The Changing Face of Cantopop
In recent years, Hong Kong music has become more diverse and adventurous than ever before. Mark Tjhung explores the reasons behind the evolving scene and profiles four of th emost influential faces who are shaping the future. Portraits by Calvin Sit
There’s a stigma over Cantopop: cheesy, formulaic, plastic and sappy. These are just some of the clichéd charges which are levelled against Hong Kong’s pop music industry on a regular basis and, for too long, the indictments on the city’s influential music staple have been all too justified. Derivative songwriting, digitally enhanced starlets who can’t sing but can attract an endorsement dollar, and the power clique of record execs, television stations and award ceremonies have all contributed to its tawdry reputation. But while the behind-the-scenes power stronghold remains very much the same, the musical condemnation of Cantopop is, in many ways, a little dated.
Today, Cantopop is changing. The plodding love ballad, which has very much been the archetype for the genre, no longer reigns as the sole dominant force, and Hong Kong mainstream music as a whole – a huge cultural export – has started to welcome a raft of ideas, genres and sound.
“We have pop, jazz, DJs, hip-hop. All of these are Hong Kong pop elements, and they crossover into the pop music world,” says Wong Chi-chung, renowned music critic, CR2 radio DJ, concert producer and curator as well as author of the 2007 book Hong Kong’s pop soundscape. “This is really the time that we should all get intertwined.”
This intertwining is already underway. There are, of course, the massive names: Eason Chan, Sammi Cheng and the like; but singer-songwriters, rock outfits, hip-hop artists, and jazz multi-instrumentalists are now more prevalent than they’ve ever been in Hong Kong music, as are Putonghua and English. And in just the past few years, through a conspiracy of factors, the industry has slowly transformed from the heights of the derided karaoke ballad culture to a more diverse, balanced and ambitious landscape than it’s arguably ever been in, providing an opportunity for music that hasn’t fit into the old Cantopop mould to play a more active part in the scene.
And in a way, Edison played a part…
THE DEATH OF A POP IDOL
Sex scandals may make good tabloid fodder, but they’re hardly what you’d think of as culture-shaping news. But when Edison’s compromising photos appeared on the internet in early 2008, it resulted in a mini-backlash against the entertainment industry and, perhaps subconsciously, changed the public’s attitude towards Hong Kong’s pop idols.
Let’s put it in perspective. At the time of the Edison Chen scandal, pop idol culture was at its peak. Acts like Twins were reaching their heights with their manufactured doll-like facades and robotic choreographed dances, looks – as opposed to talent – were the paramount indicator of star quality and, in pandering to the karaoke dollar, pop songs had been reduced to a ludicrous and all-too obvious formula (leading to Jan Lamb’s piss-taking mock-ballad Satire《流行曲 》).
“[The sex scandal] tore the fans’ dreams apart because they were thinking that pop idols were as pure as they projected and that really broke their hearts,” says Gary Chan, long time critic of the Hong Kong music industry and Associate Publisher of music magazine Re:spect. “[The fans] wanted to seek some alternative by that time. Because of that incident, there was no more fantasy and they tried to bring something new.”
It wasn’t as though Hongkongers completely rejected the notion of the exploited pin-up. Rather, people sought a better definition between their musical idols and their fantasy girls, something emphasised by the emergence of the lang mo. In one corner you had the brazen, super sexed-up pseudo-model; in the other, legitimate musicians.
“Before, the public tended to buy the image of Stephy [Tang] or Twins. But, after, the lang mo really took the attention of the public, rather than the girl idol. So, those girl idols don’t really have the market in Hong Kong,” says Chan. “The lang mo have really helped the scene to differentiate between the musician, singer-songwriters and others… Before, I think the concept was so mixed up.”
In a post-Edison world, more is expected from our musicians than ever. “If you’re just another teeny-bopper idol and you can dance well, it’s not enough now – even record companies know that,” says Wong.
The record companies, of course, are just following the demand. The change has principally come about because the audience now knows better.
THE ONLINE LIFELINE
To say the internet has changed the way we consume music is a tiresome cliché now. But it’s also true. And there are few factors that have broadened the breadth of music consumed by Hongkongers than the online world.
“Before, it was the karaoke charts, radio and TV. The public really limited their music taste and preference,” says Chan. “[Now] they know where to find songs. They are not really bound by the mass media.”
The consequences of the tech-age are two-fold. The first affects the audience. “When they get access to the digital culture, they know this guy
can sing, that guy can’t sing, that other guy can play instruments,” says Wong. “Music culture is all about the empowerment of the audience… So, the fans are not just mediocre like they were before and the level of critical audience [is rising].”
In addition, musicians have begun absorbing influences from a far wider pool and a broader musical palette, which inevitably filters down to the breadth of styles and genres being produced in Hong Kong.
The upshot is straightforward: Hongkongers are now exposed to more music than they have ever been and, in an environment where the closed mass-market has dominated for so long, are driving demand for a different breed of artist.
The internet has also provided record companies with a few headaches. Pirates, single-song downloads, the increasing irrelevancy of the album and dwindling CD sales have seen the music industry as a whole be forced to adapt to the digital era.
Globally, artists have increasingly taken to the stage to ensure a decent pay packet. It’s a clear trend – live gigs are where the money’s at – and it applies equally, if not more so, in the Hong Kong market, where putting musicians on stage has required a rethink of the attributes of a star.
“The audience wants to spend their money on live shows, rather than CDs, so they request the singer to have presence on stage, and good performance and singing,” says Chan.
The star of the new age requires some decent musical chops and, as Chan points out, certain types of musicians are more suited to these new bars being set. “I guess the record labels also tend to sign contracts with more singer-songwriters. They really know that live performances can attract more people, and more money,” he says. “Even singers don’t depend on their pretty faces anymore – they really need them to dance, have the grooves and sing well.”
In recent years, due to all these factors, the public has been looking for alternatives to the cookie-cutter world that was Cantopop. And increasingly, the pie has fractured into more varied and definable genres. “When the pop music market is swinging and diving, and the record companies and musicians are facing a crisis, they seek something new,” says Wong.
Singer-songwriters were the first ‘new’ wave of musicians to make an impact on the market, with the likes of Chet Lam, at17, Ivana Wong, Louis Cheung and Khalil Fong emerging. But from the singer-songwriter branch, things have grown. “We can find Canto hip-hop, Canto-electronica, we have jazzy people, like Bianca Wu, and we have indie stuff, like The Pancakes,” says Wong, naming just a few of the new directions of the industry.
“[The industry] is really chaotic at the moment, in an excellent way,” adds Chan. “It is a good turning point in Hong Kong music history.”
The scene is being pulled in all sorts of multifarious directions. And from pop and R&B to hip-hop, folk and rock, there are some artists that are changing the face of Cantopop and paving its way into a new era. We profiled four of the most influential, HOCC, Khalil Fong, MC Jin and RubberBand, who, in their own way, are bringing a new breadth and depth to Hong Kong mainstream music...