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“It’s a joy to be a listener in this era.”
By Lynn Su / Photos by Lin Min-hsuan / Translation by Phil Newell
In this age of globalization, there is nothing strange about the blending of different cultures, and the people of Taiwan, who have experienced many changes of government and today live in a pluralistic society, have long since internalized the skill of engaging in cross-cultural dialogues and mixing together different elements in rational, exciting, and unique ways.
The millennium symbolized the arrival of a new age, and marked the beginning of a transformational era in Taiwan’s popular music industry. As a bastion of Chinese-language pop, Taiwan has produced many singers both male and female who have dominated the music world, but since the year 2000 there has been a major reshuffling and restructuring.
In the recent past, no pop music singers or bands have been well known and popular enough to be universally acknowledged as being at the top of the industry. In today’s music world, previously niche subcultures have displaced the former mainstream. The spirit of independent music has bubbled up to the surface, and there are diverse ways to release and listen to music, with no limits on the styles of creative work. The keywords by which we can describe contemporary pop music are “fusion” and “diversity.”
Li Lu-feng, editor of the website Story Studio and an expert on popular music, talks eloquently about the historical development of popular music in Taiwan. It dates back to the era of Japanese rule, and along the way it has been nourished by Taiwanese Opera, Shanghai-style music of the 1930s and 1940s, Huangmei Opera films of the 1950s and 1960s, and the “campus folk music” of the 1970s and 1980s. The industry reached its peak in the 1990s.
However, with the rise of peer-to-peer music streaming services (such as Napster, ezPeer, and Kuro), as well as advances in optical media burning technology and rampant piracy, in less than ten years the pop music industry, which had relied mainly on sales of physical albums, saw the basis of its profits disintegrate. The album industry began to decline in 2001 and reached its lowest ebb in 2008. Thus the age of “mainstream” music came to an end.
In the old days, the term “the record industry” referred to record companies that invested large amounts of capital to systematically develop new talent. Based on market demand and projected future development trends, they would package and market performers and plan their overall careers for them. In the industry this was known as “artist and repertoire” (A&R) work.
However, today’s pop music market is dominated by independent (“indie”) music. Although artists no longer enjoy the abundant resources of the past, advances in technology have leveled the playing field. Chen Kuan-heng, a veteran music critic and editor-in-chief of the online music media platform Blow, describes this is a process of resources “moving from music labels’ recording studios to artists’ bedrooms.” He explains: “Musicians today can make music at home with just a computer. Not only can they record what they like, as they like, they can upload their creative output directly to streaming services like YouTube, StreetVoice, and SoundClub. They don’t need to produce CDs, and naturally they don’t need to get their work distributed through brick-and-mortar record shops.”
It is also no longer the case that “mass audiences” and “niche audiences” or “mainstream” and “indie” are at two extremes of a spectrum. “In the past the big companies were very big, and you had to have some fresh and attractive way of expressing yourself to stay in competition, but these days the two sides learn from each other,” observes Chen. For example, in the album industry era, A&R concepts such as defining the target audience, style and character of the music, which producer to use, and who to invite as guest artists were applied to ensure that resources could be optimally allocated. But in the social media era, these concepts are already considered at the production stage, and have become part of the basic skillset for creative artists.
Chih Siou, who was voted Best New Vocal Artist at the 2020 Golden Melody Awards, is a case in point. He became well known for his popular single “Imma Get a New One” on StreetVoice. The video for the song is noteworthy for its use of a portrait of the singer in the style of an illustrated book. However, this classic “rise of an amateur” story in fact was the result of strategies devised by a record company.
Despite all this, Chen Kuan-heng believes there is still a distinction between mainstream and indie music. Indie music still has an advantage when it comes to subject matter, edgy lyrics, and diversity of styles. For example, the cutting-edge indie band ChuNoodle, formed in 2018, has made soundtrack music for TV drama series including 2049: The Hedgehog Effect and Gold Leaf; they also won Best Hakka Album at the 2021 Golden Melody Awards and Best Crossover/World Song at the 2019 Golden Indie Music Awards.
ChuNoodle has four members: Lai Yu-chiao on vocals, Yeh Chao on guitar, Yang Hui-hsuan on clarinet, and Kao Chen-yin on bass clarinet. While half the band have strong backgrounds in classical music, band leader Yeh’s training was in jazz. Also, because lead vocalist Lai is Hakka, ChuNoodle’s lyrics blend Mandarin, Hakka, and Taiwanese Hokkien. This unusual combination of musicians produces a fresh new sound, with some describing their style as “very jazz,” “very classical,” or even “very chamber music.” Yeh says with a laugh: “Each listener pigeonholes us based on their own personal listening experiences.”
There have been other cases of the instruments of classical music being used in pop music; for example, one member of the popular band Your Woman Sleep with Others is a cellist. But very few pop bands include woodwind instruments. Why is that? Kao Chen-yin, who plays bass clarinet, says jokingly that it’s because wind instruments “don’t have a clear purpose and don’t work well, while their toot-toot-toot sounds make it difficult to hear the voice of the singer.” However, he adds, “these are complete misunderstandings.”
