Ordering Poetry at KTV

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How do we measure the distance between poetry and ourselves?

It’s not thousands of miles away at the bottom of the Ocean, it’s also not in a star a few light years away. By simply strolling into a KTV we can find vestiges of poetry. By simply humming along to a song, we can fill our heart with poetic feeling, and slowly wash away the dust of time.

When the band “Mayday” wrote “A post-adolescent poem”, the magnificent lyrics produced a strong feeling of youth. As we sang along and listened, mulling over the aesthetic quality and youthfulness of the song, we came to realize that the boundaries between song and poetry seemed to be gradually disappearing. We are accustomed to looking for understanding within songs, and what we find is a sympathy passed on from generation to generation. In this way, songs secretly capture the mood of each era.

Creative singers and bands use songs to express their personal and distinct system of values, and also to give voice to their views towards the world and life. In this way, these poem-like songs are irrevocably linked to their period. We followed Lo Ta-yu, Chang Yu-sheng, Bobby Chen and Wu Chun-lin through the eighties; in the nineties we listened instead to Chen Chi Chen, Sandee Chan and Mayday; and since the year 2000 “Sodagreen” have also joined the ranks of poetry-song bands. We sang loudly, felt the time pass us by, and matured together with this music. Have not these poem-like songs already permeated the most remote nooks of our hearts?

The pioneer of poetic songs: Lo Ta-yu

Lo Ta-yu occupies a very influential role in popular music after the eighties. Labelled as a “protest singer”, his creations are not limited to protest songs. Even though there was a lot of criticism of current events, politics, and the values of society in his songs, Lo Ta-yu is still brimming with romantic wistfulness towards the concepts of youthfulness and love, and often uses his most relaxed writing technique to flesh out these songs. When we compare them to his protest songs, these are often imbued with even stronger poetic quality.

In his song “Childhood”, he borrows from folk songs and the simple innocence of one’s youth, in order to give shape to the concept of childhood that we all hold dear in our heart. Even though every generation has a difference experience of what constitutes childhood, the images Lo Ta-yu selects possess some degree of universality: Banyan trees by a pool, seesaws next to a sports field, a blackboard, a school snack store, a manga comic, watercolour crayons, tests, first love… every small thing that he describes comes from his personal experience, and is then extended to be resonant to society as a whole. This is the aspect in which Lu Ta-yu shows that he has the heart of a poet, and taking the personal and making it universal is an essential characteristic of pop music as well.

The child from “Childhood” gradually grows up in “Stories of the past”, and enters into melancholy adolescence, this is symbolised by the fact that the objects that were described from the perspective of a child have now become cards and letters imbued with the emotion of youth.

Yellowing photos, old letters, and faded Christmas cards,

I’m afraid that you might have already forgotten, the songs I wrote for you when we were young,

The promises of the past were as numerous as the bookmarks in that textbook,

Painting many beautiful stories, which were ultimately just a spell of smoke.

The river of time washed away the stories of the past, changing two people,

In that melancholy youthfulness, where I tentatively shed my first tears.

When it comes to writing of youth, there is always something magical; and Lo Ta-yu assigns poetry and song an equally important role, in order to capture youth, and to rouse in people their most secluded emotions.

Defining the 80s through song, new possibilities

Lo Ta-yu’s universally acclaimed song “Your appearance” uses poetic technique to paint a hazy landscape, with both verses mulling over a distant silhouette. Your name and appearance, despite being washed in the passage of time, are even clearer than before and cannot be melted away, “Just like a world already left behind still contains your name and my voice”. Using this kind of long sentence, he attempts to express the way people, in a lonely but not insignificant way, try to withstand space and time, which gradually leads to an eternity of sorts. At the same time as the sad music plays, “Your appearance” is ingrained into your memory and heart, never to disappear.

Your appearance, by Lo Ta-yu.

Readers in Mainland China, please click here.

Lo Ta-yu sung defined 80s music, but he also provided contemporary Chinese pop music with a possibility for development: Pop songs can also be imbued with poetry. From his albums throughout the years, we can appreciate his literary talent, often flowing out of his music in a torrent, and becoming an important milestone in the contemporary process of turning pop songs into poetry.

A merging of poetry and song: Sandee Chan

After the 90s, one could often hear the poet Xiayu reciting poetry in Sandee Chan’s work, and references to her in her songs. For example, in her album “Perfect groan”, the title and the lyrics of the song “Are you worried about something, darling?” are based on the poem by Xiayu of the same name. After the singing part of the song, Xiayu also narrated her poem “Don’t you think morning really suits him?”. This song, therefore, amalgamates both Xiayu’s lyrics and her poetry, pointing to the fact that popular songs can be made to interact together in different ways.

When looking at Sandee Chan’s individual work, the way it bridges the gap with poetry is very obvious. Let us take as an example her song “Farewell”, which takes its name from the classical piano piece of the same name by Chopin. Sandee is referencing Chopin’s piece; even her lyrics are related to him, and all of this allows her song, from lyrics to melody, to exist as an interesting dialog with Western classical music.

The dancing music of that most beautiful of eras moves the hearts of discontented lovers,

Delicate and pretty long hair; the more the youth sways, the more it extends on indefinitely, unbelievably brilliant.

I took off my makeup, my pink makeup. It was the look of a shy sweetheart.

Once again, I’m badly hurt, but it’s just our best picture together. Time sadly and purposefully smeared our faces.

So much love, So much happiness, these kinds of feelings all became an ordinary, carelessly hummed pop song, just the kind that Chopin hated the most.


