I get goosebumps every single time. I’ll bet my all she’s going to win Season 2. Also, the ladies are totally owning Season 2, which is so great.
As people go wild over this season’s I Am A Singer and sob over Han Hong, the second season of the lesser known Sing My Song (or Song of China) just hit the halfway mark. I think this is a show that’s even more important than it realizes, for the platform it provides for underground musicians and even more so, the culture of appreciation for diversity, creativity and individuality that opens up the indie music scene to viewers.
Produced by the same team behind the wildly successful Voice of China, Sing has very much the same setup as its predecessor:
- Four judges – Tanya Chua, Liu Huan, Wakin Chau (Zhou Hua Jian), Yang Kun (S1) and the duo of Yu Quan (S2)
- First round – blind audition, with judges fighting to get competitors to join their teams and make it to their final “compilation albums”, that each have a different chosen theme
- Second round – judges work with contestants to produce and improve on their songs in preparation of final recording.
Yet the difference in spirit between the two shows cannot be more stark – Voice celebrates vocal talent and stage presence, while Sing celebrates music and creativity. To put it this way, I’d say that Voice was the production team’s way to make a mark and bring in the cash, while Sing would be their love letter to music and a gift to the independent music industry. I’m saying this from the standpoint of a music fan who sincerely wants the scene to flourish, so perhaps I’m biased, but I want to think that optimism is justified in this moment.
Before anything else, from the selection of the judges, one can tell the direction this show is heading for. You pick four introverts, with Liu Huan, Yang Kun and Tanya who are all first and foremost musicians and songwriters, and their love for the music is evident in how they react to what they’re presented with. I really appreciate that the show isn’t all about sad life stories as much as it is about the motivation and inspiration behind songwriting. And they actually talk about the technicalities of the writing, which makes me a happy camper. I’m not the biggest fan of Wakin Chau as a judge, just because he seems the least knowledgeable about music, but I respect the work he did helping the finalists (some great arrangements there). Most of all though, I love that the judges are genuinely encouraging rather than showy. There’s just an entire stripped-down feel about the whole show’s setup.
Secondly, the sheer diversity of the music that comes on the show is unparalleled, I dare say. Not only is there pop and rock, but there’s blues, hiphop, funk, folk and all sorts of experimental, uncategorizable songs. In the first season, a hardcore rap song in dialect(!) made it to the finals, which really says something about the power of good music, no matter how unrepresented that genre is in the mainstream. (Chinese hiphop, in the grand scheme of things, is basically non-existent.)
There’s still a long way to go though. I think it says something when even the judges aren’t familiar with some obscure (but not that obscure) music styles. It’s funny how you can tell when the music that comes on is something the judges aren’t familiar with, they all looked confused. One thing I was a little disappointed with was when the judges struggled so hard to wrap their minds around some really brilliant (IMO) albeit experimental music. For example, in Season 1, one really huge miss was with contestant 杨众国, who played a song constructed from soundscapes he made using the most random objects, but produced a piece of music that resonated with life and magic. I was surprised that the judges had never seen the technique of using an electronic effects board to loop and layer sounds.
Nevertheless, the contestants and their sincerity make up the heart and soul of the show. I cried so much for all the veteran musicians and legendary indie bands in the industry coming out onto this stage in search of a new beginning for their music career. This season, we had Hanggai, one of the most respected Mongolian folk bands in China and around the world. We had Zhao Muyang, legendary drummer of so many of the pioneering rock bands in China in the 80s and 90s, who disappeared from the scene in the 2000s after seeing one band disintegrate after another. His return was on the show brought Liu Huan to tears, and saw Yu Quan kowtowing to their long revered mentor. As much as I was moved by his persistence in pursuing music, it’s also hard not to be disheartened by what his experience says about independent music in China.
The success of the show, however, does bring hope. Britain’s ITV has picked it up for adaptation over there. In Season 2, the quality of contestants is significantly higher, with more indie musicians coming forth, showing how much Season 1 has moved more to come out of the shadows. I’m a huge believer in the importance of infrastructure and platform for musicians. I think that bands may cling on to their underground identities to validate their value and authenticity, but ultimately what drives people who make music is the desire to share that with listeners. And to do that, you’ve got to have the right platform for people to hear you. Ultimately, artists have to move out of the boundaries that they’ve drawn for themselves, that circle them within the initially liberating yet eventually restricting category of “independent” or “underground”. To do so requires talent, luck and a lot of courage. What Sing provides for these artists, I think, is the proof that there are people out there who care, and who want to listen, and that it is completely alright to come out and show that. That going on a reality tv show is not a selling out of one’s artistic authenticity.
In this age of Xiami (a sort of Spotify and Itunes digital music hybrid), which is revolutionizing independent music in China on its own, I think Sing My Song will mark an important turning point in the direction of the independent music scene in China.
Lest I ramble further, these are my personal favorites from the show.