With all the band members explaining at once, we come to understand that the reason is that under the influence of the carefully planned music put out by record companies, the listening audience long since grew accustomed to focusing on the singer’s voice, with little attention paid to the instruments. But as a band in which every “voice” is equal, when writing songs together ChuNoodle finds a balance based on the unique character of the singer’s voice and of the various instruments. It is through the novel effects produced by this combination of different “voices” that they attract the attention of listeners.
“Often in classical music, when the string instruments have finished playing, the wind instruments come in to carry the melody, providing listeners with a second soundscape,” explains Kao. “We also do this—after the vocalist has finished singing the lyrics, the clarinet must carry forward the mood and imagery established by the lead singer, rather than just being a backup instrument.” Lai Yu-chiao, who makes a stream of witty and pertinent remarks during our interview, describes the equal relationship between the four band members thus: “This a fairy tale with four princesses.”
Though “fusion” is a mainstay of contemporary pop music, this is not just a phenomenon of recent years. In the past, Taiwanese pop music was strongly influenced by styles in the US and Japan, with which Taiwan has a strong cultural affinity. Similarly, Japanese pop shows elements of European and US approaches. “The nature of pop music is that it is a mixture of styles, a mosaic,” Chen Kuan-heng sums up.
Next we take a trip to Kaohsiung to interview the indie band Tonya, which was formed in 2004, nearly 20 years ago. Tonya’s members are Ye Kai (also known as “Open King”) on guitar, Tony Tang on drums, and Yorkie Chen on bass. Now in their sixties, they are still in good shape and with their cool attire they evoke an ineradicable spirit of rock and roll.
After retiring from the navy, Ye, who is half mainlander, half Taiwanese by birth, founded Kaohsiung’s first music store with a performance space, the ATT Music Shop. Back in the day it was a must-visit spot for musicians visiting Southern Taiwan. As for Tony Tang, who hails from a Hakka community in Hsinchu and was nominated for Best Hakka Singer at the 2007 Golden Melody Awards, and Yorkie Chen, who has a Minnan heritage, both are exceptional musicians who were previously in a band with entertainer Kang Kang. These three men from very different backgrounds—speaking Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hakka—bonded immediately when they met in the music community, and decided to form a band. The band’s Chinese name, Tangye, uses the character tang (indicating the Tang Dynasty) to symbolize the background of their Mandarin-language singer, in combination with the character ye (“wild”), which hints at their unbridled rock-and-roll spirit.
Among Taiwan’s more venerable bands, the most famous one besides Tonya to have a clear multiethnic lineup is New Formosa Band, with Bobby Chen, who is Minnan, Ayugo Huang, who is Hakka, and Ah Van (Chen Shih-lung), who is Paiwan. Tony Tang says that New Formosa Band’s adept use of different languages including Taiwanese and Hakka has inspired Tonya.
Tonya’s decisions as to what language to use are based on the theme of each song. For example, “Dang Qiuqian” (meaning “Swinging on a Swing”), which depicts the lives of ordinary people and conveys a childlike innocence, is performed in Taiwanese. Meanwhile, “Xi Amei” (“Young Lady”), which is based on a Hakka folk song, and “Wo Bu Fushu” (“I Won’t Admit Defeat”) which echoes the Hakka people’s indomitable spirit, are naturally sung in Hakka. Also, in the same way that many Mandarin songs these days have some English interspersed in them, Tonya tries to embellish its songs with their own mother tongues. For Tonya, language is a foundation and also an accessory, allowing for even more diversity in their songs.
When it comes to musical fusion, what’s different from the past is that today the recombinations are happening more rapidly, and more diverse elements are being used. Take for example the work of Jerry Li, who won Best Album Producer at the 2022 Golden Melody Awards for his own album Ai Ching. Still in his 20s, Li drew on elements of pop music from the 1990s throughout his album. Besides giving his album the same name in Chinese as the breakout song of Taiwanese-language singer Chen Baitan, the songs incorporate Western pop music from that era, and Li deliberately used Midi technology and a simple yet emotional old style of singing. The whole album can be said to be a salute to the past.
Another band that is a fusion of elements is Collage, which won Best New Artist at the 2022 Golden Melody Awards. The group’s name is a clear indication of their mingling of diverse influences. Lead singer Natsuko Lariyod is of mixed Hakka and Amis ancestry, while guitarist Hunter Wang is of Minnan descent. The name of their first album, Memento Mori, is drawn from the Latin expression meaning “remember that you must die.” The most unexpected thing about this album is that rather than using mainstream Mandarin Chinese, it uses other languages including Taiwanese, Japanese, Amis, and English. In terms of style it incorporates indigenous people’s music, Japanese musical forms, and the screaming vocals of metal music. As Chen Kuan-heng avers: “It’s a rare thing to be able to handle so many different elements and still produce beautiful melodies.”
The pop music industry in Taiwan today is like a loop that recycles past experiences. Once upon a time countless local record companies flourished; then, at the industry’s peak, came restructuring by international corporations to form large companies. But those days are now completely gone. In the era of indie music, not only has there been a complete liberation of creative styles, but there is no longer a single aesthetic standard. Perhaps it is easy to be confused by the abundance of techniques and the numerous elements used, but these enable musicians to flexibly employ a variety of resources to create whatever their hearts desire. Moreover, it is beyond doubt that amid such diversity, as both Li Lu-feng and Chen Kuan-heng say: “It’s a joy to be a listener in this era.”
This article was originally published on Taiwan Panorama. Read the original article here.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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