What you need to know
China's televised singing competitions are taking the world by storm and doing wonders for brand China, but there's more to Mandopop than what you see on screen.
By Jocelle Koh and Matt Taylor
In the past two or three years, we have witnessed China's televised reality singing competitions take the region by storm, with plugs appearing in every imaginable media driving massive awareness as far afield as Europe and the United States. These shows combine a heady mix of high-flying artists as judges and mentors and first-look access to fresh, cream-of-the-crop talent.
It's no surprise, then, that shows such as "Sing! China" (originally known as "The Voice of China") and "I Am Singer" boast hundreds of millions of viewers, and are rapidly solidifying their reputation as a viable source of Opportunity and success both for established Mandopop artists as well as amateurs searching for fame.
Yet while those around us rave over what Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou (周杰伦) and "Sing! China" judge said last episode or 'King of Chinese Pop" Wang Leehom's hip-hop rendition of classic Chinese text the "Three Character Classic" ", as longtime appreciators, researchers, and professionals of the Mandopop scene, we're left with mixed feelings about the wider cultural impacts of these shows.
Over the course of three articles, we will weigh up the pros and cons of these shows related to three key issues: China's brand, the reality show format and the impact on the Mandopop industry as a whole.
Issue 1: Chinese televised singing competitions and 'Brand China'
PRO: Provides a platform for China to meet the world
Shaking off the bad rep of some of the mainland's other outputs, including authoritarianism, fake goods and hardcore pollution, China's televised singing competitions are of an entirely different breed. With production quality of the highest standard and a range of A-list to boot , the shows continue to hold their own against Western counterparts, many of which are arguably in the sunset of their heyday.
In fact, many of these Chinese reality singing shows have been critically acclaimed for their work within the reality show format. Hunan TV ’s “ I Am Singer” in particular was a revolutionary concept when it first debuted and has been enhanced many accolades throughout the region. The show was the first time that established artists were pitted against each other in a reality competition format, allowing audiences to actually interact with the artists and relate to them as "competitors".
Since debuting in 2012, "The Voice of China" has been credited with redefining the concept of Chinese televised singing competitions and has been highlighted by international media as a symbol what's possible in the realm of projecting China's soft power.
For many, the slick bilingual promotion strategies overcome barriers of accessibility. Many of the shows including "I Am Singer", "Sing! China" and "Idol Producer" are available for free on YouTube, replete with well-translated English captions rendering the show big with lovers of Eastern culture and Asian diasporic audiences, as well as Mandarin-speaking audiences throughout Asia.
These strategies seem to have had a positive impact on China’s brand within the global music scene; earning a massive and loyal viewership who consume content related to these shows’ across a variety of formats.
Shows such “I Am Singer” or “The Voice of China” have catapulted many a B-list artist or even newcomers in some cases (G.E.M, A-Lin, Momo Chen) to idol status; provoking a surge of talent (particularly from Taiwan) seeking to participate in the hope of scoring an easy win in terms of popularity and a more sustainable income. A prime example of this trend is Lala Hsu, who despite already having carved out a critically acclaimed career in Taiwan, chose to participate in the 2016 season of “I Am A Singer”. When asked for her reasoning behind this decision, she simply responded “I want to buy a house!”
And it seems that artists in the West are catching on too. Big names such as Akon, and most recently Jessie J have graced the stages (and even won) of “I Am Singer” to the confusion of their fans, and the delight of Asian and mainland Chinese audiences.
Yet beyond all the issues of brand image and value, such artists’ involvement continues to draw the eye of Western media towards these shows, as was demonstrably the case after the recent crackdown down on the hip-hop scene on the mainland, amid accusations of the glorification of sex, drugs and violence.
As recently as January this year, institutions ranging from Vice News and Buzzfeed to CNN and the BBC lauded televised competition “The Rap of China (中國有嘻哈)” as being the catalyst propelling the previously niche genre into the living rooms of 700 million people, praising contenders such as GAI 周延 for making hip-hop accessible to the masses; an enthusiasm which turned to criticism when the Chinese government orchestrated a ban on hip-hop and its corresponding culture during early 2018. The earlier coverage resulted in an international outcry over musical censorship in China never witnessed before.
With creative content, production quality and marketing all of an international standard, there is no doubt that these shows have made mileage in closing the gap between China and the rest of the world. However, this nevertheless acts as a double-edged sword, as Western audiences are slowly falling into the trap of equating Chinese popular music entirely with these reality shows.
