Asia's 'Little King' of Pop
Multitalented Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou has become a synonym for innovative, non-traditional Chinese-language pop music. What is the source of the energy driving his success?
Asia's 'Little King' of PopBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 400 )
For eight years the musical theme of the Chinese-language pop charts has been Jay Chou. His fans call him "Asia's little king," not because he falls short in comparison with other mega stars in Asia, but because of his youth. Although he has released eight hugely successful albums beginning in 2000, Chou has not turned 30 yet. Yet when it comes to describing his enormous influence on the entertainment business in the Chinese-speaking world, his nickname seems quite inadequate.
Chou, who is about to release his ninth album, sold 2 to 3 million copies of each of his previous albums in Asia and has won numerous awards throughout the region. He has starred as lead actor in four movies, including the romantic drama "Secret," which he also directed. Chou's directorial debut brought him a nomination for outstanding Taiwanese filmmaker of the year at Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival in 2007, alongside Ang Lee and Niu Chen Zer. Eventually "Secret" bagged the award for outstanding Taiwanese film of the year.
Jay Chou sticks out in the music business for his strong, individualistic personality. The "Jay Chou phenomenon" has even already become an academic research subject. His every move makes headlines in the entertainment news. The public persona that the media have created can be summed up as follows: Chou makes awesome music, is a cool guy, holds his mother and maternal grandmother in high regard, and has one romantic affair after another.
But who is the real Jay Chou? Where do his skills come from? What is his true self?
Jay Chou ambles into the brand new office of JVR Music, a record company that he founded together with lyricist Vincent Fang and his manager JR Yang after his eight-year contract with Alfa Music ended in March 2007. Returning from a press conference for a newly released handset, one of his many endorsement contracts for popular brands, Chou walks up to one of his colleague's desks, looks all around and poses a long string of questions. No wonder his nickname "Chairman Chou" still sticks.
Jay Chou has impeccable skin. His trademark eye-covering forehead fringe has been cut shorter, allowing a clear look at his eyes. When the high-strung artist starts to play around with a basketball, he visibly relaxes.
Chou admits that he likes people to call him "director." He considers his greatest strength to be "creativity," and his greatest fault to be "impatience." When asked to describe himself in one sentence, he thinks for a while, and eventually settles on, "I love to win."
The people working at the star's side can attest to his strong ambition from first-hand experience. After finishing shooting a commercial at 2 a.m., Jay Chou does not return home to rest, but returns to the cutting room to edit a video. Returning to Taiwan from overseas, he buys a few beverages and goes straight to the house of his composition teacher to discuss some tunes late into the night. Yet the next morning, it is business as usual in the recording studio.
Obsession with Perfection
Jay Chou is a workaholic, and his passion for his work makes him forget his exhaustion. "His enthusiasm is contagious, it makes you want to toil with him, because you can feel that he's sharing his dream with you!" says A-Do, who has served as the musician's make-up artist for eight years. Indeed, the success that has won so much admiration is not without a source – his obsession with perfection in every work he releases.
While Jay Chou demands perfection from his own music, on the film set he worries that others don't dare to be as demanding toward him. When shooting his first scene for "Curse of the Golden Flower," Chou, playing a supporting role, appeared along lead actress Gong Li. Since he feared that director Zhang Yimou was too polite to ask him to repeat the scene, he pulled aside his equally nervous manager Yang, who goes by the nickname Rong, and told him: "Rong, tell Director Zhang he definitely needs to be demanding toward me, he really can ask a lot from me, I can do the scene again."
"He is really giving it his all. He doesn't miss a single iota," says Yang in describing Jay Chou's obsession with detail. Yang says he has never seen anyone as sensitive about his reputation as Jay Chou. What he doesn't deem good enough will never make it to the public eye. Jay Chou's colleagues previously at Alfa Music and now at JVR Music all know that "hot looks" and "coolness" are the singer's guiding principles. He is always only willing to show off a product when it is perfect, be it music, dance steps or little magic tricks. "He definitely won't let you know how much or how hard he practiced at home," reveals media supervisor Toto Chang.
Jay Chou is successful because he loves to win, and he supplements innate talent with hard work. Brimming with self-confidence, he claims without hesitation, "My style is to not have any particular style. Because I'm very versatile, I can write any kind of song. I'm able to write and sing duets with Fei Yu Ching like ‘Faraway,' but I can also write ‘Sounds of Falling Rain' for Jody Chiang." Jay Chou has mastered R&B and rap as well as romantic love songs and ballads. On the one hand, he tells youngsters to listen to their mothers; on the other, he ridicules the paparazzi. He has more facets than can be told in a single story. And he dismissed criticism that he has been standing still in his artistic development: "I'm a greedy artist. I have given you my all, completely. So you can't say I haven't changed."
