Beijing and eventually Hong Kong, where I had been working, but by the time she arrived in the SAR, I had already returned to the United States.
Still, she has produced no new songs, and the mindless clamoring over love that has marred the Chinese music scene in her absence persists.