Chinese pop musicians are seldom heard of in the Western world, with soundwaves usually failing to cross the shores to reach our own pop charts. This isn’t down to a lack of talent though. China is brimming with plenty of gifted pop musicians, each with their own collection of catchy tracks.
Interestingly, the Chinese music scene is vastly different from that of Europe and the US. It’s quite normal for many actors and actresses in the most popular Chinese films and TV to dip their toes into the world of music (and vice versa), in order to raise their career profile. Also, artists across the country are utilising the powers of reality television and chat show appearances to their advantages, as well as looking to music streaming websites and social media to help shine a spotlight on them further afield.
Joanna Huang, former vice-president of international record company EMI in the China region, spoke out about the shift in international popularity of Chinese musicians: “Artists have to ask themselves who they are, what they represent, and what kind of unique qualities they have. It is not a must for artists to copy everything from Western stars[…]Over the last century, there has never been a better moment for Chinese-speaking music stars to try to break into the global market.”
For many musicians so far, their mix of authentic cultural elements and their universal likeability has played a significant role in helping push their music beyond their homeland. From stylish leading ladies and heartthrob boybands to classic ballad singers whose tracks will never disappear, here are five Chinese pop singers to add to your playlist, ready for the summer ahead.
Something of a household name in China, Jane Zhang rose to fame back in 2005 after becoming the second runner-up in Super Girl, a Chinese TV singing content similar to Pop Idol and The X Factor. She wowed judges and viewers across the country due to her stunning vocals and ability to hit high notes. Amusingly, her vocal range led to the nickname ‘Dolphin Princess’.
Jane’s career is likely to keep on growing and catapult on an international level following her plans to release her first English-language album later this year, Starring Jane. She has already made a number of performances in English and even made a special appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009.
Her latest single, ‘Dust My Shoulders Off’, has all the makings for a global hit. Produced by Timbaland, the upbeat track already has more than 12 million views on YouTube and even made it to the top five in the iTunes chart – a first for a Chinese artist. The video is a delight for both Chinese and international listeners too, parodying very familiar works of art by some of the most iconic artists, including Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.
Even before hitting the Western World, Zhang has an impressive catalogue of music awards and nominations to her name, including Best Female Artist and Most Popular Female Artist in 2013’s Top Chinese Music Awards, and the MTV Europe Music Awards trophy for Worldwide Act in 2015 (with a nomination in 2013 too).
Switching things up a little, Mayday have brought their alternative rock tunes since the late 1990s, being a leading influence for the growing trend for rock music in Taiwan. The five-man band are especially known for their high-energy performances, earning them the title as ‘king of concert’ in their homeland.
Impressively, the band have won the Golden Melody Award for Best Band four times (2001, 2004, 2009 and 2012) and their music catalogue spans twelve studio albums, not including a number of live albums and DVD releases.
Never content with following the trend, Mayday have constantly pushed barriers in the music industry. Doing everything in their power to please and excite their fans, the band have faced a number of heavy fines from venues due to their gigs overrunning well after the closing time.
Their 2004 comeback concert at Taipei Stadium brought together nearly 40,000 fans, breaking the record for most concert-goers, a record previously held by the late Michael Jackson. The Nearest to the Sky Concert tour from 2004 to 2006 saw them literally reaching for the skies, with the whole band performing at a height of nearly 390.6 metres from the ground. More recently, in 2014, the band performed for the first time in London, playing Wembley Arena as their first date for the Now Here tour.
Perhaps the most impressive of their accolades though was their 2011 release of 3D film 3DNA. The film featured live performances from twelve-years’ worth of concerts, while simultaneously blending in three separate love stories involving Mayday fans in Lijang, Guangzhou and Taichung. Within the pan-Chinese community, this became the first 3D concert feature film, and was welcomed with enormous excitement by fans.
The beginnings of Faye Wong’s career are rather unusual. The Beijing-born singer started creating music in the early ‘90s in Hong Kong, during a time when mainlanders were often shunned in Hong Kong. Her producers and team encouraged her to keep her upbringing a secret, leading her to adopt another name and actually sing in Cantonese. Once she had earned a reputation in the music world a few years later, she began to sing in her mother tongue, Mandarin.
Admirably, she holds the Guinness World Record for being the best-selling female Canto-pop singer (since 2000), she was crowned Best Female Artist at the 2004 Golden Melody Awards, and for four years she has been ranked in the top 5 on the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list (2004, 2005, and 2011, 2012 after her hiatus).
Her ballads are a mix of classic, crowd-pleasing pop as well as mesmerisingly unique tracks that are almost reminiscent of the likes of Björk and Kate Bush. In the media, she is often referred to as a ‘diva’ – a term which actually translates as ‘heavenly creature’ in Chinese.
Although her music is less well-known in the Western World, as an actress she is well-regarded. Her appearances in Wong Kar-wai’s films Chungking Express and 2046 confirm her as a talented and important figure in Chinese culture.
A name and face with A-list celeb status in China, Joey Yung has been sharing her emotive pop since 1999. Throughout her music career she’s picked up a whole host of awards and made special appearances in TV and film.
The prestigious JSG Most Popular Female Singer and Ultimate Best Female Singer (Gold) awards have been presented to her a record-breaking nine times. Spectacularly, she has released a grand total of twenty-four albums, so it’s no surprise that a focus piece on China’s rich-list published in 2014 reported that she earned HK$80 million (US$10.3 million) in that year alone.
Joey’s good looks, charm and mix of talents have lent her titles such as the ‘Queen of Pop’ and ‘Big Sister’ in the Hong Kong music scene. Her public appearances have varied from singing theme tunes for TV commercials and being the spokesperson for a slimming parlour, to releasing a song in collaboration with a Coca-Cola advertising campaign in Hong Kong and providing the vocals for official songs at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Alongside her album releases, fans have been treated with special limited edition merchandise, including comic books, stickers, and plushie dolls that represent Joey.
Taiwanese Jay Chou boasts more talents than many people could ever hope to garner. Dabbling as a musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, film producer, actor and director, Jay Chou’s background in the limelight has been an exhaustive and extremely successful one.
Best known for his signature ‘mumbling’ style of singing, he’s sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and has a whole cabinet of awards in his name. Impressively, he’s released fourteen albums to date, with a new album coming nearly every year. Also, his talents as a songwriter have led to him penning popular songs for other artists, while still writing hit singles for himself.
His notoriety has spread far beyond his native Asian community, having held six world tours, performing in cities around the world from the US to Australia, selling more than 10 million tickets.
Through his cinematic projects, he has been able to further raise his profile. His acting debut started with the film Initial D in 2005, but perhaps his most acclaimed feature was his Hollywood debut in 2011’s The Green Hornet, appearing alongside famous Hollywood actors Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz.
In spite of his major successes, Chou remains very humble and has often expressed his dislike for the paparazzi and press, preferring to maintain a private personal life beyond his work and stage life.
With the internet making it easier for musicians to bridge the gap of distance and reach fans on a global level, it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese music scene takes on a much bigger place in the Western charts.