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On Wang Leehom's latest record, Change Me, the American-born Chinese singer takes his listeners along on his musical road home. But just what "home" is he singing about?
Wang Leehom's last two albums, Shangri-La and Heroes of Earth, stirred more than a little controversy among Chinese Americans who were offended by Wang's use of the term "chinked-out" to describe his unique blend of Chinese and hip-hop musical elements. Regardless of whether his re-appropriation of the racial slur was justified or not, what's unfortunate is that most of the criticisms were more preoccupied with the word, rather than with the reason Wang decided to use it -- and more importantly, with what Wang was trying to accomplish musically.
As I've argued elsewhere, these criticisms also overlook the important fact that Chinese Americans should not always look at their identity within national boundaries. Wang Leehom may have been born in the United States, but his career is primarily across the Pacific. "Chinked-out" may cause anxiety in the states, but for border-crossing Chinese around the world, it might have other, more liberating, meanings. (That those border-crossers tend to be higher class, educated individuals whose global travels frees them from the racial trauma of home is, of course, an important, but separate issue.)
Wang's latest album, the softer, gentler Change Me, is less insistent about projecting the "chinked-out" label. This may seem a retreat from the provocative stance he took on the past two albums, but doing so allows him to more subtly explore his place as an American-born Chinese (ABC) in a global world -- precisely what "chinked-out" was supposed to be about in the first place.
The album may be called Change Me, but I've been listening to it in terms of the title of its leadoff single, the pop ballad "Falling Leaf Returns to Roots" ("Luo Ye Gui Gen"). The title, an otherwise trite Chinese idiom referring to the path of weary home-seekers, became interesting to me while I watched the video and began to wonder what exactly are the "roots" he's referring to. According to the lyrics and the video's narrative, "home" is wherever the heart is. But music videos are a visual medium, and images are much more difficult to make geographically-neutral. Moreover, the video (directed by Wang himself) repeatedly hints that this "home" that he's depicting is a multi-cultural city inhabited by Chinese (and non-Chinese) people. (The "Grade A" sign visible on the coffee shop in the background makes it clear that we're in the purview of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.) Wang's fans all know that he's an American by birth. So are we to take it that the "roots" he's referring to is the United States? The lyrics and the music on the rest of the album assure listeners that the answer is not so clear.
So where exactly is "home" in Change Me? Here are some possibilities, as evoked by the album.
Wang Leehom was born and educated in the U.S., and then made it big in Taiwan (and throughout much of Asia) as a pop star. On the track "Love Live the Chinese" ("Hua Ren Wan Shui"), he celebrates his pride in being Chinese. "I'm born in the USA, but Made In Taiwan," he raps. He then claims, "Falling leaves return to roots in the East where I discover my home." If that shouldn't make the question of home obvious enough, in the liner notes, Wang thanks his Lust, Caution co-stars "for finally making me feel like I grew up in Asia." But if the question of home were that simple, Wang would simply be cheesy, patriotic cliché: the "good ABC" who returns to his real home and gives back to "his people." While some moments in the song do point to his (like when he wishes all Chinese good luck at the Beijing Olympics in '08 on "Love Live the Chinese"), the majority of the album takes a more broad-minded stance to Chinese-ness. So perhaps:
When "Love Live the Chinese" isn't boasting the glories of the Chinese in Asia, it's reaching out to Chinese around the globe, like a Chinese version of the Black Eyed Peas "Bebot." The term he uses for "Chinese" isn't zhongguo ren (which is closer to "Chinese nationals"), but huaren, which refers to an ethnic and linguistic identity, rather than a national or political one. It makes sense then that in the roll call at the end of the track, he lists other Chinese "heroes of earth," and all of them are Chinese who have made it big by traveling overseas: New York Yankee Chien-Ming Wang, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, director Ang Lee, hurdler Liu Xiang, pianist Lang Lang, and film star Jackie Chan. That these are all artists and athletes rather than politicians and businessmen also give his definition of "Chinese" a cultural, physical character rather than a more "official" one. (That they're all men also hints at how Wang is defining the cultural Chinese in terms of gender, also bringing to mind the controversies over "Bebot.")
