Book Review: Eva Tsai, Tung-hung Ho and Miaoju Jian (eds), Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music by Hyunjoon Shin

JOURNAL OF WORLD POPULAR MUSIC, VOL 7, NO 1 (2020)

Reviewed by: Hyunjoon Shin, Sungkonghoe University, Korea

hyunjoon.shin@skhu.ac.kr

The original link is at https://journals.equinoxpub.com/JWPM/issue/current 

Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music-文化評論| 誠品網路書店

Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music is part of the now well-established Routledge Global Popular Music series. Like its predecessors, it is a multi-authored volume: the fourteenth in total, and the third among popular music in Asia after Made in Japan (Mitsui 2014) and Made in Korea (Shin and Lee 2017). Its three editors, all based in the Taiwanese academy, have actively joined international conferences, especially those of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) and Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies (IAPMS). The book represents an effort by these editors to gather authors from a range of disciplinary specializations, admirably including some who have hitherto published primarily in Chinese, and is thus a product of painstaking collaborative work rather than just a collection of essays.

As a non-Taiwanese East Asian, I had assumed that popular songs made in Taiwan, along with those made in Hong Kong, were “Chinese pop music”. While the latter used Cantonese, a regional variant of Chinese, popular songs from Taiwan used Mandarin, the standard Chinese, which I (mis)perceived as “authentic” Chinese popular songs. Especially, I was aware of numerous songs sung by Deng Lijun (aka Teresa Teng), a “persistent figure of the Asian diva” (Weintraub and Barendregt 2017: 2), which had crossed national borders and not only symbolized but also defined what Chinese pop music had been. Yet it did not take me long to realize that such a set of assumptions was far from correct. Then I underwent a confused process of understanding the identity of Taiwan. It is a complex riddle. According to my memo before writing this review, Taiwan is adorable, unique, multilingual, complicated, troubled and cool at the same time. Is such a combination possible? The answer is yes, because Taiwan is currently “a state without nation” (73) according to one of the authors/editors. Taiwan is a multi-layered cultural formation that does not allow easy understanding. Compare this to the stance of Marc Moskowitz whose pioneering monograph on Taiwanese pop music presents it within a wider frame as a “Chinese pop music”, as shown in his book title (Moskowitz 2010).

Thus, it is hard work to define, delineate and clarify “Taiwanese popular music” in a focused and simple way. Even in a volume that is beautifully and consistently edited, different authors use different wordings at different places: “Taiwanese popular music”, “Taiwan popular music”, “popular music in Taiwan” and “Taiwanese language (Taiyu) popular music”. Rather than indicating a shortcoming, the nuances stemming from those contrasting wordings deserve close attention. While popular music made in Japan is predominantly sung in Japanese and popular music from Korea in Korean language, popular music made in Taiwan is not so simply delineated. Indeed, Taiwanese popular music or popular music made in Taiwan offers a more intriguing case than any in the region or beyond.

The co-editors of the volume tackle this complex point in their co-written introduction, which is followed by a tracing of three different trajectories of popular music in Taiwan. Chapter 1 is not only the most comprehensive and authoritative but also original and controversial. Here, Tung-Hong Ho’s conceptualization of “nativism” is original enough to deconstruct the misconception that Taiwanese popular music is all about Mandarin pop ballads. As someone who has used the term alter-nativism elsewhere (Ho, Cheng and Luo 2015), his desire would not be so different from the desire of popular music artists, industry workers and cultural intermediaries in Taiwan: achieving both native and alternative (as also reprised in the Afterword in the form of a fascinating interview with Lim Giong).

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Mandarin popular music and on aboriginal popular music respectively. To those who only have had basic knowledge about popular music in the early Cold War period, these two chapters on the extreme poles of Taiwanese popular music are both surprising and intriguing. If spatial relocation is the key process in the former, temporal reinvention is dominant in the latter.

Tracing the trajectories does not stop discussion on identities, as is shown by four chapters in Part II: “Identities”. Contrary to my expectation that the part will deal with the identities associated with social identities such as gender, class or generation, the focus is still centred around “Taiwanese identities”, whether national or ethnic. Chapters 4 and 7 (by C. S. Stone Shih and Andrew Jones, respectively) analyse the identities of subaltern Taiwanese from case studies on specific artists and their products: Hsu Shih, a vanguard composer of Taiyu ballads in the 1960s, and the prominent Hakka folk rock band Labor Exchange Band in the 1990–2000s respectively. Both chapters show that modern popular music never does away with traditions and roots, no matter how much they are transformed, refracted and even distorted. I perceive the different writing styles of the two authors as relating to the contrasting temporalities and spatialities that each interrogates.

Chapters 5 and 6 (by Yu-Yuan Huang and Meng Tze Chu, respectively) tackle the enduring power of the cultural hegemons, Japan and America, respectively. The practices of “covering” Japanese popular music and Anglo-American popular music are assessed by paying attention to specific actors and social conditions. Avoiding abstract theories, each chapter has the strong merit of providing thick and factual description based on rich data. Some readers will be discontent with the rather uncritical and positive usage of the concept of “hybridization” in the former and the ambiguous or ambivalent evaluation of the concept of “Americanization” in the latter. To my belief, however, they contribute to advancing further discussion on the subjects.

