- Western Style, Chinese Pop:Jay Chou's Rap and Hip-Hop in China1
Jay Chou or in Chinese Zhou Jielun, is undeniably the most popular Chinese singer in a number of Chinese communities. His glittering career is reflected by his record sales and by the popularity of his concerts. In 2004, his album Qilixiang, or Jasmine, released by Sony Music, excelled in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Despite overwhelming piracy in Taiwan—which has reduced the recording industry to 5 to 10 percent from its heyday—as a Taiwan singer, Jay produced an album that sold a record 300,000 copies. In Hong Kong, his album surpassed local albums with sales of 50,000 units. In China the official figure reached 2.6 million units, a stunning figure that no other Chinese artist has attained. In 2005, his album Chopin of November continued this record of success with sales of 2.5 million units in Asia. His charismatic vigor, avant-garde image, and mercantile potential are not only recognized in Chinese societies; the World Music Awards in September 2004 held in Las Vegas acknowledged him, based on his high record sales, as the most popular Chinese singer.
The significance of the Jay Chou story lies in its implications as a successful marketing model for China and beyond to the larger Asia market. Why would a Taiwan-born 25-year-old singer—without flaunting a connection to China or the West—culturally and commercially sweep China with his style, persona, and image and do so while China is actively agonizing over the Taiwanese independence issue? What kind of cultural strategies did Jay Chou embrace to surmount the various political, economic, and cultural constraints involved in the Chinese market? Illustrating how Jay Chou navigates these structural limits and the political agenda of popular culture is valuable. Theorizing a framework for how popular culture cuts across geopolitical spaces and surmounts cultural barriers is not only beneficial for marketing of other culture products, but also sheds light on the ideologies of evolving Chinese popular culture.
This paper thus illustrates how Jay Chou's music production has wittingly strategized to construct images and products that can be both locally and nationally assimilated into Chinese culture and nationally accepted as a "prototype" product—a product whose political standard has been authoritatively acknowledged [End Page 69] by the state. The study is based on three years of ethnographic study of Jay's fans, fan clubs, and performance in China, as well as on in-depth interviews with the various production agents and media in different Chinese cities. In this paper I describe, from the production side, Jay Chou as an icon and his image-making and marketing strategies. From the audience's point of view, I explore how Jay Chou has been reconstituted from being a "foreign" singer (in the eyes of the PRC) into a Chinese artist.
Strategic Cultural Production
The study of popular music and stardom can be quite murky and some even see it as trivial. Popular Culture is often conceived as the culture of the common people or mass culture functioning only to entertain and lacking in seriousness vis-à-vis critical and political implications in relation to the state and civic society (Modleski 1986). However, contemporary cultural studies (Storey 2003, Cullen 2000) have demonstrated that societies have consistently invented popular culture that reflects not only ideologies of the day, but also in effect manufactures, manipulates, and distorts popular culture politically as a source of nationalism, socially as a representation of daily life, economically as a product of transnational corporations, and through the forces of the political economy of globalization.
As for popular music, melody, rhythm, beat, harmony, lyrics, and timbre are not simply creating form and aesthetic. Each of these elements are actually embedded with a semiotics of meaning that can create a sense of community, crystallize imaginary identities, and create sentimental adventures for the audience (McClary and Walser 1990). While all these reinforcing, complementary or contradictory realms are worth unpacking, understanding these elements in relation to political, economic, and cultural contexts is even more important. Thus, rather than just deconstructing complex musical...