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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Not Just a Hot Flick: The Emperor of Mandopop

"Cultural Mosaics" by Timi, writing from Budapest, Hungary

Image source: CNNI was watching Jet Li's breathtakingly beautiful farewell movie, Fearless on DVD when at the end of the film I came across a very unusually structured song with really strange rap-Chinese opera mixed vocals. I raised an eyebrow, but as the music was very much to my liking, I looked it up on YouTube. That's how I came to know an artist named Jay Chou.

It turns out, Jay Chou is not just simply a singer. As I'm looking up information on him I basically drop my jaws in an aw. He is the third most downloaded artist in the world (!) after Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson, and the only Asian musician in the top 20. He started learning the piano at the age of three and majored in cello and piano at a prestigious Taiwanese music high school. He went on to accompany a friend on the piano at a TV talent show, where the lady was basically thrown out of the show, the jury saying she had no voice. The show host though happened to take a look at Chou's complex score and immediately hired him to be a songwriter for prominent Chinese singers. Most of them though, refused to sing Chou's songs in the beginning, claiming they were musically too difficult to perform. Now that's when I stopped reading for a moment and decided to take a closer look at his music, my interest rocketing high. I always considered mandopop as something to despise, linking it to anime films and something to do with lack of quality - at least that's what I have read about mandopop before. See, our usual prejudices... After I listened to Jay Chou, I decided to put my pre-configured European musical mindset away for a moment and just let music take me. Was it worth the trouble? Well, you can guess. Would I be writing this essay now?

Jay Chou has given the name Zhongguo feng (Chinese wind) to his music. It's a very attractive combination of Chinese traditions, traditional musical instruments like the erhu, and everything "Western" from rap, hip hop, electronica, rock, pop... he even mixes styles like flamenco, bossa nova, French chanson or American Indian melodies, not to mention classical music. He's a Chopin freak, stuffing his 2007, self-directed movie "Secret" with Chopin waltzes, showing off his pianist's skills. He eventually ended up winning the Outstanding Taiwanese Film award at the Golden Horse Film Festival with it. He is named the emperor of mandopop by the Asian media, and his fans call him "Little Heavenly King". Fitting? Let's see.

The 31 year old music prodigy doesn't smoke, doesn't drink alcohol, doesn't go clubbing, considers filial piety the highest value in life, his lyrics are taught at schools both in China and Taiwan and he has been awarded several times by authorities for showing correct behaviour to young people. Cheesy? Maybe. The man is controversial. He might not be clubbing but he reportedly likes gambling, a maniac car collector (his latest addition is the Batmobile. Yes, you read that right. Reportedly this was the most expensive car import to Taiwan in history) and he likes going commando because he doesn't like doing the laundry. He's a control freak, and not only in the studio, where he produces his own albums. He tells even his own friends what to wear when they go out together, so their clothing would match his. Despite all this, all who know him claim he is shy and quiet off stage, just a normal guy. He has to fight though, a hereditary bone disease in his back gives him much trouble from time to time, having him to rely on painkillers so that he can perform on stage and in his movies.

I browsed through his music on YouTube, and I have to tell I am amazed at the variety of styles he mastered. He's a professional rapper (media calls him Asia's own Eminem) and has a nice singing voice. His voice is not outstanding, but is very pleasant, especially when he sings high notes. Most surely, his strongest skill is composing, whatever the genre might be, he is amazingly skilled a composer. He plays over fifteen instruments, the piano, the cello, various types of guitars, the violin, keyboards, turntable, the flute and a selection of traditional Chinese instruments. He plays them on stage as well. And can he dance! I wonder how much trouble break-dancing might give him considering his illness. (Rumour has it, if he goes on stressing his body like that, his illness might turn into bone cancer. His manager denied such rumours, though.) I can't comment on the lyrics as he sings in Mandarin Chinese (hence the name Mandopop), but according to what I read he has meaningful, imaginative, rich lyrics, mainly written by a friend, Vincent Fang, but he does occasionally write the lyrics himself. He has been criticised that for over 10 years now his musical style did not change. Chou says this is the kind of music he likes and does not wish to alter it. As far as I could see, his style might be unchanging but his songs are absolutely of a great variety. Themes might reappear from time to time and his singing (not the rapping) is repetitive, especially in his slow romantic songs, but his style and music is so unique you won't notice unless you really want to find something to complain about.

Last but not least, Jay Chou is also an actor and film director (he directed two movies and a TV series, along with all of his music videos lately). As an actor, he is nothing special, I have to say. I saw a couple of his movies and he's below average, with very poor mimics. His smile is cute, that's all I can comment on, as this is basically the only movement he does with his facial muscles. His performance was something of a better quality in The Curse of the Golden Flower, where he co-starred Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li, playing the second born son of the Emperor of China. His performance was praised by Western critics. Next he will star in The Green Hornet, alongside Cameron Diaz and Christoph Waltz, playing Kato, the quiet sidekick of the title hero, a role once made famous by none other than Bruce Lee, one of Chou's personal icons. Let's just clarify: Jay Chou never learnt martial arts, but he always dreamt about becoming a martial arts hero as a kid, hence his obsession with such movies (he made a quasi-martial arts, quasi-basketball movie called Kung Fu Dunk and as I mentioned, he wrote the theme song for Jet Li's Fearless, whom Chou also admires). For The Green Hornet he started learning English, which he found impossible before and said he would never attempt to sing in English as his language skills were "poor". Now that the The Green Hornet, being a huge budget Hollywood movie, is giving him the opportunity to expose himself to Western audiences, he seems to be changing his mind, saying he already sent a few demos to American publishing companies, but is afraid the studios would exercise too much control over his creative work, to which he is not used to.

Even if he never gets to sing in English, I am glad I discovered him. Just like with Tarkan before, the music of a very talented artist made me discover a new world, a new culture, opening up new horizons in my personal development. Jay Chou is not simply a musician, not simply a hot topic pop sensation. He is a true music prodigy playing musical strings that touch the soul. Take a listen and decide for yourself.

Top 5 Jay Chou songs to look up at YouTube:

  • #1. The Curse of the Golden Flower (alternative title: Golden Armor)
  • #2. The Herbalist's Manual
  • #3. Cliff of Love
  • #4. Huo Yuan Jia (alternative title: Fearless)
  • #5. The Era

+1 bonus: Jay Chou & Yu Hao's live piano duet

One of Chou's self directed music videos: The Era (2010):

The theme song for The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

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