Part III: “Issues” consists of essays on contemporary genres written by scholars who are well-versed in cultural studies: rock (Chapter 8, Chi-Chung Wang), EDM (Chapter 9, Eva Tsai) and hip-hop (Chapter 10, Hao-Li Lin). These cases as well as studies on them have the flavour of so-called globalization which has been believed to make everything unstable, mobile and disarticulated. Rather than providing a general description of the music genres and styles, each author takes his or her own specific focus and expands from it toward the bigger picture. By doing that, unexpected encounters are highlighted: the legacy of Confucianist ethic in amateur rock (sub)culture, inter-Asia (Taiwan-Thailand) connections in electronic dance pop, and intelligent and non-misogynic hip-hop masculinity. All of these case studies are based on detailed ethnographies that challenge any easy generalization on the subjects concerned.

The remaining four chapters in Part IV: “Interactions and the Coda” wrestle with complex contexts that sometimes go beyond the local scale: the export of popular music associated with the state agenda (Chapter 11, Yu-Peng Lin and Hui-Ju Tsai), audience reception of the artist Jay Chou and his style (Chapter 12, Chen-Yu Lin), the myth of the border-crossing appeal of the national diva Teresa Teng (Chapter 13, Chen-Ching Cheng) and international or translocal networking of indie music on a regional scale (Chapter 14, Miaoju Jian). All these subjects and themes are too recent, pending and ongoing to be critically evaluated by this reviewer; yet, what is certain is that the authors bravely put maximal efforts into raising relevant questions. There is no doubt that these subjects will be heatedly debated in the future.

What I found unexpected here is a lack of specific chapters providing general description of conventional subjects and topics: the recording industry, broadcasting media, live music venues, digital-mobile platforms and so on. I am one of those who badly needs them! In East Asia, basic knowledge which may be taken for granted in one country can be totally alien in another, and there can be significant gaps in coverage in research in English as compared to that in the national language of each nation, leaving outsiders struggling to contextualize the more detailed content. The editors may have thought that such introductory description is not their job, or were perhaps afraid that such content could make their volume rather plain and banal. I nevertheless hope that they will consider providing such coverage somewhere else, if one edited volume cannot deal with everything.

Another unexpected detail is that some generic vocabularies are not precisely defined and their usages are not necessarily consistent throughout the volume. One example is the usage of the categories of “song”, “ballad” and “tune”. I am still not sure whether these three are sharply differentiated or largely interchangeable. If the former is the case, it would have been better to write down the Romanized term for each of them. In that sense, it would also have been helpful for the editors to trace or analyse the principles, rules and customs of genre division in Taiwan, which are hinted at in the beautiful mapping out of topics given in the volume’s Fig. 0.1 (14).

A last unexpected point is that some artists do not receive their rightful places in the volume. I will pick up only two artists, Luo Dayou (aka Lo Tayu, b. 1954) and Chen Qizhen (aka Cheer Chen, b. 1975). These two singer-songwriters redefined Mandarin popular music made in Taiwan during the 1980s and the 2000s respectively, and have achieved the status of cultural icons. If I may use the jargon of fandom, Luo is the “Godfather” (jiaofu) and Chen the “Goddess” (nüshen). They also show that even once-independent artists can sell out either to industry or to nation. It is in this sense that Luo Dayou is compared to Bob Dylan according to Guy (2011: 192). Thus, they should have been under critical analysis rather than mentioned in passing.

In that sense, this book performs its own cultural politics. Rather than focusing on Taiwan as the production centre for Mandarin popular music, especially during the 1980–90s, it sheds more light on multiple undercurrents produced during and after that period. Thus, it offers a serious effort at preventing Taiwan from being absorbed into China. It is true that everything made in Taiwan cannot be reduced to that made in China. The exchanges between the island and the mainland, more exactly the “continent”, which have been and will be going on would be another job beyond the scope of this book.

During my fieldwork, I sensed that different genres of Taiwanese popular music were flowing out of Taiwan. A Taiwanese pop-rock band was on a “world tour” all over the planet, old Taiyu ballads played in a Shanghai taxi, and a young amateur singer in Hong Kong sang indie pop from Taiwan on the street. All in all, Taiwanese has become more than just an identity. It has become a brand that generates diverse style. It is made in Taiwan and flows to the world. I am sure that this will be the next subject of study by these authors and other researchers. Taiwanese popular music is neither overtly global nor merely local. Thus, the book makes its readers ask questions as to how far concepts like hybridization, glocalization and transculturation are standing the test of time.

All the points above never undermine any single part of Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music. It is a groundbreaking book and highly recommended for scholars and students interested in Taiwanese popular music, and in East Asian popular music broadly. Political scientist and Taiwan specialist Shelley Rigger posits Taiwan both as a small island and global powerhouse (Rigger 2013): there is no doubt that Taiwan matters, and understanding Taiwanese popular music is of significant help in grasping the complexities of popular music on this planet much more generally.

References

Guy, Nancy. 2011. “Review of Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations by Marc L. Moskowitz”. Perfect Beat 12(2): 191–93.

Ho, Tung-Hung, Hui-Hua Cheng and Yue-Quan Luo, eds. 2015. Zaoyin fantu [Altering Nativism: Sound Culture in Postwar Taiwan]. Taipei: Walkers Cultural Enterprise.

Mitsui, Toru, ed. 2014. Made in Japan: Studies in Popular Music. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203384121

Moskowitz, Marc L. 2010. Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. https://doi.org/10.21313/hawaii/9780824833695.001.0001

Rigger, Shelley. 2013. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield.

Shin, Hyunjoon, and Seung-Ah Lee, eds. 2017. Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315761626

Weintraub, Andrew N., and Bart Barendregt. 2017. “Re-Vamping Asia: Women, Music, and Modernity in Comparative Perspective”. In Vamping the Stage: Female Voices of Asian Modernities, edited by Andrew N. Weintraub and Bart Barendregt, 1–39. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvvmxv2.3

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