Who Needs Silly Love Songs?
Taiwanese pop diva Jolin Tsai once obsessed over everything said about her and her love ballads, but she has since matured and is now more confident, to the point of taking on such social issues as gender equality.
Who Needs Silly Love Songs?By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 593 )
One way or another, Jolin Tsai always ends up surprising people.
The Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), organized annually by a major South Korean entertainment company and staged in Hong Kong in December 2015, was no exception.
Before receiving her award for Best Asian Artist in 2015, Tsai appeared on stage in a black, deep V-neck dress with nine male dancers from Los Angeles to perform her hit “Play.” Her sweet voice and precise, seemingly effortless, dance moves got the audience going and gave the 140 million people watching live on television a taste of the alluring charisma of her performing style.
Carefree on Stage
That performance propelled her already high-flying career to new heights. Korea has conquered the Asian entertainment world, and no other performer could have helped Taiwan stand out so clearly at the Korean-dominated venue and stirred the crowd into a frenzy as though its favorite baseball team had just won a big game.
“To be honest, I took the performance in stride. But the people around me treated me as though I was performing in an Olympics. They were all really nervous, touching up my makeup and constantly adjusting my outfit,” Tsai recalls with a laugh when asked by CommonWealth Magazine how it felt to appear at the awards.
“But actually if a performance hits a real high, I completely forget myself after I get on stage, and I forget what happened once I get off it,” she says, explaining that she no longer gets nervous before performing and simply enjoys belting out the songs and putting on a show.
Ask people around Tsai, her business partners, music critics or her fans, and they’ll all tell you she now is full of self-confidence and far more at ease than in the past, boldly making her mark with electronic dance music in a Chinese-language music industry where love ballads reign. You get the same feeling when seeing her in concert, listening to her albums or asking her questions.
The 36-year-old Tsai, who has been in the business for 17 years, seems to finally be sure of herself and her status in life after having undergone several transformations. She is no longer affected by outside influences, bravely sticking to her own rhythm.
Though that maturation process may seem like a natural progression, it cannot be assumed, especially in the entertainment world where success can be fleeting.
Tsai got her start in the business by competing in a singing contest organized by MTV in 1998 while still a senior at Taipei Jingmei Girls High School. She beat out 3,000 entrants to take the top prize with renditions of songs by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in English, and then recorded her first album – “Jolin 1019” – a year later as a freshman at Fu Jen Catholic University.
At the time, the record business was still flourishing, and Tsai, with her fresh appearance and sugary songs, was quickly nicknamed the “Teenage Boy Killer.” She pumped out an average of an album a year in the following years that included such classics as “I Know You Are Sad” and “Do You Still Love Me?”
But it wasn’t until her 2003 album “Magic” that she really hit stardom. The album, made with the help of top-flight producers such as Jay Chou, reflected a broadening of her musical repertoire with such songs as “Prague Square.”
In a book on Taiwan’s music scene, veteran music critic Wang Tsu-shou dissected the factors behind Tsai’s success in the first 10 years of her career as she battled for supremacy among Taiwan’s young pop divas. He pointed to her ability to hone her voice to generate different levels of raw emotion and her dedication to practicing the latest dance moves.
Tsai’s personal journey during those years, however, remained firmly entrenched within the framework of mainstream values.
“What I was aiming for in the past was kind of like taking a test – I was hoping not to make any mistakes on anything I was taught. If even the smallest problem occurred, I would cry when I got off stage,” she recalls, confiding that she was so nervous and uptight that anything unexpected or out of the ordinary would send her to the brink of collapse.
“She had baby fat, so she made sure when she first got started to avoid gaining weight. She spent her time eating only foods not cooked in fats and worked really hard when practicing her dancing or shooting music videos. She was kind of silly and didn’t sound terribly smart when she spoke,” says Chen Hung-yu, a project planner for StreetVoice International, a domestic music platform.
Chen, who headed the special projects department of Universal Music Taiwan when it released Tsai’s first three albums and booked appearances for her, describes young Jolin as “trying too hard,” to the point where people at the record company felt bad for her.
“She was the company’s new star, but she received just as much criticism as she did praise,” Chen says.
With the passage of time, people may no longer remember how many barbs she faced at the time over her appearance, her singing style or even her relationships. What’s remembered is when she called herself an “acquired talent” in a 2007 documentary of the same name, or her twirling of a ribbon more than three meters long, her leaps and her sideways spins as part of her performances, every movement flawless whether performing rhythmic gymnastics or working the pommel horse.
“I cannot accept quitting before having learned something well,” and “I have to reach 130 (on a scale of 100) before I can allow people to deduct points” were among her best known quotes to the media at the time.
