Thursday, October 27, 2005

Jay Chou and the American Cultural Imaginary

As most of you know, I watch a lot of MTV, also most of Jay Chou's CDs or other people's CDs for that matter come with some sort of bonus VCD with music videos on them. Needless to say I've been watching a lot of music videos, or as they seem to call them here, MVs.

One thing that sort of struck me about Jay Chou's music videos is that he frequently makes movie-like videos that seem to be about events or people that are central to the American cultural experience, such as the Vietnam War, or the mafia, or even American kungfu martial arts movies.

In 最後的戰役 's music video, it's especially weird to watch an Asian man seemingly participating in the Vietnam war, but what's even weirder is that the heros are both Asian. In some ways, it seems to reflect the difference of my own perspective and that of the people around me. To Jay Chou, it wouldn't really be weird because he's not Vietnamese and my guess is that he probably doesn't see the whole Pan-Asian unity thing that I see. At the same, while the music video does seem to fetishize Americans, particularly white and black men, they are really just a cosmetic or exotic feature of the video, the two heroes of the video are Jay himself (naturally) and another Asian guy.

While in 以父之名, there's just a flimsy flashback to show Jay as an Italian mafioso. Actually the plot of the whole thing makes me wonder whether the makers of Unleashed listen to a lot of Jay. It's just weird, there's a whole room full of white people and then there's some Chinese guy there with them, no explanation whatsoever. It's also interesting to me that Jay Chou chooses these very American cinematic subjects to base his music videos on. In some ways, it seems like he's placing himself in the American Cultural Imaginary (for lack of a less pompous word, sorry).

Recently Mr. Chou released a new music video for his new CD, which looks suspiciously like Hero, the film by Zhang Yimou, which opens a whole new can of worms, but that will have to wait for another time.

However, I do sort of wonder, why do academics study the films of 蔡明亮 who no one even watches when they could write papers on Jay Chou's music videos?


Laurel said...

Why? Because it's still not hip to be into pop culture, unfortunately.

Daniel said...

I think that pan-Asian unity is something that exists in the West. Many Taiwanese, I suspect, would be insulted to hear themselves grouped with the Vietnamese. Coincidentally, see my blog for today's experience of this.... :)

Anonymous said...

could the video be more like a poke poke jab jab at americans?

i havent seen it, so i wouldnt know.


Mark said...

Well, as an academic who watches Tsai Ming-liang...

Actually, there are whole departments of academics who write about popular culture, and there are PhDs on Madonna and Michael Jackson. It's called Cultural Studies. But when it comes to Chinese (-language) culture, English-speaking academics get spread very thin, and the music videos of Jay Chou are down the list of priorities.

Having said that, it sounds to me like Chou's video directors have been watching a lot of John Woo. Bullet in the Head is largely set in Vietnam during the US-Vietnam War, and shows the Hong Kong Chinese experience of those events. And A Better Tomorrow is a very Scorsese-influenced (e.g. Mean Streats) gangster film.

Another idea, rather more disquieting, is that the video you describe in Vietnam is a reference to the China-Vietnam war of 1979, with Jay as a Chinese hero. Given that the Vietnamese defeated the PLA, it's a conflict that the PRC seems to prefer to forget, though.

Great blog, btw.

lovelesscynic said...

I would nix the PRC-Vietnam war since Jay is Taiwanese, and also the extensive footage of white and (particularly) black men in the video which seems to indicate a more American influence. And in the Italian music video the rest of the characters are white. As if, Jay Chou was just plunked down into a Mario Puzo novel.

I don't have anything against Tsai Mingliang per se. Although I'm not a huge fan of his films. I suppose I don't know why so much reasearch and article-writing is devoted to his body of work (as worthy as it is) when very few people in Taiwan seem to know who he is, much less watch his films. You can make the argument of a voice of Taiwanese identity in the case of such avant-garde writers as Hou Hsiaohsien but that's about it.

Also I suppose it seems rather juvenile, but why are Jay Chou's music videos low on the list of priorities? Certainly he has a greater influence over the values and ideas of Taiwanese and (can I say) transnational Chinese people than Tsai Mingliang. Cultural Studies is about studying culture, isn't it? Why simply single out Asian avant garde culture while studying American pop, and ignore the other stuff.

Sort of like if Cultural Studies devoted most of its energy to studying the films of Jim Jarmusch or someone even more obscure. Besides, if Chinese Studies, particularly it's modern branch is supposed to be studying modern culture, by studying Zhang Yimou, Mo Yan, Yu Hua, and Tsai Mingliang aren't we falling into the dangerous trap of, "We're looking for a Western-imposed view of these things and selecting these works that best reflect what we want to see."? Having briefly had a (very very brief)glimpse into Chinese Studies it seems, since coming to Taiwan, that the view that many academics have, and the concerns that they pursue don't really have much to do with the life of the people who live here, and then what good is the research?

In terms of judging high culture and low culture, Song Dynasty ci poetry wasn't particularly respected at the time. But essentially what they are are the pop songs of the Song Dynasty, so I guess I don't think we should write off today's pop songs so quickly.

lovelesscynic said...

Say, if you're a Chinese Studies academic and you live in England, does that mean you know Chris Berry?

Mark said...

Hey, it's late, so I'll only respond to your last comment. Yes, I know Chris. We're organizing a couple of events in the next few months here in London. He also examined my PhD thesis, so he knows my darkest secrets (until my thesis is published in the next year, when everyone will know). Chris and I meet for "bitters" at a favourite pub in north London regularly. Do you know him?

mark said...

And in response to your earlier comments:

The question of what is worthy of "research", and indeed what counts as research or commentary or criticism, is central to cultural studies and other fields, especially anthropology. Cultural Studies' interest in popular culture in the 70s and 80s was originally an explicit response to the unreflective idea that only "high" culture was worthy of scholarship, in literature, art history and classics, etc. The ideas are still around, especially in Chinese Studies in the UK, where some people think (esp. Oxbridge) that if you aren't reading T'ang political commentaries, you not studying China at all.

So in some ways, areas like Cultural Studies have made a serious effort to address the issues you raise.

As for a Tsai-Chou death match, well, I happen to love some of Tsai's films, especially his more recent ones. Goodbye Dragon Inn is a masterpiece. But I am not sure there is really that much work on him, relative to, say, Ingmar Bergman or some other Euro art director. And I would cautiously suggest that although Tsai's films aren't "popular", he has a lot to say as an artist, and has a trajectory of artistic development which is simply a richer vein for scholarly analysis. I am not sure how much one could say specifically about Chou, although he might be interesting as an example of larger socio-cultural phenomena like globalization or transnational culture.

lovelesscynic said...

Fair enough. I can buy that.

yangerbanger said...

sorry, i randomly came onto your site when i tried to google for jay's fa ru xue video.

i actually havent seen most of his videos, but i find the things you've pointed out extremely intriguing.

perhaps its an instance of reverse fetishization. usually, it is the west that is fetishsizing the east.

it could also be due to the fact that american culture, especially pop culture is very globalize. we export not only mcdonalds, but our history, experiences, for better or worse, through hollywood mass entertainment. so it wouldnt be that surprising that Jay, along with countless other artists from around the world, would use American imagery.

As for your comment about academia beyond disconnected from daily life, that is true of all fields - hence the "ivory tower" description.

levant said...

who could kill the mockingbird
only when the mockingbrid start to sing..
when the east meet west
when the bound feet meet the western dress
we need a wider and broader point of vies to see things
and here
it's a chance to show me the glad to flying by