Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Cantopop

While surfing around on the Internet I’ve read some remarks about Cantopop that would make the typical Cantopop fan fume. But I think you could do without the angry insult mode like some netizens in certain forums do when someone is pro or anti-Cantopop. Honestly, I could probably argue for and against Cantopop within this forum thread, given the lack of actual evidence for their views (though I agree that few do back up their statements thoroughly). But I won’t. Scathing comments about pop music in general have always been made but it’s still a lucrative business. And whatever works, sells. And for music everywhere around the world, I believe it’s got more to do with the talent behind the music. Yes, the singers, the musicians, the producers, the arrangers, the composers and the lyricists. When you’ve got a lack of talent, of course your music is going to suck. Still, image sells. If you don’t have talent, well, at least you have the looks. And as shallow as it may sound, you know it’s true. When you’ve got a picture of someone that you’ve never met before and never heard of (or from), how are you supposed to know that you like them? You’re going to judge a book by its cover, even though nobody told you to.
Gone too soon: Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Danny Chan
And that’s what I think caused the downfall of Cantopop in the first place. Image. When everyone became so obsessed about the way an artist looked (I mean, in terms of natural physical beauty of course, not in terms of fashion) and buying albums, it shouted to the music companies that physical beauty was more important than beautiful melodies and compositions. Or even a singer with the ability to belt and tell stories with such emotion that captivated the audience. Gone. Perhaps, people’s standards were too high. The fact that the Cantopop scene was dominated with superstars like Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui and Danny Chan during the golden era of Cantopop probably set the mold for other budding performers and somehow we gained an expectation that we could easily find others just like them: good-looking, charming and talented. But unfortunately, Hong Kong lost some of its most beloved stars to death with the Cantopop music industry suffering dearly too. You’ll notice I never shorten Cantopop to C-Pop because I like to make a clear distinction between C-Pop, which stands for Chinese Pop music (which could encompass everything from Mandarin songs or Mandopop to other Chinese dialects) and Cantopop, which is distinct to the Cantonese dialect. And I think it is this distinction that amplified how much the world of Cantopop wanted to fill a deep void in its soul.  

However, even to this day Hong Kong has not been able to find a singer with the looks that could sing, dance and act. And well, I mean. Some TV actors may have converted themselves to singing but they could never be a great singer or a great performer. At best, they may be good, but I have yet to see a perfectionist all-rounder. And I find it rare these days to hear compositions with melodies so strong that could hold out on their own or lyrics that have been wonderfully crafted.  

One of Cantopop’s greatest lyricists, James Wong had actually realized this decline in the quality of Cantopop and even wrote a thesis about it. But I suppose he was writing as someone with a lot of musical sense (I mean, he could write lyrics – I mean, really write lyrics) in an academically acceptable manner. I’m just writing about it as an observer, well, listener, actually, and therefore I can write about it from my perspective and talk about it from a typical point of view.
90's Cantopop Era : Leo Ku, Eason Chan, Miriam Yeung and Sammi Cheng
The trouble like I said, was a lack of talent or an influx of it. Forget about the looks for a moment. First off, can they sing? Singers in the golden era could bust out a tune easily while doing a dance number. Okay, now, looks. Maybe some so-called “singers” have this department sorted out, but they’re really not so different from a model who’s given a chance to sing. Someone in a forum actually pointed out that some current singers struggle to stay in tune while singing and it’s more than a couple of notes – it’s the whole song. I’m not talking about those singers that debuted in the 90’s, like Leo Ku, Eason Chan, Miriam Yeung and Sammi Cheng. They all had excellent role models in music to learn from. And the singers of today should have followed suit. They should have taken after the singers of the 90’s. It’s almost like a tier for each type of artist, with 70’s/80’s being at the top followed by 90’s artists and finally artists of the millennium. Actually, it’s more like a pyramid. Few standout artists at the top tier, followed by good artists and then finally, a shipload of, well, I don’t want to say untalented (because I do believe that some of those artists do have talent but in other areas that don’t have to do with singing), just artists.
Even with talent, I doubt G.E.M could save the whole of the Cantopop industry.  The rivers run much deeper than that. 
There are exceptions, of course. In my opinion, G.E.M. certainly has the vocal chops to go out there and sing. Oh, and she can play piano and compose too. But still, in comparison with artists in the 80’s who did everything from acting, dancing and singing, general all-round performers, artists these days can never really measure up. Are our expectations too high? Perhaps. But once you’re exposed to things of such high standard and caliber, do you go back to less sophisticated things? And we, of course, expect things to get better or at least not to get worse as time goes by. Unfortunately, I cannot say past standards are being maintained in the world of Cantopop. Now I’m not writing this to put any artists down since I’m not sadistic like that, but rather, because I want to see a change; an improvement in the industry.

