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#27: February 2023
a look back at twenty years of Jolin Tsai's Magic along with the great new drogas single and some fluttering idol pop in the best Mandopop of the month
It’s funny to recall how Jolin Tsai’s career started: she’s a figure known for driving Mandopop towards a more dance-oriented direction at the starts of the ‘00s and yet here she was in 1998, singing covers of English power ballads like Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” on national television at the tender age of seventeen. Maybe it’s a bit of a surprise if you watch the clip that she won but Universal Music Taiwan recognized something more than just what she sang on the show. They saw potential in Tsai, sending her to dance lessons and press training rather than solely marketing her as a balladeer. They knew that she was capable of more than those ballads. Yet if you’ve actually gleamed your way through her first few albums, two things become abundantly clear: first, Tsai’s voice was not suited for the ballads that they were giving her, and second, Universal Music Taiwan had absolutely no idea what to do with her.
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Magic, Jolin Tsai’s fifth album and first for Sony after a two-year break—relatively long for the time—in the messy aftermath of leaving Universal Music Taiwan. Lawsuits and settlements between her family, management company, and label abound, yet Tsai was focused on making an artistic statement with Magic. While it would be her most focused album yet, hailing it as the album that established rather than furthered her dance-oriented direction (the great reinvention of Jolin Tsai!) feels disingenuous to the four albums she released between 1999 and 2001, as well as to Magic itself.
The one thing Universal Music Taiwan got right about Jolin Tsai was that she was a versatile performer. It’s no surprise that her albums were overwhelmingly loaded with ballads given her stint on the singing competition, and the public’s tastes, but in between were a collection of tracks where Tsai hopped across genres: her second album, Don’t Stop, opens with a Mandarin cover of S Club 7’s “Bring It All Back” and closes with a faithful rendition of fictional band The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar.” Though she muddles through ballads on Don’t Stop, there are highlight in featherlight dance-pop, giddily joyous pop-rock, and even a breezily laid-back reggae performance on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Her debut single was a ballad called “Living with the World” but the rest of her albums on Universal would pivot to dance-pop lead singles; it was clear that the production team recognized how the plasticity of Tsai’s voice was better suited to dance-pop, even though they had occasionally had difficulty executing the combination. The title track for her third album, Show Your Love, is a bright and buoyant disco-inflected number but Lucky Number opens with a cheesy cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that messily attempts to incorporate gospel and dance elements.
Magic’s dance-pop ambitions are thrown at the public the same way her earlier albums threw them at the wall: dance-pop lead singles with additional genre-hopping were scattered across an album with far too many ballads. The idea that Magic is the sudden dance-pop reinvention of Jolin Tsai is baffling considering ideas like the rapped bridge of its title track courtesy of Bing Wang (father of the quirky indie-pop artist Joanna Wang) had been done previously. Yet while something like “Show Your Love” might feel very western-oriented in its influences, the computer-generated noise on “Magic” was made to imitate the sound of the sanxian, a traditional Chinese string instrument. Even as it carried disco influences it felt more catered to the public’s tastes, especially in the growing interest of zhongguo feng. “Magic” draws you into its science fiction fantasy—the instrumental seems to speed up from the start as if throwing you into the lurch of its world and as it tunnels deeper into the chorus, it transports you into her realm.
The surrounding conditions made “Magic” out to be a comeback moment, and here, despite being a tie-in for a PC video game, Tsai made the best of it. It’s atmosphere is part cyber, part mystical, positioning her as a commanding figure rather than the simple girl-next-door. She casts aside the youthful girlishness without abandoning her femininity through the seductive command to “watch her seventy-two changes” or the authoritative intonation she uses to shout goodbye as she easily dismisses someone as unworthy. This is the real reinvention of Magic: Tsai’s transformation into a more adult figure, one whose voice was tantalizingly alluring as she made you out to be replaceable rather than the other way around. It’s a small transformation, Magic walking between this not a girl not yet a woman stage as she dreams of love but something like “Prove It” is imposing, its off-kilter drum pattern is dramatically grandiose as she lays out her demands.