CON: Popularity does not necessarily mean China is spearheading the Mandopop music industry
Whilst the popularity and reach of these shows is undeniable and unparalleled in Mandopop history, can we really say that they cement China as the leader of the Chinese music world?
To answer this question, it’s pivotal that we understand the influence of Taiwan on Chinese pop music. In the 1960s and 1970s, whilst China was creating patriotic songs designed to celebrate the state, Taiwan instead established itself as the international hub for Mandarin language music, attracting global talent and record labels to create high quality musical works which electrified the Chinese speaking world for almost four decades.
Some have even gone so far as to say that without Taiwanese pop music, there would be no modern Chinese pop culture at all.
To this day, between 80-100 percent of all Chinese language music consumed originates from Taiwan, and recognition from the Taiwanese music industry -- such as nominations at the prestigious Golden Melody Awards (金曲獎) -- remains a status symbol unparalleled by any Chinese or regional equivalent. Furthermore, the entire structure of the Mandopop industry from the labels and management companies to the writers and producers is predominantly focused upon Taipei.
Travelling to Taipei has long been a pilgrimage for global musicians hoping to make it big, from China’s Na Ying and Wang Fei to Malaysia’s Fish Leong (梁靜茹) and Singapore’s Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿). Even diasporic acts such as American-Chinese Wang Leehom view Taiwan's capital as the city that provides opportunity for mainstream success they would not necessarily be able to attain in the West. This has created a melting pot of cultures and established a welcoming international environment. Some have even gone so far as to say that without Taiwanese pop music, there would be no modern Chinese pop culture at all.
However, in recent years, there have been murmurs across the region that Taiwan’s treasured position as the pop music superpower of the Chinese speaking world is under acute threat from the mainland as a result of these televised singing competitions. Furthermore, this has been a source of contention between the two neighbors for several years. Taiwanese industry professionals have lamented that if nothing is done to combat the erosion of Taiwanese influence, then within five years “everybody will be singing Little Apple (小蘋果)"* whilst in China, many producers of singing competitions already see Taiwan as a faded star, destined to forever lag behind China’s burgeoning industry, with the singing competitions acting as the flagbearer.
Whilst on first glance this appears to be the case, the Taiwanese music industry’s influence on China’s reality singing scene remains robust. Even if we remove the reliance on the usage of Taiwanese songs, these shows rely on talent from other countries to retain their popularity. Despite marked efforts to include amateur talent from all Asian regions and diasporic populations; there is no doubt that the judges of these shows; stars packaged and manufactured in Taiwan, are a major reason for their popularity.
This became so pronounced during "The Voice of China" that some netizens complained that the show was actually "The Voice of Taiwan". Furthermore, Taiwanese stars A-Mei and Harlem Yu were considered key drivers of the show's success in non-Chinese markets on debut. Even more prominent was the effect that Mandopop superstar Jay Chou had on the show when he came on as a judge. His appearances were so popular that it brought criticism that the intensity of his star power eclipsed the show itself.
Undoubtedly, these shows act as a tool to introduce singers to the huge mainland Chinese audience; but in terms of star power and credibility, Taiwan remains at the forefront of the music industry. As a result, it’s hard to imagine these structural advantages eroding quickly over the short term.
Even from a superficial vantage point, China is a clear winner when it comes to taking advantage of these televised singing competitions. With overwhelming and uncritical support coming from most stakeholders and an extremely lucrative business model, these shows have become a mainstay of Chinese pop culture and have done wonders for the country’s image.
The recent hip-hop crackdown and ensuing media furor is evidence enough of how many eyeballs these shows amass on a daily basis. Yet the dangers of audiences equating these shows with Mandopop as a whole; and thereby assuming China to be the new cultural center of Mandopop are worrying, not just for Taiwan as the current cultural center, but for the quality of musical output on the whole. More on this as we explore these televised singing competitions’ interactions with the reality show format in part two...
*This refers to the effervescent 2014 hit which was referred as China's answer to "Gangnam Style". "Little Apple Apple" became a viral hit, winning Favorite International Song at the 2014 American Music Awards. For many, the success of the song embodies the rising power of the Chinese music industry, and strikes concern that a song seemingly devoid of musical artistry and reliant on low-level humor can have such astronomical success, whereby dampening the value of music from Taiwan and authentic musicians throughout the Mandopop world, including China.
Editor: David Green