Apr 21, 2015

    Why battle of pro singers has me hooked

    ALTHOUGH the curtain has come down on the third season of I Am A Singer reality show for nearly a month, many songs from the programme still resonate with me.

    Yes, you see, this is no ordinary singing contest in China, which churns out lots of TV shows every year where wannabe singers parade their potential before the country's multitudes of viewers.

    The viewership of every episode of I Am A Singer has, according to reports, unfailingly topped the charts for programmes in the same time slot since its debut in early 2013.

    The ranking easily translates to hundreds of millions of fans in the populous country.

    Its popularity is not fortuitous.

    For one thing, the reality show features not novices but professional singers who ordinarily would not come together at the same event, let alone battle it out with their virtuoso and near-virtuoso singing skills.

    To many viewers, this Chinese offshoot of a similar one created by South Korean broadcaster MBC is an annual singing pageant.

    In the third season, which lasted three months, the 13 singers who appeared in the Hunan Television production included long-established and well-known names in China, as well as a few barely heard of in the mainland.

    There was Han Hong, a famous Tibetan singer whose high notes some say are vocal symbols of a soar up the Himalayan peaks.

    And there was also A-lin, a young, hitherto little-known Taiwanese from the island's Amei tribe who astonished many mainlanders with her rich mezzo-soprano voice.


     I must admit I had missed the first two seasons due to my prejudice that singing competitions were for obscure singers in search of a career breakthrough.

    It was a VCD of veteran singer Han Lei, which I came upon by accident and bought on my last trip to China, that piqued my interest.

    It contains some of his performances in the show's second season, and that gave me the impression that Han - despite already being hailed as an accomplished singer in China - was pulling out all the stops.

    Apparently, he wanted to not just impress the audience watching him and his rivals at a Hunan TV studio in Changsha, capital of Hunan province.

    He wanted to stun them.

    Much was at stake for the man, then 46, with his exalted reputation.

    The format of the show places seven to eight singers on stage each week, and some would be eliminated over 12 weeks.

    In the final, only seven who survive would slug it out.

    The 500-strong audience, who vote on the elimination, is a different group for each round.

    Despite his many years in showbiz, I could sense the anxiety behind the stoic face of Han, as he displayed his best tricks to ensure his place at the top.

    To be second was obviously unacceptable for him, I guessed.

    But why would a titan return to the field to risk defeat if he is already a revered name?

    Perhaps to recapture the limelight that has left him, cynics would say.


    But I would like to believe a line from many who have participated: "To be occasionally back in a contest is good, as this would expose a singer's unrealised inadequacies, and even stimulate him or her to attempt new ways of singing."

    In the case of Han, he had no doubt stuck largely to his old repertoire: Chinese ballads and blood-stirring songs from TV dramas celebrating emperors and heroes.

    Yet there was also something magically new to his singing, although to some, he seemed to be covering old ground.

    I could feel his vocal weight, vocal range and vocal touch more sharply than I ever had.

    Perhaps the nature of the competition had spurred him to transcend the complacency he had fallen into.

    But, more likely, he was being transformed momentarily by the atmosphere at the studio.

    It was an electrifying one, as one could see from the broadcast version.

    Practically everyone around him - the audience, musicians and back-up singers - was riveted by his singing, either drinking in his every note or ardently giving support as he sang.

    In other words, he was in what A-lin called a "dream-like environment", which any zealous singer would give his life for.

    The same happened for every singer.

    That is not to say most concerts are not "dream-like".

    But being appreciated and appraised at the same time while striving to be the one to bring on the "highest climax" of the night is a unique blend of experiences beyond even pure entertainers.

    Even Gary Chaw, the noted Malaysian singer who is no stranger to big-ticket events, found the show so charming and yet so exacting that every time he was about to take the stage during the second season, he had sweaty palms and burped non-stop.

    "At least I could control myself better now," said Chaw, when he was back early this month at the studio for a special shoot involving singers from the last two seasons.

    Chaw is one example of the diversity of the show, which roped in South Korean singer Jeong Soon Won for the third season, along with two Taiwanese, a Hong Konger, one Malaysian and Singaporean Kit Chan.


     But many netizens outside the mainland believe these "foreign" singers are just there to widen the show's appeal, and claim there is a conspiracy to ensure only a mainlander will emerge as the final winner.

    "Otherwise, how do you explain that only mainlanders were enthroned in all of the three seasons?" asked one netizen.

    Others questioned the taste of the judges, saying they were biased towards songs with Chinese balladic or ethnic minority flavour. Or Mandopop with a mainland touch in terms of lyrics, melody and evocation.

    Songs composed in Taiwan and Hong Kong might appeal, but not when they matter most, such as in the final, they said.

    "Cantonese and Western songs are the surest way to find the exit," said one netizen.

    The theories could not be proven, but in my view, mainland singers such as Han Hong, Han Lei and Tan Weiwei did put in dazzling performances.

    Their deliveries also often involved gorgeous cultural costumes and first-rate ethnomusical bands which they personally arranged for.

    These could be partly how they nailed it with the audience.

    Although I would prefer an open mind for judgment, I could see that just medium-register crooning and warbling, which is the fashion among the Taiwanese and Hong Kong contestants, might not be enough to gain favour in China, especially if other competitors could do not only this but also send their voices sky-high, like the two Hans.


    The high-octave technique is still very much popular in China.

    Meanwhile, the pop trend in Taiwan and Hong Kong has also evolved towards chromatic playing of tongue and throat to give unconventional shapes to songs, like in the West.

    Although rap and new-age music also have followings in China, they have never appealed to the majority.

    The few singers who dared to attempt pure R&B and funk in I Am A Singer have been widely criticised online for indulging in vocal stunts at the expense of "genuine" music.

    One of them was Jane Zhang, who controversially turned down the offer for a comeback via a breakthrough round, after being eliminated midway through the third season.

    In one episode, the Chengdu-born singer brought in the original backing vocalists for the Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj song Bang, Bang, Bang, and did the number with their help.

    But she sang the three main parts all by herself.

    Some said the show became colourless after she left.

    As for me, I have developed a finer understanding of singing after listening to more than 100 songs of largely different styles, many of which were masterfully sung.

    The soft baritone voice of one singer by the name of Li Jian, who is dubbed "poet singer" by his fans, particularly impressed me.

    His oldies transported me back in time, but the whiffs of Russian melody that the crooner - who hails from Harbin in north-eastern China - wove into them also made them exotic.

    The show indeed knows no bounds in terms of singing style.

    And that is enough to keep this fan hooked.


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