She was seemingly expending all of her effort fighting herself, unable to find inner peace even when scoring victories.
“Jolin Tsai’s unwillingness to admit defeat was something of a gamble. She never studied dance, and there were doubts whether her body could achieve the flexibility and strength needed to attain the desired results. But she persevered despite the possibility of falling short, unwilling to settle for simple dance moves that could still resonate with fans,” recalls music industry veteran Elaine Hsiung.
The sex appeal and charm of the charismatic moves she perfected represented the steady progress Tsai made in interpreting different dance techniques.
In 2007 at the 18th Golden Melody Awards (Taiwan’s Grammys), Tsai won the award for “Best Mandarin Female Singer” for her album Dancing Diva, still seen today as an unprecedented victory for a singer’s dynamism and performance skills rather than talent. Even the jury cited her “all-around talent and hard work” as reasons for awarding her the prize.
At the Golden Melody Awards seven years later, one media outlet poked fun at the 18th version of the awards and its decision to honor Tsai, saying “it fell in love with Jolin Tsai when it was 18, probably the most rebellious thing it’s done to date.”
When Tsai accepted her award in 2007, she said: “Thank you to everybody who previously doubted me. Thank you for giving me a hard time, forcing me to work very hard.”
But that somewhat defiant tone on stage failed to give Tsai the emotional sustenance she needed. The more she was mercilessly bashed by attacks, including criticism that “even a gymnast can win a Golden Melody Award,” the closer she came to falling apart.
“At that time, I didn’t have a lot of confidence. When others doubted me, it seemed like I wasn’t able to speak up for myself. My mindset was very negative, feeling that I hadn’t pushed for the award to begin with,” Tsai says.
Today, however, “even if they didn’t give it (the award) to me, I’d still want it,” she says, chuckling. “There’s been a huge shift in how I look at things.”
Unable to find anything good about herself in her heart, Tsai even felt bad when others projected their glances at her. By 2009, exhausted and emotionally broken, Tsai wanted to get out of the music business.
Nobody enjoys repeating their actions, and Tsai was convinced she wanted to try something new. Casting a shadow over her future, however, was her sense of being boxed in and liking herself less and less.
So she decided to drop everything and take a break for three months, heading to Canada to study French.
“Actually, it was my agent (at the time, Ko Fu-hung) who didn’t give up on me. She encouraged me to continue, and I felt a little more relaxed after my break. So I didn’t overthink things after that,” Tsai says.
That same year, Tsai and Ko co-founded Eternal Music Production Co., in effect making Tsai her own boss and giving her far more opportunity to influence her musical future.
“Whatever anybody on the outside sees, it’s not even 1/10,000th of the effort she puts in. If everybody in Taiwan’s entertainment circles worked as hard as she did, Taiwan’s audiovisual and music industry would not be facing its current problems,” Ko says.
According to Ko, Tsai went as far as having a steel pole installed in her home because when she was redecorating her place she was studying pole dancing.
Love Yourself and Love Will Come
When CommonWealth Magazine asked Tsai what book she would recommend to women, she chose “Do Not Marry Before Age 30” (寫給姊妹們的真心話). Tsai explains that when she was young she felt love was extremely important and that one had nothing without it.
She later discovered, however, that you have to first understand how to love yourself before the love you are seeking can follow.
It may have been a long time ago, but any mention of Tsai’s love life inevitably touches on the high profile “double J” romance between Jolin and pop star Jay Chou.
In June 2010 in Jay Chou’s last concert at Taipei Arena as part of his ERA World Tour, Jolin appeared dramatically without warning on a stage lift. Tsai and Chou had broken up in 2005 after Chou was said to be romantically involved with another celebrity, Patty Hou, and the two had not been seen together in six years.
The crowd was stunned, and to this day, that concert remains widely talked about.
Jolin Tsai (left) invited Japanese pop queen Namie Amuro to join her on stage during a concert to sing “I’m Not Yours.”
“Jolin Tsai was entangled in the relationship for 10 years, but having chalked up achievements in the music business, she eventually staged a drama in which she played the ‘victory queen,’” music critic Wang says.
Ko has observed a major change in Tsai’s approach to relationships, saying that she is now at peace with herself to the point where she doesn’t feel compelled to wear makeup to have a meal at a roadside food stall with a male friend.
It was around 2010 when Tsai stopped fighting herself and instead began to do battle with the mainstream music market. Eight of the 10 songs on the album she released that year – “Myself” – were dance songs, further reflecting her increasingly distinctive personality.
“That wasn’t entirely because I wanted to do something different from everybody else. Rather, I found some things in dance music that were like me. I could very confidently make judgments about the music and then add things from my experiences gained over time,” she says.
