- Exploring Mandopop through and beyond the Western Lens
In 1992, Andrew F. Jones presented his pioneering study Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music, which explores how China’s state-controlled music industry and underground rock subculture played their parts in the cultural and political struggles in the 1980s. While Like a Knife is the first English-language work on popular music in contemporary China, the title being reviewed here is absolutely the first book-length study in English on Mandarin Chinese popular music (Mandopop) produced by Taiwan’s music industry. Marc L. Moskowitz’s Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow adds to what will definitely be a growing, slowly but surely, number of publications on Chinese-language popular music, apart from Beijing rock (yaogun), which has received more scholarly attention in Western academia (for example, Baranovitch 2003).
Taiwan has been the driving engine of the Mandopop industry since the 1970s. As indicated at the beginning of the book, it is astonishing that Taiwan, a land inhabited by 23 million people, can dictate the musical taste of China, the [End Page 18] world’s most populous country, while under its increasingly military, political, and economic threat (p. 2). How Taiwan-produced Mandopop takes the mainland audience by storm is undoubtedly a subject worth further research. Moskowitz’s exploration of cultural connotations of Mandopop demonstrates to commentators who examine Mandopop only through the Western lens that work on popular music from non-Euro-American areas requires a detailed knowledge of social, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Through interpretive textual analysis of lyrics of selected pieces and artists’ stage images in conjunction with perspectives drawn from ethnographic interviews, he reveals how new gender values, flexible images of performers, a new musical ethos, and the potential to allow the audience to express their sentiments have made Mandopop from Taiwan prevail over other pop genres in China.
The author collected materials for this work basically in Taipei and Shanghai from the mid-1990s onward. Rather than relying solely on subjective interpretation of song lyrics, he also examines the local culture of KTV, an essential component of the Mandopop industry, and more important, the comments and attitudes of local participants from the Mandopop scene. His interviews covered a broad spectrum of insiders in Taiwan’s music industry, including singers, songwriters, producers, and record company staff, together with non-professionals from the general public. The information garnered from fieldwork not only draws a picture of the songscape for those who are interested in contemporary popular music in the so-called greater China area and other sizable Chinese-speaking communities in the world, but also reveals what the locals think of and hear in those songs. Peter Manuel has reminded us that even though the commonest form of musical acculturation in non-Western popular music seems to be the adoption of Western elements, those foreign elements may be adapted and perceived by the locals in distinctively idiosyncratic ways, and there are still some central features of native music that remain unaffected (Manuel 1988, p. 20). What Moskowitz intends to discover in this book is exactly the central features in Taiwan-produced Mandopop, which are coated by the seemingly Westernized musical varnish and need to be detected by delving into voices and words.
Certainly, the three core chapters demonstrate how songs of sorrow from Taiwan have reshaped popular culture in China and have offered the audience an opportunity to give vent to their cries of joy. However, some problems have yet to be solved. The following three issues may be beyond the author’s scope in this book but are essential enough to merit further work.
Seeking Reliable Historical Sources
Moskowitz spends two chapters on the historical background of the rise and development of popular music in China and Taiwan in modern times before he explores prevailing themes and gender identities in Mandopop. However, some [End Page...