I  can't believe they actually call this their new logo. 
The thing is, the artists of the 90’s are getting old and on the road to retirement. They may show up every now and again but it’s still unlikely appearances because of the tension between the Big 4 record companies in Hong Kong and TVB. And this is where the television station, the record companies, the artists, the audience and the music industry of Hong Kong loses out. But like many of the forum-goers, I don’t believe that a few artist appearances can save shows like Jade Solid Gold (JSG) which has been suffering. And it’s not because of the disagreements between the record companies and TVB or royalties. It’s because there’s nothing exciting about JSG anymore. I mean, I only watch it because they’re doing that whole celebrating the last 30 years of classic hits and I wanna know what the charts were like then and hear a few old songs. And I suspect that’s one of the reasons why JSG ratings have not fallen down completely to 0. In fact, they may have done that in a desperate bid to save that programme. The sad thing is, that’s the only part of JSG that I look forward to. The rest is just introducing some no-name singers to sing some forgettable love songs. Yes, just what I want to see. And no, I’m not against newcomers. In fact, I welcome them with open arms because I want to believe that there is someone that can bring Cantopop back to the way it was.
Not just a pretty face: Priscilla Chan & Vivian Lai
The singers of the 80’s can’t come back. And that’s mainly because some of them have left the industry for good, either through retirement or death. It’s unfortunate that singers who were more than just a pretty face, like Vivian Lai and Priscilla Chan left the industry so abruptly. Vivian announced her retirement as a singer to get married, just as she was cracking into the market and Priscilla went on a hiatus to study psychology at Syracuse University. By the time Priscilla came back, she had lost her grounding, although she had recorded and released a few albums during summer vacations and such. And of course, there were those singers who met their untimely deaths, like Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. People could try and emulate their style and image but that would not fit well with the public. Did I mention that composers of the 80’s are getting old too? And there are not many songs these days that can prove that there are actual songwriters behind them. Although a lot of tracks in the past were originally foreign compositions, the lyrics were written to fit hand-in-hand with them to create good pop songs. Yes, people asked for faster tracks. But the simple copy-and-paste lyrics method over foreign compositions does not work. And to think, people are actually passing themselves off as lyricists.

Some of the best people in the music industry (singers, musicians, composers and such) have been discovered through the magic of competition. And even though Hong Kong has shows like The Voice, singing competitions like The New Talent Singing Awards, have all been taken over by contestants from Mainland China. And this has encouraged even more singers from Mainland China to steal the show and prompt even those from places where Cantonese is the main dialect to switch over to songs in Mandarin. How about following singers like Teresa Teng? She recorded songs in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Indonesian and Japanese. A lot of singers dared to be multi-lingual back then. The thing is, I don’t have any problem with Mandopop singers. In fact, a lot of excellent songs have come from Mandopop. I’m just saying that perhaps it would be important to keep Cantopop alive first rather than venturing straight into Mandopop.  

Note: Oh it looks like Krazy Kranky Ken wrote about the rise and fall of Cantopop about 4 years ago. And it seems that things really haven't improved since then.
Image credits:,,,,,,,,,,


  1. I agree with a lot of your points. There's been a dramatic decline since the golden and long-gone days of the 70's/80's/90's. Wong Jim highlighted the change in the music industry post-1997 and how the system had changed. Unfortunately, there needs to be a dramatic restructuring of the HK entertainment system so they can once again nurture great talent. Oh and piracy definitely needs to be dealt with. Hopefully digital music can change that.

  2. Hi there Henry - thanks for your comment! And here I've been going on about how no one ever comments while reading about some other blogger who said they felt really dumb for not checking for comments and getting things late. Well, I feel like that - sorry about that.

    But yes, I certainly feel that the industry has gone lackluster - no shine and nothing to get excited about anymore. The voices of the past could make you cry and smile, as well as make you want to sing and dance. Now when I hear some song produced in today's climate, I basically just cringe.

    There's certainly talent to be found, even in little old HK. But like you said, they're gonna have to do some work in order to find those artists who really can shine and polish them up.

    As for the digital music era, I think they just have to play their cards right so they can beat all that stuff about bootlegged CDs and such. They've got to make things more affordable and available to the public while respecting the rights of artists, composers, songwriters and the like.

    But perhaps the digital music era might be a turning point for the HK entertainment industry, like you said. Maybe new talents could emerge from things like Youtube or the HK music industry could use sites like Youtube as a launching pad.