But the Chinese language is allowed some variability on the track, making audible a "linguistic dissonance" cultural scholar Shu-mei Shih identifies as characteristic of the Chinese diaspora. "Love Live the Chinese" is one of the album's two rapped songs, and the vocal delivery of rap immediately gives the lyrics a Western "accent" (to say nothing of his frequent use of English). On the first verse, he spits, flipping between English and Chinese: "Watch this/You've never heard Chinese like this/Standard pronunciation with a Wang Leehom twist." It should be noted that when Wang first moved to Taiwan in 1995, his Chinese was less-than perfect, and while he's become far more proficient, his image is still that of an American-born outsider. So the "twist" in "Long Live the Chinese" is its multi-vocality.
And in Wang's world, the heterogeneity of accents and linguistic identities is nothing short of beautiful, which he proclaims on the other rap track, "Cockney Girl." Here, Wang sings of rolling into a club with the homies and becoming enchanted by a Chinese dancer with a certain London accent:
I've heard of Taiwanese Mandarin and Cantonese Mandarin, Beijing intonations and Southern Mandarin,
And of course there's ABC Mandarin, and the Mandarin the whole world's trying to learn.
I thought I'd heard it all, so when I heard this British dancer's voice,
I decided to dedicate a song to her, to record that mysterious chance encounter.
Wang Leehom is far from a great rapper or lyricist. What's always been more important than his actual rapping is the fact that he is rapping. As with all pop music, it's the surface that counts; what makes Wang's pop rise about the rest is that his rhymes depict a texture of transnational Chinese-ness that is grooved rather than smoothed, and which is home among the strays, the displaced, and the forgotten, like that Cockney accent most overlook when counting the ways one can be Chinese.
Such a planetary view of home has a surprising parallel in the environmental focus of Change Me. The title track finds Leehom startin' with the man in the mirror, contemplating the power of the individual to make a difference in the world. The song itself is undeniably catchy in its melody, but somewhat obvious in its lyrics. But what elevates the song and the album to a more mature level is that Wang actually takes the initiative to practice what he preaches. In an unprecedented display of genuine concern, the album is printed on recycled paper, contains a minimal amount of plastics, and includes a page in the liner notes listing ten things ordinary listeners can do to save the environment. The album cover depicts Wang holding up a young plant, roots dangling in the air, as if to say that the "roots" of the leadoff single are not only a cultural home, but an ecological one as well.
Is this a sincere gesture or simply a promotional gimmick? My guess is that it began as the former, and transformed into the latter. The version of the album I purchased contained limited edition Leehom chopsticks with a small tote bag, encouraging listeners to use these reusable chopsticks instead of wasting the disposable silverware found in many restaurants. It all feels calculated and gimmicky. But then again, Change Me is not only a pop music album, but a pop music commodity; and again, what makes Leehom's album extraordinary is that it plays by the industry's rules to concoct something different, and even radical. In recent years, pop music record labels in Taiwan have attempted to fight off music piracy by upping the ante on promotional materials attached to albums. CD cases have gotten bigger and the packaging more elaborate. Glossy photobooks are given more weight than the music. What Wang Leehom (and his record label) was able to do was make Change Me environmentally sound while remaining a successful pop commodity.
But more than the packaging, the videos, the photos, or the promotional gifts, what's always been at the center of Wang Leehom's albums is the music. It's not necessarily because he's the best singer or even the best musician in the Mando-pop universe. It's that: 1) he's famous for being a classically-trained musician, 2) he's known for writing and producing his own music, 3) he makes it clear in the album credits and videos that he plays multiple instruments, and 4) he has by far the most ambitious musical mind in contemporary Chinese pop. Wang theorizes his music: he experiments with it; he names it; he allows his image to transform as his musical inspiration changes.