Whenever Tsai hears a demo, fast-paced songs tend to give her energy and get the dance moves going.
“Dance songs, even more than lyrical ballads, seem to have a way of arousing feminine charm,” Tsai says. Because of her love of dance and physical beauty and the inclusion of those elements in her performances, she is one of the few singers of dance music in the Chinese-language music world who can really appreciate and display a physical allure.
In 2013, Tsai won her first Golden Melody Award for “Best Song of the Year” for “The Great Artist.” In 2015, she scored another “Best Mandarin Album” award for “Play,” indications that her style were gaining more mainstream acceptance.
“If a singer’s performances have no personality, they won’t be able to draw people in. In this day and age, charisma depends on more than just audio elements, such as your vocals, melodies or lyrics. It also depends on visual communication, so ultimately you have to see if the entertainer has a genuine ability to perform live,” says Ni Chung-hua, the “godfather of Taiwanese rock” who headed the juries at the 24th and 25th Golden Melody Awards.
Though Tsai has not written her own melodies, she is fully conversant with her music and performs it starting from a physical dimension, Ni points out.
Tsai’s exploration of this physical element has begun redefining music production and served as a catalyst for change within Taiwan’s pop music scene, a process that occurred long ago in South Korea, where the emphasis has clearly shifted to slick, visual performances.
The album “Play” used four producers, while Tsai served as a kind of music director, guiding the album’s theme and participating more intimately in the creation of the songs.
“Jolin Tsai has been able to succeed because she does her homework thoroughly before hitting the recording studio,” says 30-year-old music producer Starr Chen, who won a Golden Melody for “Best Musical Arranger” for “Play.”
“She works on the songs at home until she’s mastered them, kind of like for the title track of the album ‘Play.’ She had never performed such ‘dense’ lyrics where there was no place to pause and catch your breath,” but that didn’t stop Jolin, Chen says.
The producer, who usually reserves about eight hours of recording time per song for the average singer, was dumbfounded when he learned the recording studio had only been booked for three hours to record “Play’s” title track. Tsai was so well prepared, however, that three hours was enough to get the song done.
In recent years, not only have the lyrics, melodies and arrangements of the Mandopop queen’s songs shown precision and sophistication, their visual elements have also been major points of emphasis.
Music video director Muh Chen, who has worked with Tsai, recalls that when he worked with Jolin on the video for “The Great Artist” four years ago, she was still rather uptight – a precise performer who was extremely restrained. But when Tsai shot the video for “Play” just over a year ago, Chen found her to be far more confident and relaxed.
“It felt like she was no longer overly critical of herself because she knew she was good enough. She didn’t insist on seeing every take,” he says. “Even if we used lighting to give her personality rather than to make her look pretty, and her face ended up with a purplish-blue tint, she was OK with that.”
On her Play World Tour last year, Tsai and her team added short documentaries to her performances under the theme “We’re All Different, Yet the Same.” (不一樣又怎樣) They told the stories of “Rose Boy” Yeh Yung-chih, who was abused to death in junior high school in 2000 because of his femininity, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) sufferer Tseng Yung-chi, whose parents Tsai encouraged after he died in 2011, and Katherine Tseng, a transgender teacher who had sex reassignment surgery in August 2015. The stories profoundly touched her audiences wherever they appeared.
A short documentary on “Rose Boy” Yeh Yong-chih was shown at Jolin Tsai concerts last year in which the testimony of the boy’s mother was used to raise awareness of gender equality.
“(People) on the fringes of society are very rarely encouraged. Every singer actually aspires to convey love through their performances or songs rather than simply talking about falling in love,” Tsai contends.
Entertainers can also help young people learn about what’s happening in society, and Tsai wants to help everybody become more empathetic to those in society who are different from themselves.
“Too often today people posting messages online don’t know that they’re hurting others. I want to protect my fans and tell them that even if they are different from others, they are not fragile or insignificant,” she says.
Hoping to Protect Those Who Are ‘Different’
Perhaps Tsai was hurt by public opinion more than even she lets on, but now, bursting with confidence, she has begun to care about social issues.
“She feels responsibility as an entertainer, the responsibility a performer has on stage. I think that originated with her empathy and knowing how it feels to go through hard times,” contends her agent Tom Wang.
Wang says that while Tsai may seem like a princess, she’s actually more like a martial arts warrior who is now mature and wants to help the underprivileged.
There are times when the stage can seem like a desolate island. No matter how bright the lights, singers can seem like young chicks unable to find warmth from anyone.
But Tsai’s wings are now fully extended. Once given to defiantly trying to turn her songs into thorns, she now is satisfied by calmly singing her songs into messages that she hopes can resonate positively throughout society.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier