n this series, clicks’n’cuts dilettante Francis Henville describes his descent into the netherworld of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean commercial pop. Track by track, he navigates deeper into the genre, searching for ever-more-toothsome morsels with which to satiate his jaded appetite…
Ai De Tian Shi
Today I’ll divert from Japan to drop this ballad from Taiwan’s starlet Jolin Tsai. She’s accompanied here by Andy On, who seems to be a Hong Kong-based singer/actor, but I don’t know too much about him. Jolin, on the other hand, I do know about. She signed a contract with Universal Records when she was 19, and is somewhat different from other Taiwanese pop stars in that she hasn’t tried to parlay her singing career into an acting career (or the other way around).
I’m not going to go into too much semantic detail here, but if you’ve listened to any of the other tracks in this series, you’ll probably be able to hear the timbral differences between Japanese and Mandarin Chinese quite easily. This is most apparent in the two lines before the chorus: the vocalists sing “Er she se shou shr”—a combination of syllables you’d never find in a Japanese song.
Overall, I’m forced to ask myself if I would really like this song if it was sung by a cultural aberration like Jewel or Enrique Iglesias. I think I would, but without any proof, it will have to remain a theoretical criticism. Anyway, although Andy manages to turn in quite a capable performance, Jolin steals the show.
The song begins with slow non-threatening percussion, a piano, nylon guitars and a simple string arrangement. Most of the transitions between verses and choruses are carried out by cymbal rolls. And after the first verse, another unexciting drum kit performance is dutifully pulled off. But from the moment Andy begins the song, I’m sucked right in. I can’t tell exactly whether there’s true emotion behind the lyrics, or if I’m just a sentimental fuck who goes to pieces easily: probably a bit of both. But by the time we hit the chorus, I’m already clenching my fists and trying to keep back the tears.
Why is that? Jolin’s voice is one reason. She seems to sing unnaturally close to the mic, giving her voice a whispered, conspiratorial quality. It might be going too far to compare her voice to Bjork’s, but I hear similarities: shades of vulnerability and unrestrained joy in both. Jolin can do things with her voice that I’m sure I’d hate if I heard other people try to pull them off—especially those scatted obbligato phrases that plague groups like N*SYNC.
Another reason is the voicing of the orchestration. There’s no focus on electric bass, at least not in the conventional sense. Rather, the guitars and strings set up moving bass patterns that underpin the chord changes. This is crucially important, when coupled with expressive dynamics, in giving the tune its rising quality. I’m sure that some people who hear this track for the first time are going to hear something that sounds like a Disney soundtrack. But I urge you to pay close attention to how the orchestration allows—almost forces—the vocals to swell and emote.
So it’s no leap to posit that this is the make-or-break track in this series. If you can’t learn to love this one, I’ll understand. It’s probably the post-chorus turnaround that will turn you off. But if the sweetness of this track doesn’t give you diabetes, it’ll end up making you hungry for more.
By: Francis Henville
Published on: 2004-08-05