Art is empty without context. The meaning in every piece of art is derived not from the piece in a vacuum, but in the living conversation between the piece itself and the world it was born into.
It’s tempting to dismiss an artist or a genre based on partial information, in part because it’s easier to do so than to take the time to truly understand it. Cultures have always borrowed from one another, only to transform what they borrowed into something uniquely theirs.
In the mid-19th Century, for example, millions of Brazil’s African slaves officially converted to Catholicism, though for most of them “conversion” involved merely renaming their traditional Yoruba gods using those of Christian saints. Around the same time, America was transforming pizza into something that its Greek and Italian inventors would have neither recognized nor approved of. And a few decades later, Chinese restaurants in the United States started offering customers little folded sugar cookies with messages inside, a tradition originating not in China, but in Kyoto, Japan!
I’m a reliable authority on the Japanese origin of fortune cookies, because for the last three years, I’ve been touring China, drumming for the Asian pop star Leehom Wang. No fortune cookies anywhere! But in China, other examples of borrowed culture abound, much of it from my own country. Starbucks, NBA basketball stars on billboards, 7-Eleven stores – they’re everywhere, giving Americans the disconcerting feeling that they haven’t completely left home.
But the longer Westerners stay in China, that homey feeling fades. Soon you discover that, rather than diluting Asian culture, all those cultural borrowings are simply new ways for Chinese people to be Chinese.Thus, Starbucks in China sells moon cakes and mountains of tea. Thus, Shaquille O’Neal is on Shanghai billboards because China’s biggest celebrity, Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets’, has made basketball China’s newest national sport. Thus, China’s six thousand 7-Eleven convenience stores are all stocked with rice liquor and shredded seaweed snacks, and none sell America’s favorite 7-Eleven treat – the Slurpee.
But of all of the ways that China has retooled Western culture, one of the oldest and most successful is Mando-Pop (short for Mandarin pop), China’s mainstream popular music. Leehom Wang is one of China’s biggest Mando-Pop performers (he packs stadiums). Like all Mando-Pop stars, Leehom blends a variety of Western-style popular music with Mandarin lyrics. The result is a style that, to uneducated Western ears, sounds like a hackneyed version of Western pop. Ask an American music critic about Mando-Pop and she’ll probably complain that it’s derivative, outdated, incoherent, overly sentimental, and melodramatic. And from the Western perspective she may be right. Why? Well, in Mando-Pop, the 80’s sentimental power ballad is still king, complete with soaring guitar solos and a big key change for the final chorus. In addition to the ubiquitous ballad (every Mando-Pop release has at least a couple), Mando-Pop albums may contain three or four other musical genres, from jazz, to hip hop, to punk-pop, to bubblegum. And concerts by Mando-Pop artists are epic, three-hour, 60,000 person sing-alongs, with lyrics continuously dancing across Jumbotron screens.
Performances are also technological feats, featuring highly choreographed pyrotechnics, multiple costume changes, dancers, acrobats, magic, and a backing band of eight or more musicians.
But American hipsters who disapprove of Mando-Pop because it doesn’t conform to their Western definition of “good” are missing the point. Because while it borrows from Western musical styles, Mando-Pop was born and raised in China, and is therefore a uniquely Chinese musical tradition. As such, Mando-Pop reflects China’s own culture no less than American pop reflects American culture.
None of this was obvious to me when I began working with Leehom years ago. Understanding Mando-Pop required traveling to China and experiencing that culture first-hand. More specifically, it required a long night in a Shanghai karaoke bar with some close Chinese friends.
Confucius Sings Karaoke
Karaoke, the form of entertainment in which participants sing along with hits of the past, was born in Japan in the 1970’s. Today, karaoke is popular the world over, and, as I discovered one long night in Shanghai, every culture approaches the entertainment differently.
When Americans sing karaoke in a bar, we do so with our tongue firmly in our cheek. To us, karaoke is kind of a joke, so when we get up to the mic we may try our best, but afterwards, we expect to have a good laugh at ourselves.
Yet at that Shanghai karaoke bar, I noticed that karaoke is taken far more seriously. It’s still entertainment, but participants tend to be a lot more earnest. And when someone does a good job and really puts their heart into singing, their friends respond with a reverent round of applause.
I thought it was strange that our cultures approached karaoke so differently, so I asked my Chinese friends, Lisa and Ying Ying, why they thought this was. Their answer was interesting, delving deep into China’s past. In order to understand Asia’s approach to karaoke, they explained, I first had to know something about the Confucian philosophical underpinnings of Asian culture. Whoa.
Confucius (5th Century B.C.) was a Chinese philosopher whose teachings have shaped modern Asian societies more than any other tradition – secular or religious. Among other things, Confucius taught that the individual person is far less important than the group as a whole, and therefore, the concerns of the individual are less important than the concerns of the group. My friends explained that these teachings have helped create a mindset throughout Asia in which individuals tend not to express themselves very openly, even with their families. Revealing one’s emotions, whether positive or negative, is considered a selfish indulgence, and as such it is frowned upon.
Within a Confucian society, Karaoke is a rare, culturally accepted outlet to express oneself. In the security of a group, it’s ok to express your craziest feelings in the form of a popular song. And even though the song isn’t your own, your performance and emotions are taken seriously. Why? Because from the Confucian perspective, that famous song belongs to the group, not solely to the songwriter who originally conceived it. By virtue of becoming popular, the song has become part of the group’s common experience and is therefore believed to reflect every individual’s feelings in some legitimate way.
This explanation was a revelation, helping me to understand not only Asia’s more earnest take on karaoke, but also to understand Mando-Pop itself – its overt sentimentality, and the extreme collective experience of its live performances. I reflected on why we in the West don’t have the very same expectations of our pop stars. I went deep and considered my own culture’s philosophical underpinnings.
Adam Smith Sings Karaoke
In contrast to the East’s Confucian emphasis on the group, the West, particularly America, is obsessed with the individual. The autonomous individual, who turns brilliant ideas into valuable things, is the building block of Adam Smith’s 18th Century vision of the free market that so defines who we are as a culture – Capitalists!
The economic theory of Capitalism has significantly shaped Western beliefs and attitudes, not only about financial matters, but about practically everything, including art. In the West, the individual is supreme, not the group. So it is that recording artists who write their own songs get far more respect than ones who don’t. If you want to be taken seriously as a Western musician, your song must come from your own heart, not from the heart of some ghostwriter behind the scenes. Nor should your music sound like another artist’s. Bands who are believed to borrow too heavily from others are quickly labeled “derivative” and torn apart by hipsters.
In a world in which copycats get no respect, there’s no way that karaoke can be taken seriously. Which is why when we sing karaoke, no matter of how much we may or may not identify with the song we’re performing, no matter how hard we try to sing well, we chuckle, lest others think we’re taking ourselves too seriously.
Art, Culture, Conversation
Art is empty without context. The meaning in every piece of music is derived not from the song in a vacuum, but in the living conversation between the song itself and the world it was born into.
It’s tempting to dismiss an artist or a genre based on partial information, in part because it’s easier to do so than to take the time to truly understand it. But the reward for making the effort to evaluate unfamiliar art in its full cultural context is a deeper appreciation for your own culture and the art it produces.