#9: August 2021
the best Mandopop of the month from a look back at twenty-five years of Faye Wong's 浮躁 to bounding idol pop to pop in different stages of romance
There’s this scene fifty minutes into the 2016 film Soul Mate, where everything seems to turn around and the unresolved tension of upbringing, distance, and a boy all seem to disappear for Ma Sichun’s Qiyue and Zhou Dongyu’s Ansheng. Faye Wong’s “浮躁” plays behind the montage. It’s the feeling of running as far as you, it’s the sun on your face, it’s unbridled joy. It’s temporary.
Faye Wong’s “浮躁” is built on two competing motifs: the cheerful, buoyant, and giddy wordless refrain of “la-jum-bor” that wants to leap ahead and to experience all that life has, and the stillness of what comes between, in the coos of “hoo, nar, shar, ah,” that wants you to slow down, to stay by its side and wait a bit. The montage ends there, fading out on coos rather than leaping back into the “la-jum-bor,” as Qiyue drags Ansheng away from a hostel and towards a hotel for her own lack of comfort. The tension that you thought had dissolved clearly demonstrated to have simply been put on the backburner, only for it to pressurize and explode in the following minutes.
For much of Soul Mate, each character is established as one dimension of “浮躁,” Ansheng as the impetuous, restless spirit while Qiyue looks the realist, set on finding a good job, making a good family, living a decent life. Ansheng uses tricks to fully experience life while Qiyue attempts to live more modestly within her means. The pair mirror the conflict of “浮躁,” the desire to run freely and chase the light met with the occasional hard tug that holds each back.
Faye Wong has a voice so decadent that it’s at once completely captivating and wholly moving. It’s hard then to imagine that she was once just a standard balladeer, singing simple pop ballads about love. Albums like Coming Home and No Regrets had schmaltzy arrangements that fit too neatly into the scene, only hints of experimentation in their tiny flourishes of R&B. But in the mid-1990s, Wong began to shift away from the mainstream, being less concerned with her own commercial success and more excited at the prospect of doing whatever the hell she wanted—her style evolved to become looser and dreamier. 1994’s Random Thoughts was her first step, which, riding on the success of her role in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, turned a Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” into a blockbuster hit across China. But her covers of The Cocteau Twins’ “Bluebeard” and “Know Who You Are at Every Age” hinted at the style she would go on to perfect with 浮躁 (fúzào).
浮躁 translates to a litany of feelings: anxious, impatient, impetuous, but most commonly, restless. It captured how people felt at the time, its spirit offering both escapism and empathy for those during the political unrest, and yet, 浮躁 remained a bit of an anomaly. Its sales marked a low point, her audience confused by the shift in style, instead, it caught on globally, her dream pop being revered worldwide. It seemed counterintuitive—浮躁’s experimentalism marked a turning point in Wong’s career, yet it became her most accessible record to the global audience. Parts of that were due to Wong shortening the gap in the language barrier, as three tracks featured Wong humming her own language and another was purely instrumental. But another part was that where Wong moved closer to the music that captivated her, she moved closer to a particular Western taste—the influence of the Cocteau Twins was of far greater interest to any Western audience than traditional Cantopop or Mandopop balladry.
“分裂,” one of two tracks composed by the group, is the immediate stand-out. If the Cocteau Twins were revered for the pure emotion Elisabeth Fraser could convey with her voice, well, Faye Wong was equally captivating. It was more inviting than the Cocteau Twins’ own work, thanks to her voice, soft and pure. On “分裂,” the instrumentation simultaneously drowned her and buoyed her, cushioning you until it was only you and Wong, pulling you deeper into her intimate embrace.
But 浮躁 wasn’t just an album crafted purely under the influence of the Cocteau Twins, instead, greatly varied, an exploration of freedom through Wong’s eyes. Opener “無常” generated motion by weaving its instrumentation in and out of the arrangement, first gentle acoustic guitars then pulsing drums, and finally, hints of darkness in the synths. Her compositions skills were demonstrated, and as equally entrancing as her voice as its dreamy washes would demonstrate. Those dreamy washes existed even on “不安,” and while they were mesmerizing, “不安” used them to contrast the rest of the record, building a world of tension through a heavy drum march and reverbed guitar licks, only cutting the darkness through bright flickers of synths and synths in waves. 浮躁’s dream-pop felt like watching the world unfold: her compositions were buoyed with starry-eyed simplicity but deeper inspection would reveal a more complex darkness beyond. And then there was Faye Wong sitting front and center—bounding about alone with giddy naivety or facing you, whispering sweet and simple coos, inviting you to see the world anew.
