Note: This article was written in the Spring of 1998.
References to "nowadays" should be read with that in mind.
Among the things that I miss more than anything here is good music. Certainly, Chinese classical music is a treat for the ears, but just like Chinese food, there grows within you a need for the familiar taste of a burger, fries, and a Coke.
With that in mind, I offer you this Top-Ten countdown of English language songs in China, along with observations regarding the Chinese approach to music that I've found in Kunming.
(insert Casey Kasem voice here)
Rounding out the Top-Ten is the first of three acts that are popular here rather than a specific song. Our Number 10 artist on our Chinese hit parade is Madonna.
Madonna is as much an icon as a musical phenomenon in the USA. In China she is music. However, her music is limited to stores that either sell clothing or audio equipment. I commonly hear "Borderline" and "Material Girl."
The number 9 position on our countdown is held by the welcome sounds of saxophonist Kenny G. His easy-listening sounds are well embraced by the "soft rock" loving Chinese.
They have a Chinese MTV show here. The hostess is a cute young Chinese girl with strange clothes. I guess her fashion is very cutting edge here, but to my eyes, they just look weird. She's kind of a perky little girl. She doesn't exude sexuality like the Spanish speaking MTV V.J. Daisy Fuentes, but I'm sure that she's the dream-girl for young Chinese men.
The reason I bring up MTV here is that, although I haven't watched enough for a truly insightful understanding of their programming, from what I've seen, they limit the music videos to safe images, clean musicians, and gentle music. Kenny G fits this format very well.
In the number 8 position, we find the king of pop, himself; Michael Jackson.
I was a guest on a radio show recently in which listeners were invited to talk to a (former) American radio personality to talk about music. 75% of the callers had something to say about Michael Jackson. They don't know about his ranch in Santa Barbara or his alleged appreciation for "young people" beyond the charity work he does on behalf of the children of the world. I didn't feel it appropriate to tell them either.
The station management liked how I "worked the phones" and asked me back for another show. I'll be talking, this time, about Chinese medicine in the United States. Incidentally, this show is actually designed to help people who are learning English practice their listening skills. I've also heard on this station some bible thumping preacher shoutin' bout Jesus.
Back to the countdown...
Next, we leave the world of individual artists and enter into the realm of specific English language songs that most every Chinese person knows. These songs are among the few English songs that Karaoke bars have in their music selections, and hence, these are the songs I've been forced to listen to over and over.
Number seven is "All Out of Love" by Air Supply.
Now, some observations regarding Chinese Karaoke. The DJ's here seem to have no understanding of how to mix vocals and music. The reason I say that is because many of the singers have no mike technique. They sing WAY too loud for the mike. I don't fault them for that, they aren't professional singers. However, even when they're singing so loud as to cause pain to the ears of the others in the room, the mike volume isn't changed once during the night.
Having worked in more than my share of dance clubs where singers from the audience were allowed on stage to do their thing from time to time, it was common to have one finger on the mike volume to adjust it as is appropriate for the overall audio experience. I guess they just don't get that here. Not that I've seen, anyway. Fortunately, they do at least prefer music to silence, which brings us to Number six on our countdown.
Number six in Chinese popularity is Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence."
Ironic, as far as I'm concerned, since "silence" is a favorite response to things that the people don't like about the government here. Tienanmen Square is still a wound that cannot be discussed, but in private.
I met a famous author recently in a hospital. He was of Mao's generation. A revolutionary who has witnessed war after war. His three books all deal with military conflicts and they are autobiographical in nature. We talked a bit about war and what it was good for (Huh!). We talked briefly about how wars took place economically too.
Number Five on the Chinese countdown is a strange song to find on any countdown anywhere, but Auld Lang Syne is very popular here. They know that we traditionally sing it New Year's Eve in the states but still find it hard to believe that I don't actually know the words. In the Karaoke bars, the words that show up on the screen are Chinese characters, so again, I'm at a loss.
That doesn't stop me from making up my own words when I'm forced to sing this song, though. Much to the bewilderment of those in the room who do understand English. Here's some proof of how well Chinese know this song.
Toping out at Number Four on our countdown is "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music. It's a good song, and I'm happy that the Chinese have embraced it.
A moment to talk about Chinese radio. There are four stations in Kunming and they all use "block formatting." In other words, for one hour, they'll play one kind of music, then the next hour, its another show, and another kind of music.
There are some really good shows here. I've heard Western music on this station that is incredible, but I've haven't a clue as to who they are. On the other hand, there is a lot of music from Hong Kong and Taiwan that seeks to mimic the Western pop-rock sensibilities. To my ears, its like the ill-fated Pat Boone heavy metal album. Feels like they lack a rock and roll edge.
Once in a while, you hear something that is truly remarkable. In recent years, there has been a wave of female soloists in North America who have a general acoustic/folk edge to their sound. Its great music and I'm glad that its becoming popular in the Western world. Well for some reason, this sound translates very well into the Chinese sound, and there is someone who uses this style for her music. It rivals the best of this new breed of female soloists in the states. Sorry, I don't know her name, I can't understand the announcers here. I'm pretty sure that she's from Hong Kong.
On with our countdown.
Still climbing the charts, now up to Number Three is a song from my childhood, that I kind of wish had stayed there. "Feelings" by "Morris Albert."
Again, this being a popular English song at Karaoke bars, I've twice been asked to sing it. I just can't do it. We were making fun of this song a year after it came out in something like 1974. It hasn't exactly been embraced in the West as an oldie either. It got played too much way back when, and we're still sick of it.
Number Two is "Unchained Melody" as interpreted by the Righteous Brothers. Apparently, "Ghost" was a popular movie here, and this song rose to superstardum as a result.
Its interesting, no, not interesting, its silly, the images that I've seen in association with many of the English songs in Karaoke bars in China. There is absolutely no connection between the images on the screen and the words or even the intent of the song. All I've seen is a variety of really bad stock footage spliced together while singing English songs.
An old man reading a newspaper in front of a fish and chips restaurant, an anchor women reporting on something on the beach in what looks like Crete, jet skiers and women in bathing suits walking around in a forest. These are consecutive images mind you.
And that takes us to the number one song in China.
I've had a few friends from China in the USA and they all know this song. Apparently its been big for while.
"Yesterday Once More" by The Carpenters.
Great song and it retains its poignancy.
Okay, that's the current Chinese Top-Ten. Until next time, remember: keep one hand on your passport and keep the other reaching for that visa extension.