Culture Vulture

So long Jay Chou, thanks for all the songs

The romance of Jay Chou, when he came to prominence in the 2000s with his albums Jay and Fantasy, was that he was a no-hoper - a mumbling music geek hired as a composer by entertainer Jacky Wu, who had not seen him as star material - becoming an unli
The romance of Jay Chou, when he came to prominence in the 2000s with his albums Jay and Fantasy, was that he was a no-hoper - a mumbling music geek hired as a composer by entertainer Jacky Wu, who had not seen him as star material - becoming an unlikely pop idol just on the strength of his songs. -- ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

I am moving on, after following the Taiwanese singer for more than 10 years

We had broken up for a while, but we hadn't made it known to everyone.

It emerged only when we - a few friends and I - asked our past and present colleagues to our Christmas party on Dec 27, and they had to decline because they had a date with Taiwanese pop king Jay Chou at the National Stadium.

Right. The concert had completely fallen off our radar because we have stopped following Jay, our former spiritual fiance. We don't know all his latest songs. We don't own his most recent album. We have stopped caring. (We are aware of his plans to marry some model - a much younger woman - but, no, it doesn't bother us at all.)

All break-ups are personal, so I can't speak for the others. For myself, what I can tell you is that through more than 10 years, I had become increasingly disappointed in the singer-songwriter, who had grown from the boy wonder of Mandopop into a businessman, as innovation slid into repetition and commercial calculation.

Maybe the signs had been there near the start but I, in the first flush of adoration, didn't see them.

The romance of Chou, when he came to prominence in the 2000s with his albums Jay and Fantasy, was that he was a no-hoper - a mumbling music geek hired as a composer by entertainer Jacky Wu, who had not seen him as star material - becoming an unlikely pop idol just on the strength of his songs.

He stood out then, among pop heartthrobs such as Taiwan's F4 and South Korea's Rain, who were propelled to regional fame by television shows. As a fan of pop group F4's show Meteor Garden, I played their albums out of a sense of loyalty. But my ears would hurt after an hour and I would have to listen to real music - Chou's.

Jay, his debut album in 2000, was the calling card of a new voice of Taiwanese R&B. It had smooth layered songs such as Adorable Lady and Tornado, and the spare, piercing ballad, Black Humour, the first Jay Chou song I loved. I didn't have an MP3 player yet, and was still listening to radio - and breaking into a run to my brothers' bedroom, where the radio was, whenever Black Humour began playing.

Fantasy, Chou's landmark album in 2001, was a dazzling sampler of musical styles and soundscapes as diverse as Silence, a piano break-up ballad; Nunchucks, an action movie compressed into a bone-rattling rap number; Love BC, a sensual hip-hop song with tongue-tripping historical references ("Babylonian king", "Code of Hammurabi", "Mesopotamian plain") that draws foolhardy karaoke singers like moths to a flame.

Thinking back, Fantasy might have been too successful. It sold a reported 450,000 copies in Taiwan, where a typical hit album then sold 300,000 copies, and a reported 1.7 million copies in Asia. Chou was spoken of as a new Heavenly King.

Since then, he has been making more or less the same album over and over. The subsequent records, released almost every year, have often been as regular and as reliable as software upgrades.

You like his martial arts rap songs? Try Dragon Fist (on 2002's The Eight Dimensions), Double Blade (2003's Yeh Hui-mei) or Huo Yuanjia, his Peking opera-flavoured number for the 2006 Jet Li film Fearless.

You like his undulating piano ballads? Try Say Goodbye (on 2010's The Era), which sounds like a predictable version of The Promised Love (2008's Capricorn), which sounds like a wistful version of The Longest Movie (2007's On The Run).

In 2003, he whipped up Dance Of The East Wind, an R&B song featuring sweet Chinese stringed instruments and lyricist Vincent Fang's dense imagery. It was such a hit that, of course, the sequels soon followed: Hair Like Snow (on 2005's November's Chopin), Chrysanthemum Terrace (2006's Still Fantasy), Blue And White Porcelain (2007), Essay On The Orchid Pavilion (2008), and Fade Away (2010), most of them accompanied by music videos about tragic love in old China.

To be fair to Chou, the songs sound less alike than the videos look. One highlight is Chrysanthemum Terrace, his ballad for his 2006 film Curse Of The Golden Flower that has the splendour and sorrow to match the movie. Another is Fade Away, the most mature and moving of his historical Chinese songs.

So he was serving a similar something-for-everyone buffet every album, but there were improvements and also surprises: Faraway (2006), an evocative duet with singer Fei Yu-ching; and Cowboy On The Run (2007), an exuberant song distilled from westerns and cartoons.

Like someone in a long relationship, I was a little bored but committed. But he lost me when he released Exclamation Point, his 2011 album that was his most childish yet.

What I minded wasn't the kiddie songs such as Sailor Afraid Of Water, but his reason for releasing them. In interviews, he said the album was for the "kindergarten market", because he learnt that Cowboy On The Run was popular with young children. In other words, it was pure business.

The album wasn't Chou having an early midlife crisis or being in touch with his inner child, both possibilities I could have forgiven. Instead, it was him expanding the reach of his brand, at the risk of losing old fans - me.

I bought the album and played it once for my young nephew. He didn't respond to the cutesy tunes (he remains more of a Thomas The Tank Engine fan) and the record has since been gathering dust.

Still, I would say it was an amicable split. My friends and I will still be playing Jay Chou songs at our party. Just because he is our ex-idol doesn't mean we have to erase him from our lives. We are much more grown up than that.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg