music

Female Singer-Songwriters and China’s TV Talent Shows

Written by Lijuan Qian.

The centralized, state-controlled Chinese media industry has gradually evolved into a highly commercialized and international system over the last decade. A huge market has arisen for Western- and South Korean-format televised music and music-related talent contests within the world’s largest national network of over 4,000 TV stations. In January 2014, Shanghai Canxing Cultural Transmission Ltd, the producer of the hugely popular The Voice of China, collaborated with China’s Central Television 3 to produce the first talent show to use an original format devised in China. Sing My Song retains some elements of The Voice of China’s format with one major twist – all contestants must perform their own original musical compositions.

Canxing’s marketing director, Xu Fan, has claimed that the programme is yet to make substantial profits owing to the fact that ‘advertisers usually like famous singers or songs that are already popular’. But in spite of this lack of commercial success, the programme has been welcomed by pop musicians and fans alike, with both audiences and performing artists alike viewing the programme as a creativity-boosting initiative. Over its three seasons, the contest has been won by singer Huo Zun, the Mongolian ‘Hanggai’ Band, and a mixed-ethnicity group called ‘Shanren’. The active and successful participation of ethnic minority musicians also shows the popularity of ethnic music within China’s pop landscape. All of the winning works utilise a very traditional music style: Rolling Bead Curtain (卷珠帘) embraces Chinese traditional literati aesthetics; Reincarnation (轮回) touches on Buddhist philosophy; and Going Up and Down the Mountain (上山下山) summons the heroic models of manhood typically seen in classic novels like Outlaws of the Marsh.

Interestingly, all three seasons’ winners have been male musicians (two out of three runners-up were men as well). This suggests a male dominance among current top-level singer-songwriters in China. A good number of female singer-songwriters were selected in the blind auditions, but very few of them progressed further. Among these female musicians, the imaginary world features as a recurrent theme. This can be seen in songs depicting a wild child exploring her dreams (Su Yunying, Li ethnicity, 野子); a wild horse flying towards an unknown space (Luo’er, 会飞的野马); and a bird-man hearing the call from the sky (Wuladuo’en, Man ethnicity, 鸟人). These works reveal a desire to escape beyond physical boundaries, courageously following one’s own free spirit. It also makes the songs quite distinct from the grand narratives or personal love stories typical of Chinese pop.

Bird-Man is a typical pop song in its music, vocal delivery, and instrumentation. It wasn’t selected for the final round. Wild Child, however, won runner-up, the best result from any female contestant so far. Programme judge Zhou Huajian described the song as having a ‘new voice, new melody, new concept and everything new’. The idea encapsulated in the song of overcoming panic through great courage has struck a chord with many young Chinese. Products of the one-child era, they are shifting from being the centre of their families to one among many others in a strange and competitive but free world. Flying Wild Horse from twenty year-old singer-songwriter Luo’er was seen as the most innovative and experimental work in the programme, one with a novel psychedelic quality. It attracted both ardent praise and angry criticism. In addition to elements traceable to earlier impressionist musicians, Björk, The Script, Alternative and the Cranberries, Luo’er created a new Japanese-like language to pursue the beauty of another world in her mind. Her child-like voice, unclear pronunciation, frequent repetition of the lyrics ‘flying’ and imitation of a horse during the long interlude, coupled with her unusual facial expression and movements in the performance, help to portray the singer-songwriter’s own psychedelic world.

These songs share an aspiration for a radical individuality, the self finally escaping from the real world. In some ways, these songs and performances shed light on the experiences of many Chinese young women pursuing independence. This kind of female singer-songwriter represents an emergent social group in contemporary China – women who have grown up in cities, are well-educated and confident, and have received a lot of attention from their families. They are the beneficiaries of the much improved economic conditions in China following large-scale urbanization and cultural and economic globalization. In China’s fast-changing environment, they have feelings of worry, perplexity and loneliness. Judges and audiences alike remain ambivalent about these vibrant performers. Will the women in question be permitted to run free or – as in previous generations – will they be forcefully restrained? For now at least, Sing My Song seems to be offering an essential outlet for this particular demographic of women.

Lijuan Qian is a  research fellow at University College Cork. This article is part of her postdoctoral project ‘Making Sense of TV Music Talent Shows in China: An Audience Ethnography’ sponsored by the Irish Research council. She is the author of A Tolerant Mainstream: The Pop Song in China the 1980s (宽容的主流:中国八十年代的流行歌曲, 2016). Image Credit: CC by Nibe181/Flickr. 

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