Sing My Song 中国好歌曲 and What It Means for the Chinese Indie Music Industry

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.

Season 1:

莫西子诗 - 要死就一定死在你手里

王矜霖 - 她妈妈不喜欢我 

周三 - 一个歌手的情书

凌凯 - 一个人

谢帝 - 明天不上班

乌拉多恩 - 鸟人

Season 2:

苏运营 - 野子

邓紫檀 - 出离

那吾克热·玉素浦江 - 漂 

苏紫旭 - 没有你

潘高峰 - 节奏·爱

许钧 - 自己

裸儿 - 会飞的野马

简迷离- 怪兽不跳舞

荷尔蒙乐队 - 船

Watch the full episodes on Youtube: Season 1, Season 2.

38 thoughts on “Sing My Song 中国好歌曲 and What It Means for the Chinese Indie Music Industry

  1. Oh my, I think I’m addicted! Just spent a couple hours listening to the songs from this show when I should’ve been studying! This is bad…. lol

    Anyways, I really like the concept of the show. Glad to see that the indie scene is getting some love and am very appreciative of all the diverse acts. I remember a couple years ago how difficult it was to find information on indie groups. Finding information is a little bit better now thanks to increased recognition, but I always worry about the mainstream factor that may come with this recogition when it comes to indie groups (the irony).

    Also, completely off-topic, but I went to the tumblr link for the lyrics to 野子 (which I absolutely loved!), found a translation of Carrchy’s new song & almost fell out of my chair out of excitement! They’re one of my favorite duos! I quite adored their debut album & always wondered what happened to them.

    • 2015 will go down in history for the year Carrchy came back from the dead (sob) and ABSOLUTELY KILLED IT WITH THAT NEW SONG. I heard they’re recording a new album, so we might get more this year!

  2. 1. Love the girl in the first video – she’s ridiculously awesome… such control and technique! I wonder if anyone has the English translation for the lyrics of her song?
    2. You’ve just opened a window into the Chinese indie scene for me with this article, which is super cool. Thank you!

  3. This is such a wonderful post! I’m really happy you did it since I haven’t been able to follow this show at all but heard great things about it. I’ll have to go through the song list.

    I think there’s a trend for indie going pop in general in the past couple of years, partly because of the lack of good pop. Like the 2013 Super Boys was super indie compared to previous ones, with both of the hit songs from there from indie artists (Miss Dong. and Xiaoqiang’s song), and the unconventional Hua Chenyu.

  4. Can’t believe they pulled in Hanggai for an appearance! At Split Works ( we’ve worked with Hanggai on a number of shows at MAO Livehouse and several festivals. There is a whole alternative folk scene to be discovered here in China, with other acts including Ajinai (阿基耐), Suyang (苏阳) and of course Yunggiema (央吉玛) who was actually a runner-up on The Voice of China, as you probably know. I’m surprised to see a tv talent show give the scene some love. But I’m skeptical, is this really about helping give independent music in China a bump, or just a gimmick to draw a curious audience that’s fatigued by the repetitiveness of other talent show offerings? I’m going to spin something off on this and post to – will link through to this!

    • omg thank you for reading! I’ve followed china music radar for some time now. Perhaps the intentions of the producers is my personal speculation, but in any case, I think the effect, intended or not, is positive for the scene. Though even this show didn’t escape scandals about so and so and their powerful background… S1’s winner got alot of flak for that. Just for propping up 莫西子诗 alone (LOVE HIM) I think the show deserves some credit.

      • Thank you so much for this post! The songs and artists are so amazing, and I’m definitely digging the diversity (and here’s to more diversity in the future!). May I ask what happened with S1’s winner to get flak?

        • ahh I’m glad people are digging the diversity :’)
          Re S1’s winner, some people thought it was unfair as his mom 仲小萍 and dad 火风 were famous singers, so they think that he has a strong industry backing, and he really does not need this platform to get resources for his career. Also, some people think he won over the really popular runner up because his song was more “Chinese” 中国风, in the sense that it used traditional instruments and had a folk based melody line, with very poetic lyrics. Some said his song wasn’t the best, but best fit what the show wanted aka “chinese” music, and hence this revealed the inherent bias in the show’s production team, in that the “best music” must be the “most Chinese”, which then begs the question of “what is Chinese”. Lol.

          • Ah I see. I looked him up, and I really liked his song and voice. Love the runner up (knew of him beforehand)- Ap Jie Lop is so beautiful. It’ll be really interesting to see who/what kind of styles will be in the top this year. Just from a cursory listen to the top places from last year, it seems like a good mix of styles? I think “Chinese music” can encompass all styles. :)

  5. This is such an insightful piece. I know very little about the indie/underground music scene in China, so thanks for posting this! :)

  6. Thank you so much for writing about this show. It was in retrospect my favorite music reality show last year, and I wanted to write about it but didn’t have the time. I didn’t know it was running again this year.

    This show is evidence of how much creativity, diversity, and passion are poured out in the Chinese music industry, despite a rather homogenous market on the surface populated by over-packaged pop over the last decades, and it’s encouraging that the mainstream market are recognizing these unique voices.

    • I know!! I think it means so much that prime-time tv is recognizing them, and doing it in the right way. Pop has stagnated since the 90s, I think it’s about time to open up the market to new voices.

  7. I really love the first song and thanks for sharing this your faves. Definitely gonna go listen them :D

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