There were indications that despite everything, Sony still didn’t know quite how to produce for Jolin Tsai. Two of Magic’s four ballads are successful at using Tsai’s voice to provide some sense of vulnerability. She wrote the lyrics to “Rope on Vest” about the feeling of faking happiness for her fans amidst contractual disputes and producer Jamie Hsueh makes her sound exceedingly small in its unfamiliar territory but “Be You for a Day” was the better ballad. It makes use of the soft fragility of her voice to sound like an earnest confession. As it culminates in a fatigued lament, “after exhausting all my enthusiasm, all my determination, how unfair it is to still be rejected by you,” she draws out the word “unfair” with all the emotion it requires, as if demanding some higher being intervene. The awkward placement of its other two ballads after “Magic” makes them feel uncomfortable.
Magic also sometimes surrenders to then-boyfriend Jay Chou (who would also contribute to her next album, Castle, before their split a year later). “Prague Square” was obviously written by Chou containing some of his markings in the mix of hip-hop with classical instrumentation and a slightly over-the-top fixation with European culture. More than that, it feels like she’s the one assisting him with a warm hook. Closer “The Spirit of the Knight,” despite lyrics written by Tsai herself, sounds like an awkward attempt by Tsai to imitate Chou’s rapping style and Chou himself doesn’t care to play subtle, repeating her rap on the back half of the track. It’s only on the Bing Wang-produced opener that a Jay Chou composition feels like Tsai’s track; the mix might feel jarring but it’s a girlish lead-in to Magic that lets enough darkness in through doubtful melodies and echoed voices to feel nuanced.
Magic is best when it leans into that dance-pop. The combination of pop-rock and dance-pop on the opener, the computerized fantasy of its title track. There’s a brisk yet slightly faint retro house beat on “Smell of the Popcorn” that mimics the heartbeat of a woman tempted by infatuation. Tsai’s producers would take time to understand that fact and even as she would delve deeper and deeper into that direction, it wasn’t until signing with EMI for her eighth album, Dancing Diva, that she seemed fully committed to the dancefloor.
Jolin Tsai was the standard for dance-pop. The list of those influenced by her sound stretches on, though it’s perhaps most notable around the turn of the decade with albums like Miss Elva by Elva Hsiao. Magic may not be the revolutionary reinvention that many believe it to be in terms of genre—the most innovative change of her career comes at the start of the ‘10s for her eleventh album, Myself—but it is where Tsai’s identity as an artist seemed to take shape. Gone are the covers, in are her own lyrical credits. Hints of someone more mature are in the midst of the sweet girl-next-door. Magic was a step up after the directionless material of her old label, an imperfect yet captivating album that would mark the start of her upward trajectory and further her embrace—along with the public’s—of dance-pop.
You can listen to Magic on Spotify and Apple Music. For the rest of this month’s issue I wrote about Zhang Zining’s new album as well as single by Accusefive, Wooly, and what just might the song of the year from drogas.
Zhang Zining - Rec.X
Zhang Zining believes your twenties should be about loving as hard as you can. A former member of the explosive yet temporary Rocket Girls 101, the Chinese idol’s second album is about capturing those moments of love with all their forceful pull. Opener “2 SiX” was written as a birthday present to herself but released months after turning twenty-six; Zhang Zining (also known as Winnie Zhang) wanted to release it as soon as she could, landing as a bit impersonal, though fresh and celebratory in the midst of summer.
Zhang takes ownership of her age here—“celebrate my 2SiX,” she sings—but the rest of the track focuses on the relatively generic event of birthdays in effort to sound welcomingly relatable. As she dives into the exultant glow of its light funk rhythm, she toasts to the dazzling feelings of the best of birthdays: here’s to moving, here’s to dreaming, here’s to one year wiser over again. Her voice comes higher and brighter than it did on her debut, fluttering as it tugs you to dance with her, those coos of “celebrate” buried in the background like shimmering lights. Rather than fixate on the specifics, Rec.X longs to put those emotions, most commonly of carefree adoration, to permanent recording.
Rec.X is filled with soft, dreamy fondness even when it doesn’t always work out. On “Ideal Type,” she waxes poetry about a man who returns to someone else’s side by the end of the night, Zhang receding into its vaporous atmosphere. Her voice sinks to the ground by its end, begging, “trust in me, come back to me, love to me,” a realization that the mutual desire will never materialize carelessly brushed aside as the synths capture the romantic moonlight. Still she loves anyway. As she gestures towards the dusk on the liquid R&B of “230am,” everything fades away except for the waltz in a dream. Dampened sparks shoot across the ballad as the electric guitar sweeps across its keyboard, the shadow of a nervous blush creeping through the dark. Rec.X swoons into romance; a red carpet rolls out to a Disney-esque orchestra of gliding keys and dancing flutes before it grounds itself in a floating castle, Zhang reluctantly tempering her heart as she awaits a traveller’s return.