There are these lies that Soul Mate tells you. Not the one the marketing team pulled off that made some believe they were in for a tragic lesbian film, but two that its narrator skips over when writing its story. There’s the explicit one that reveals itself in the film’s final moments, the tragic truth of how Chinese people avoid their grief and how death is better reimagined as wanton freedom. But there’s also a web of lies that the film goes back and edits but never lets you breathe with as it did with its final one. Qiyue pulled the fire alarm from the beginning, Qiyue knew of the attraction between Ansheng and her boyfriend, Qiyue asked her boyfriend to leave her on the day of the wedding. Like Ansheng, Qiyue also wanted to run free and chase the light. Soul Mate is constantly rewriting Qiyue as a character with her own dreams that stretch beyond the standard, with her own behaviours that deviate from what was expected. And twenty years before it, 浮躁 rewrote Faye Wong as something a little different—the coos of its title track perhaps not a firm hold of Faye Wong in place, but better defined as a pull in the opposite direction, Faye Wong as someone who had the desire to be not just anything but to be everything.
Faye Wong lived across borders. As she sang under the tide of “分裂,” “one side must be strong and face everything, one side needs to be wild.” She called Beijing her home but Hong Kong her office. She divided herself between Mandopop and Cantopop. She was pop but she was also alternative. But unlike “分裂,” the divides didn’t tear her apart, instead, pushing her and her music in more directions. In 浮躁, you can feel her pull away from the label of pop and towards the dream-pop, but her future records expertly merged both ideas in one of the greatest runs in Mandopop, from Sing and Play to Lovers & Strangers to Fable. She was alternative on the sprawling “Emotional Life” but she was also the pop balladeer on “Red Bean.” And she could be both at the same time as she was on “Chanel.” She loved the dream-pop aesthetic and later met her previous audience halfway on later projects. But Wong didn’t just change her own sound, she ushered in a new era of sounds into Mandarin and Cantonese scenes, allowing pop artists to experiment in mixing genres, and bringing dream-pop and shoegaze into the Chinese scene. Faye Wong may have lived across borders, but 浮躁 blurred them, and because of her, pop—Mandopop—felt like it could be not just anything, but everything.
Check out the best of August:
Lai Meiyun - Go, Wonderland!
Lai Meiyun wants you to run with her. She doesn’t care about the destination or where you started from, she simply wants you to go. To go as far as you can, as fast as you can, until you find whatever it is you’re looking for. The title track, “出发，地平线!” (“Go, Wonderland!”), races towards the horizon, Lai beside you, her voice bounding across the track, a single shouted “hey” adorning the journey. It focuses its attention on the future. On things beyond the horizon, on wonderlands, and onto a new world, one she never bothers defining, only letting herself believe exists. She drifts easily through the present, not bothering to pay too close attention to her surroundings, drifting on a wave of power pop guitars and rushed drum hits. Before you even get there, she turns around and dashes away, thanking you for joining her, hopeful your paths will cross again in the future.
Lai Meiyun’s great at that. At standing in the present but putting herself in the future. Sometimes, it’s just about letting herself drift into it, like when she dances on the pop-rock guitar riff of “过滤镜” (“Real Me”) hoping to find who she might be in the future. Her voice might lack the edge of the pop-rock she so often attempts to emulate, but it makes her sound buoyed towards something, her voice inviting you to join her. On the surging “太阳洒在海洋的方向” (“Sun Shines on the Way to Sea”) she sings “the scenery of the future direction will give you the answer,” letting herself hang in the hands of fate. But on “恋与四季” (“Love & Seasons”), she takes a more active role in making herself part of it, imagining a relationship across four seasons before it’s even begun, allowing her life to intersect and diverge with that of a lover’s: “if you wave goodbye in autumn, then we will meet again in winter.”
Go, Wonderland!’s intro encapsulates so much of the album as a piece about the journey rather than the starting point or the destination. Lai constantly dreams of moving forward, her voice just sweet hums across the cityscape giving way to motion and you can feel the wind rush through it, hear the bike tires whizzing across the path. Like the intro, Lai’s voice remains a steady presence, while the instrumental creates the perception of motion. “恋与四季” steers itself away from coffee-shop atmosphere into bossa nova as a distraction, while the string arrangements of “冬空下” (“After Winter”) find themselves later repeated on digital keys, the more traditional sound coming into the modern. Lai might be restless, but it’s her production that keeps her moving.
The future can be a form of escape. “When this is all over, this is where I’ll be. This is who I’ll be.” She contorts herself into different styles to imagine what kind of artist Lai Meiyun, the idol, could be. Dropping herself into a future where idol pop is power pop or where the standard rules of song structure don’t apply and a second verse can veer into a different genre, letting the background steal the spotlight from the idol. But sometimes, Lai Meiyun is forced to confront the present and when she does so, she veers closer to current-day idol pop. Ballads and plain EDM make appearances, and while not as experimental, the confrontation feels necessary to Lai Meiyun’s journey. The drop of “对流层” (“Troposphere”) feels frigid, but captures one of Lai’s strongest and most confident vocal performances, not hanging onto the same idea of forever as she did before. On ballad “世界与你有关” (“I Will Be With You”) she confronts the idea of how lives can intersect and diverge, merely grateful that you could accompany her once. “I love this world, thanks to you,” she sighs, thankful that you were once there. Lai Meiyun still wants you to run with her, but by the end of her journey, finds that she’ll be okay if the paths diverge.
