Mando-pop megastar Jay Chou has recently popped back into the spotlight by trending on Chinese social media. When his new single Mojito dropped on Chinese streaming platform QQ Music at midnight on June 12, it crashed the servers due to the heavy traffic it accumulated.
Within just a few hours after its release, sales of the digital song reached more than 10 million yuan ($1.4 million), the Global Times reported. It is China’s most viral song of 2020 so far, with 10 million copies sold.
“Our boy is coming back,” long-time fans said on social media. “I feel like I’m young again.”
I, along with other millennials, was obsessed with Jay Chou in school and grew up listening to him. But I found it difficult to explain this obsession to people outside of Chinese-speaking circles. With artists like BTS topping the U.S. music charts, it’s understandable if you know only K-pop as the main genre of music emanating from East Asia. But why is Mando-pop so less known globally? Why can’t a superstar like Jay Chou make Chinese music known to the world?
What is Mando-pop?
Mando-pop refers to pop music sung in Mandarin. It is the first sub-genre of C-Pop, or Chinese popular music, that established itself as a viable industry. It’s most popular in mainland China and other Mandarin-speaking areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Mando-pop originated in Shanghai in the 1920s. Some historically popular Shanghai songs are still sung today, like this post-war celebration song played everywhere during Chinese New Year.
Modern Mando-pop grew out of the Mandarin popular music developed in Taiwan. With a blend of traditional Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, as well as Western musical styles, Taiwanese Mando-pop brought new musical tastes to many mainlanders in the 1970s, when reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping loosened restrictions on cultural products coming from Taiwan. In particular, the Taiwanese campus folk song movement at the time, which was run by college youth in hopes of singing their own songs and focused on political and cultural topics, brought a group of famous singers whose songs are still popular today, such as Lo Ta-yu’s Childhood.
In the 2000s, an explosion of Mando-pop idols appeared, with the help of a growing open economy and an expanding entertainment industry in China. Though mainland China also saw an increase in the number of Mando-pop singers and bands, Taiwan still held its reputation as the heart and culture center of Mando-pop. And music piracy in the digital age pushed even more Taiwanese pop stars to develop in mainland China.
Why Jay Chou?
“Jay Chou brought creativity, fashion and entertainment to an era,” music critic Wang Xiaofeng said.
Jay Chou debuted in mainland China during the glorious 10 years of pop music in Taiwan. He stood out immediately and became an overnight sensation. Since his first album was released in 2001, Chou has released over 10 albums in the past two decades. His 2004 album Common Jasmine Orange sold 2.6 million copies, an unheard of figure at the time.
Chou owes his musical talents to his mother, who was a music teacher and spent all her savings to provide Chou with formal musical training when she noticed his talent for music. Music was teen Chou’s only friend as he was teased by classmates after his parents divorced when he was 14. Since then, making music has been an inseparable part of his life.
Although he was trained in classical music, Chou showed his talent in blending the musical styles of the East and West. His cross-cultural music that fuses R&B, rock, pop genres and Chinese traditional instruments, poetic lyrics that promote Chinese culture and values, as well as slurred enunciation, popularized new music styles known as Chou Style and Zhongguofeng, which literally means Chinese style.
“At this time, China was embracing globalization but also had a keen sense of the value of their own culture,” said Anthony Fung, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Chou’s music production skills set him apart. Professionally trained and self taught different types of music and musical instruments, Chou wrote most of his songs, resulting in consistently unique characteristics in his music.
From the bone-rattling rock-rap in the Bruce Lee-inspired Nunchucks, the ambitious marriage of R&B and Chinese traditional instruments in East Wind Breaks, to the poetic metaphor of antique Chinese pottery in Blue and White Porcelain, Chou’s work has attracted millennials longing for western individualism, eager to express themselves as a new generation full of personality but also proud of their Chinese inheritance.
From a songwriter and singer to an actor, a film producer and director, Chou has proven his versatility to the market and fans over the years. Although he has released new works much less frequently after getting married in 2015 and having two kids, nobody can steal his position in the hearts of China’s Generation Y.
“Jay Chou has been a cultural symbol and social phenomenon,” said Hu Yiyou, former CEO of Sony Music Entertainment China. “His impact has been not only in the pop music industry, but every corner of Chinese millennials’ growth and lives.”
For many, he serves as a sort of adolescent nostalgia. Even though Chou hasn’t released any albums for a long time – the last one was in 2016 – his every move drives fans crazy. Some of my friends still go to every Jay Chou concert and buy every one of his albums. Last year’s “Won’t Cry” was downloaded 100 million times in the first two days of sales. He also has his own Netflix show J-Style Trip, a part travelogue and part magic show debuted in March.
To be fair, Chou’s latest song Mojito seems ordinary compared to his music in earlier years. On Douban, the largest culture-related social networking platform in China, Mojito currently has a 6.9 rating out of 10 versus his 2014 album Common Jasmine Orange received a blazing 9.3.
But interestingly enough, the song, which features a love story based on the famous Cuban cocktail, with a light Latin-inspired track, and a music video shot in Havana, Cuba, has caused an upsurge of Chinese interest in Cuban culture and tourism.
The number of searches for “Cuba” on Chinese travel services and social networking platform Mafengwo increased 1,113 percent overnight. As of Monday, “Cuba” ranked among the top four most popular destinations on the platform.
The song also boosted sales of mojito cocktails among Chinese netizens. The number of mojito orders soared in bars all over the country. Chinese business news outlet Jiemian reported that the sales of white rum used in mojitos were also driven up.
Chou wants his songs to not just belong to memories of youth, but for people to continue listening to them throughout their lives.
“Youth is short,” he said. “I hope everyone can listen to my songs for a lifetime.”
Unknown music genre
However, as popular as Jay Chou might be in Chinese communities, Mando-pop stars haven’t been able to make Chinese music go global.
The success of K-pop has knocked down language barriers in the West, but Mando-pop remains within the boundaries of predominantly Chinese-speaking communities.
“While the Korean music industry pours money and research into exporting its music, C-pop considers China’s musical tastes first,” culture journalist Emma-Lee Moss wrote. “The most beloved Chinese pop star of the last decade, Jay Chou, is a singer-songwriter in the alt-rock style, which is nothing like the audacious, hyperactive synth-pop that makes waves abroad.”
As the world’s most populous country with the second-largest economy, China has a giant self-sustaining music market. As of March 2020, Kugou Music, one of Tencent’s music streaming platforms, had five million more monthly active users than Spotify. The three most popular music apps in China, Kugou Music, QQ Music and Kuwo Music, all owned by Tencent, have a combined 667 million monthly active users.
As South China Morning Post put it, “China doesn’t have any financial need to take C-pop global.”
Meanwhile, the reality that China blocks many foreign websites also forces Mando-pop singers to stay within boundaries. Without actively promoting their work and interacting with fans on globally used social media like Facebook, Instagram and Youtube, Mando-pop stars lack “legal” avenues to reach international audiences. And Chinese social media sites that Mando-pop stars use such as QQ Music, Weibo, Baidu are rarely used outside of China.
There is a possibility that Mando-pop and C-pop in general will spread further, but to be as successful as K-pop is, it will need a deeply interconnected global framework.