Tension is often swallowed on Rec.X and the moments where it’s demonstrated in outright fashion are often rare. “The Poison” is a pop-rock stomper that, despite being a moment of disillusionment in romance where Zhang falters, attempts to turn it back into a statement of self-love. Produced by Xu Jun, it swirls in static guitar lines and muffled vocals but quiets as Zhang cries: “I want to be that invulnerable kind of girl.” “Shalala” races with a Latin rhythm, its only goal an impassioned plea to “love you tonight.” Zhang’s English lyrics might often be awkwardly phrased or nonsensical at times, but even through the line “why we just dance until another day / just dance before dark or week” is infatuation in need of release. It swivels but the desperation comes through clearly.
Loving doesn’t always come easily for Zhang. There’s an internal struggle played out with a partner to stop acting evasive, even as her and Liu Sijian’s voices intertwine into a gossamer harmony on highlight “Flee.” But on Rec.X, she attempts to love whole-heartedly whenever she can, even knowing it won’t always last, or even start. “Don’t fear, just love, love, love,” she sings on closer “Remaining.” It would sound false from that carefree girl who was celebrating another year wiser and older months from her birthday, but here at the end, after watching her confess to loving someone taken, after watching her force herself to stop running from Liu, it feels earnest.
Accusefive - “Without Me”
There’s a question here that keeps catching me off guard: “when anticipation turns into waiting, where will you be?” Vocalist Quan Qing sings it like she’s afraid it’ll send you running and so Accusefive let “Without Me” quietly implode. Another track off their third album, We Will Be Fine, catches love in the smallest moments and hopes to prolong it across the distance: “how long has it been since I went grocery shopping with you? ate hot pot with you? took a walk after eating with you?” Love doesn’t require any grand gestures and yet on here, they know it’s ending and that there’s nothing they can do to save it. So in the end, they wait. At familiar crossroads and at your favourite restaurant. They watch you doing fine without them. They know the answer to their question but can’t figure out the timing. Ardently faithful lovers, Accusefive work within their soft rock to believe in someone, even when all the signs point to tragedy.
Wooly - “沒太多如果”
Dynamic drumming, slingshot guitar riffs, and choral harmonies that act as quiet cheers, the indie-rock instrumental of “沒太多如果” (“Not Too Many Ifs”) constantly drives forward. Wooly is somewhere between realism and optimism in her cloud world: “there’s no happiness without sadness, learn to cry then you can laugh / to feel pain means to look forward to someday when it’ll all come true.” Her airy voice is never completely swallowed by its animated drive, instead, its lightness is its own dreamy pull in the thrilling chase.
drogas - “蝴蝶”
On his latest single, “蝴蝶” (“Butterfly”), drogas gets out. Sunlight feels good for a moment before he’s engulfed in fire, a dizzying 2-step beat threaded through the familiar pain of his electroacoustic instrumentation. Stumbling, it’s a messy patchwork of forced optimism as he expends self-deprecating humour (“I’m professional,” he calls in his sing-song autotuned drone, “specializing in wound management”), maps growth to a “little by little metamorphosis” as he edges towards mania, and builds a resolute promise to just try even as he confronts the well-worn reference to the reaper. drogas is at the top of the world when he corrects his behaviour for the first time: “this time I used the right way to decide right from wrong.”
Anyone familiar with climbing through a depressive spiral know that forcing that healing is an exhausting task prone to complications. Unsurprisingly, that shit still hits him at that point of climax. “蝴蝶” is like starting an engine before you’ve fully repaired and little by little, whatever progress you’ve made starts to come undone as the fatigue settles. drogas bows to his cynicism and that chaotic rhythm that kept him from falling apart abandons him as he hits a wall: “please don’t regard the scars on my body with disdain, it’s the reason why I’m here,” he sings, his voice dropping quieter and lower. It revives itself just to sputter apart again. A torturous cycle of making the decision to be better only to realize that all your efforts have left you tracing circles in blindness. “蝴蝶” is drogas’ most experimental work yet, blending danceable sensibility into his spiral, but it’s still for the losers. For the ones whose efforts get them nowhere. Gentler readings will view its final open vulnerability as progress. I keep looping it, not with the hope that anything will ever change, but the comfort of being seen by someone with the same debilitating sense of failure.