Astro Bunny - “Is It Just Me?”
Astro Bunny are nothing if not consistent. Not just their releases, which occur like clockwork each year at the back half of December, but also in sound: washes of electronic textures, flattened and glossy; R&B-influenced vocals, smooth, sweet, and slightly digitized to fit the medium; and loneliness and sadness distilled into pure longing. But their latest heads towards something a little newer, letting their sound evolve ever so slightly. “Is It Just Me?” pulses a bit faster, moves a bit dancier. It might not move out of the bedroom, but where their earlier music was for laying and staring, “Is It Just Me?” is for dancing. This time, a failed relationship doesn’t feel so paralyzing.
Chen Linong - “Yogurt Love”
“Yogurt Love” soundtracks the end of summer, when the heat’s starting to dissipate and time’s starting to move a little too quick—when the moment feels too perfect for a confession. Its Chinese title “The Sourness of Youth is Also Sweet” hints at how nostalgia can reframe a first love that’s ended, how the sweetest pieces will shine the brightest. But Chen Linong is still young, and this is a confession in the moment, a song filled with the sickly sweet confessions of a teenager over clean and crisp guitar lines. He enjoys the present, rejecting the possibility that anything could sour, only focusing on watching love bloom in its youthful atmosphere.
Diana Wang - “Make You Feel”
If Chen Linong’s “Yogurt Love” was a summer day, the heat of the sun blaring over you as its guitars refreshed you, Diana Wang’s “Make You Feel” is a summer evening, piano chords making peace while the digital drums signify something exciting in the night. If “Yogurt Love” was a romantic confession, then “Make You Feel” is about prolonging what could be the end, knowing love could fade in an instant. If Chen Linong chased after young love like a lovestruck puppy, then here’s Diana Wang not only wanting a love that lasts, but chasing after it herself, holding on as long as possible, hoping you could be the one. Her voice remains steady over the turbulence of the glitchy drums. She relates people and nature, plain and simple: “the stars don’t want to sleep for the people on Earth are in love,” but pulls it all back, her love not for them but for you, as Wang repeats the chorus of “I’ll make you feel my love” like a mantra. Conventional song structure is sidestepped at its last minute, and a brief pause pulls the track back into an extended coda that fades leisurely, promising a love that could last forever if you let it.
Yo Lee - “Go Back to Bed”
The Golden Melody Award for Best New Artist went to ?te, the jazz-indebted R&B singer, who hides in shadows, both on stage and musically. But my favourite in the category had to be Yo Lee, whose album could be relaxed or frenetic, whose videos were the best at capturing the feeling of needing someone, and whose songs simply wanted a share of the love. If Only You Could Love Me was the culmination of years of effort—you can find several of his demos on StreetVoice and compare them to the original. The rough ideas remain the same, but the sounds become fuller and lusher, cheap plinky piano keys turn into ornate background elements in completed version.
“Go Back to Bed” takes another demo and makes it into something grander, changes apparent from the beginning: the key’s moved up and the instrumental is highlighted in a warm glow so that the crash of percussion doesn’t feel so sudden and jarring. The fuller production doesn’t sacrifice any part of its demo’s ideas, instead, bringing studio warmth to Lee’s compositions.
I love how domestic “Go Back to Bed” feels. The warm glow that’s added feels more like the hours when you still have time, right when the sun has started to rise. Lee paints a picture of two lovers who stayed up too late talking, too busy learning all the mundane things about one another. But the studio recording also flips a line from the demo, changing from “come back to bed soon my dear / let’s talk for two more minutes, you said so many times already” to “go back to bed.” Lee is still coaxing someone to sleep, waiting on them, but “go” suggests that Lee has other things to do. There are variations that shake the notion that he wants to leave, changing the second chorus’ rhythm in an attempt to get you to stay awake a little longer. “Go Back to Bed” may wake with a crash, the sun in your eyes and the feeling of movement beside you, but Lee’s voice come with striking intimacy, soft and close. He’ll argue about cellphone costs in an attempt to find something more to talk about and a reason to hang up, but “Go Back to Bed” no longer feels like a couple in the first stages of dating but two lovers who have been doing this for a while, the picture of domestic bliss captured in the early hours.
Also if anyone’s looking for a copy of Soft Lipa’s Home Cooking that won the Best Mandopop Album award at the Golden Melody Awards, send me a DM or an email and I’ll help you get sorted out.