But even for a genius, each new piece poses a completely new challenge. Thanks to his classical education in piano and cello, Jay Chou has an excellent ear for music that allows him to learn other musical instruments at lightning speed. He is highly sensitive to the sounds that surround us in everyday life and uses them as background effects in his songs. Sound elements ranging from the click clack of ping pong balls to people ordering boxed lunches are typical of Jay Chou's sense of humor.
Loyal to His Crew
When analyzing why his music finds such broad resonance, Chou never forgets to pay tribute to his favored collaborator, lyricist Vincent Fang. "Vincent's lyrics have truly created a new trend. Their content is not very serious, but all in all they mean something. For example, when he wrote ‘Hair Like Snow,' what did he mean by 'flying farewell'? Or ‘I offer incense'? At first, I didn't really understand, but when he explained it to me, I felt, 'Wow, he's really awesome'," says Jay Chou with a broad smile.
Jay Chou cherishes old friendships. Not only Fang, but virtually everyone in his entourage, from the recording engineers to the makeup artist and composers, are old friends that have worked with him since he released his first album in 2000.
He is convinced that the members of his team have grown together with him. "We who work with him all have to stay on our toes. He supports you to the very end, so we're even more committed to giving back to him," says A-Do, who joined Chou on vocals in "Master Chou." Thanks to the trust that Jay Chou has cultivated with his crew, they dare to try out new things when working together.
Perhaps his memories have sweetened with time, or perhaps he was truly optimistic and content before his career took off, but when Jay Chou recalls his humble beginnings, holed up at the Alfa Music office writing song after song, many of which were rejected, he feels that those times were not all that hard. "Back then, I had only one source of pressure – whether my song would be used or not," he says.
He once wrote the song "Popular Imitation," whose lyrics go as follows: "Even if I am at the peak, I'm just a normal person. But my shoulders will have two spaces, For courage and perseverance, I want to be the emperor of music."
When Jay Chou was still an obscure songwriter, Yang, then managing director of Alfa Music, one day heard him sing "Adorable Woman," and it dawned on him that he had found a real talent. "The harmonies were beautiful and the music that I heard had a vitality that broke my own stereotype of Chinese-language songs," says Yang in recalling this decisive moment. Yang, who admired his friend's temperament and genius, persuaded Alfa Music boss Jacky Wu, a popular Taiwanese talk show host and singer, to give him a chance.
Veteran singer Frankie Kao once declared to Yang that with the appearance of Jay Chou, Chinese-language pop music could be divided into two halves – everything that came before belonged to the classical era, and everything that followed had entered uncharted terrain. Chou eliminated the old framework, so that now any subject, sound, or melody can be used.
Yang thinks that Jay Chou's singing resembles musical instruments rather than a human voice. He is notorious for his mumbling enunciation, but on the other hand, this works to his advantage because people don't easily get fed up hearing his music.
A certain part of Jay Chou seems to never want to grow up, yet he has partly changed with age.
An only child whose parents divorced when he was a teenager, Chou has always enjoyed the full support of his mother Ye Hui Mei and his doting maternal grandmother. The two women have been the driving force behind his success, since their pride in him is his encouragement. Underlining his devotion to his mother, he named his fourth album "Ye Hui Mei" after her. In "Grandma" he vents his frustration over failing to win a Golden Melody Award, Taiwan's most prestigious music prize, saying it is more important for him that his grandmother is proud of him and likes his music than winning an award.
Were it not for his mother's foresight in giving him a classical music education, today's Chinese-language pop music scene would be a poorer place.
When Jay Chou was four and a half years old, his mother decided to let him take private lessons with piano teacher Kan Po-wen. A strict teacher, Kan would lightly rap his students on the fingers with a ruler if they erred in pitch, tempo, fingering or phrasing – a sting that must surely have been hard to take.
"He studied with me for almost ten years until he was in his second year of junior high school. He is the student who studied with me the longest time," Kan recalls. Kan observes that Jay Chou's perseverance and success in studying the piano are mostly due to his mother. Chou himself always says that his mother is an artist and that he has inherited his talent from her. Yet his mother gave him not only talent, but also the love that helped the teenage boy safely overcome the upheaval of his parents' divorce.
Later when he released his first album, his father made it a point to call piano teacher Kan to tell him that his son had recorded a CD. "I thought he had released a piano recital CD, but when his father told me that it was a song album, I thought to myself, how come that Jay Chou has switched to studying vocal music? It took me a while to realize that it was a pop music album!" says Kan, recalling his bewilderment. When Chou hears this story, he immediately turns into his face-conscious childlike old self: "My dad is so annoying. He used to tell everyone that I had released a record and told his students to buy it, which totally embarrassed me, as if no one was buying it on their own!"
Chou's father has scant cause for concern: His son's brand of innovative Chinese pop continues to resonate with music fans all over Asia.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 周杰倫：我有一種使命感，想以愛為出發點