The music in Change Me is perhaps his most mature to date. Shangri-La and Heroes of Earth may have been more grand and ambitious, but Change Me gains strength and focus from a more laid-back, confident mix of genres, unlike the previous albums which often spun out of control in their musical madness. There are no knockout singles like "Kiss Goodbye," but each song effortlessly fits within the album's larger purpose of providing pleasing melodies and lyrics that contemporary global Chinese youth can call "roots music."
If Shangri-La and Heroes of Earth hypothesizes the wondrously hybrid space-age Chinese pop of the future, Change Me finds its musical home by takin' it back. It's refreshing to see old school hip-hop as one the primary musical referents here. Take "Long Live the Chinese" for instance. A side-winding groove and straight-laced turn-tabling string together his kick-back rhymes and a sing-along chorus. Whereas other ABC rappers like Machi and Edison Chen aim for a more hard-core image in their rhymes (with varying success), Wang smartly knows he ain't street -- he's a Williams College grad with dreams of Red Mansions, not ghetto bling. And as a rapper, he's not very skilled or dexterous. But somehow, his stately, more pronounced deliveries make the old school style a fitting match for him, and the song works far better than the rap verses on his previous albums.
Other tracks that evoke older genres include the sunny "Encouragement of Love" ("Ai De Gu Li") with its syncopated piano and jazzy solo break. "Where is Love" ("Ai Zai Na Li") has the innocent disposition of 1980s pop, as does "Our Song" ("Wo Men De Ge") which is for my money the best song on the album, and which literally conveys through the lyrics Wang Leehom's vision of music as the only thing in life he truly considers home:
When the world's in danger, only music can protect me,
Transporting me into a dream world, where lyrics become reality.
And then there's "You Are the Song in My Heart" ("Li Shi Wa Xim Lai E Ji Shiu Gua"), the album's most overt look into the past, evoking through its faux-vintage lyrics and music video the innocent world of young lovers. Selina from the pop trio S.H.E. makes an appearance in a made-for-karaoke duet that swings with the good humor of old-timey romance. Everyone's making a big deal of the fact that the song is Wang's first stab at singing in Taiwanese (though he only does so on a couple of lines), but what's more significant is that the song and the video nostalgically channel Taiwanese pop culture from the 1960s and 70s. He doesn't do so with the irony or sophistication of Taiwanese rock band Won Fu, but rather with a sincerity that's as hopelessly naïve as the music he's paying tribute to.
The song works beautifully in the context of the album, following "Our Song," as if to say that "our song" for the displaced second-generation immigrant Chinese is the common music of their parents before they moved to the U.S., Britain, or elsewhere. From there, the album takes us on a tour of the other genres and subgenres he's passed through, a musical look back at a shared cultural history: a community's musical roots, if you will.
In that way, Change Me manages to subtly be more musically provocative than the more audacious Shangri-La and Heroes of Earth. Those albums self-consciously infuse hip-hop with the music of Chinese minority peoples and classical kunqu opera traditions, but the Chinese-ness invoked on those albums remains abstract and symbolic. They reflect Wang's cerebral theorization of musical hybridity, and the result is often more interesting than it is enjoyable.
The big change on Change Me is that Wang has redefined Chinese-ness as a musical journey rather than as a conceptual musical symbol. How are Shangri-La and Heroes of Earth to symbolize the cultural hybridity of the global Chinese, when most of his young listeners he's trying to represent are oblivious to aboriginal music or The Peony Pavilion? On the other hand, Change Me grounds "chinked-out" in an experienced reality. What's radical about Change Me is that it doesn't find "home" in a somewhat obvious "center" of Chinese culture like Chinese opera or native music, but in the heterogeneous experiences of Chinese people around the world. Indeed, for Wang Leehom, "home" is surely Taiwan and the U.S., but it's also in love stories past and present, in the joy of favorite old genres, and in a club in London -- in fact, anywhere on earth in which his roots can be planted.
Date Posted: 9/7/2007