Through reinterpretation, the popular becomes classic

By means of her arrangements, she took a classical piano piece and made it a part of popular music, and the resulting lyrics gives people a lot of space to think about them. Present day popular songs face the problems of the passage of time and the overuse of the themes of love and youth. How to create a song that is popular in its own time and becomes a classic later on is a challenging and important problem. Poets and song authors follow different paths but both must deal with this problem.

Contemporary poet Xiayu has said when writing about popular music that “New songs are always needed to decipher the emotional state of each new generation”. Sandee Chan uses Chopin’s classical piano piece as a framework on which she pasted elements of modern electronic music, and when she composed the lyrics she even wrote: “Chopin’s most hated pop song”. All this makes this song, from its outer shape to its innermost content, feel like a small, unclear little poem, there is a lot of space to allow for different interpretations, which gives shape to a multilayered dialectical relationship: In the musical aspect, the piano piece became paired up with the electronic elements to become the music to a pop song; in the lyrical aspect, it dialectically relates the different definitions of pop music in different eras.

The description of youth and love found in this song attracts quite a lot of interest from people. The longest sentences to be found in the melody are written very poetically:

Once again, I’m badly hurt, but it’s just the brilliant sunlight of the end of July. Summer stealthily burned a love bite on my shoulder.

Once again, I’m badly hurt, but it’s just our best picture together. Time sadly and purposefully smeared our faces.

In the longest sentences is where the tensest turning point of the song occurs, it marks the separation between the previous happiness and the sadness to come. This lyrical turning point coincides with the longest and most exciting musical phrase in the song. A meticulous description of love and youth is also included in this most beautiful of metaphors and sparkles with poetic radiance.

An unruly, drifter sound: Bobby Chen

Bobby Chen, who started publishing records at the end of the 80s, went at a steady rate of one LP a year, until after the year 2000, when his creative style started adapting more to his growing age and gradually began to change. Most of his early songs were love songs, in addition to some songs about his personal ambitions or emotions, which contrasts with his recent work which is of a more critical nature. What hasn’t changed is that his work exudes an unruly and unsettled mood. Bobby Chen’s lyrics have always been frank, but thought-provoking. The vocabulary is not particularly profound, but through extraordinary creativity, it gives people a kind of unfamiliar poetic feeling.

The track “The tears of a twenty-year-old”, included in Bobby’s 1994 album “Kite”, describes the mood of being twenty as being impervious to outside influences. He uses resolute but gentle brush strokes to paint a song brimming with the emotion of a drifter, from the point of view of someone experienced in human interaction. The chorus breaches the twenty-year span to allow the twenty-year-old man and the forty-year-old one to hold a dialog with each other:

I don’t cry, I just laugh, laugh at how ridiculous you were back then. I just laugh, I don’t cry, I just laugh as I leave behind the storm.

The tears of a twenty-year-old, by Bobby Chen.

Readers in Mainland China, please click here.

The flow of time and the deterioration of youth, is a major theme that both classical and modern poetry focus on. When Bobby Chen writes about it, it becomes much more familiar and amiable. Of course, he isn’t unaware of the suffering to be found in the world, as we can see from these lyrics: “A man with no more tears to cry.” “I laugh at all the pain I suffered all these years without crying.” Even the last line of the song: “Actually, a man’s heart can also ache.” All these lyrics illustrate that, although sorrow does exist, when it is looked upon with the vision one gains after releasing it, it can become a form of optimism.

Naturally analyse the world, and set a date for the future

In Bobby Chen’s 2009 album “Beautiful chance encounter”, there are some even more romantic lyrics which pull people in, taken from the narrated section of his song “Incomplete Tribe”:

This is but the journey of the passing of youth,

It always inevitably makes one feel a little anxious,

Yet, maybe, we don’t need to be so worried after all,

Since the place you are going will certainly be very beautiful.

I believe, one day, we will all meet in May at a certain place,

And in the Northern midnight forests stroll.

Bobby Chen, from the vantage point of a vastly experienced person, calmly and naturally writes these kinds of words. Having experienced the pride of a twenty-year-old youngster and the changes that come with becoming a forty-year-old man, he looks over how he staggered through his young years, and goes through a profound and touching contemplation. We all have too much worry and confusion towards youth, maybe we don’t need to harbour that much anxiety, because we will all meet at a very beautiful place.

Extraordinary ordinary: Sodagreen

After the year 2000, Indie music started gaining popularity vigorously in the music world. Of all the bands coming up, the momentous emergence of Sodagreen captured people’s attention. Not only was it their rapidly growing masses of fans, or the certainty of Golden Albums and other prizes. Sodagreen’s work all garnered very positive criticism and is very easily recognizable within the music business. Apart from the unusual line-up of band members, the most dazzling display of their talent is the fact that their lyrics are brimming with literary quality.

In Sodagreen’s work, Lead singer Wu Tsing-Fong’s lyrics do a lot of work. He did away with the simple and colloquial style that was commonly used and typical of contemporary popular music, instead taking the genre to new heights through the use of the mysteriousness and difficulty of poetry. In their work, his poetic, galloping imagination, with words full of elegance and unusual thoughts, even when describing a topic as common as romantic emotion, can allow for something extraordinary and curious to appear.

Aesthetic and loving expressions often appear in Sodagreen’s love songs. The song “Sing with me” has strong romantic overtones, and the choice of words is very refined:

A very long street, spreading out and bathing under the light of the moon,

Falling stars, are my only luggage.

This type of sentence composition and poetic thoughts allow a beautiful atmosphere to emerge as a backdrop to the song. Similar tender feelings also emanate from “A small love song”, Sodagreen’s most famous song. Using lyrical melodiousness, it tenderly sings of the beauty of love:

You know that even if the whole city is turned upside-down by heavy rain,

I would still offer to embrace you,

But I couldn’t bear to see your back turning away,

And in those seconds as slow as years I would write my own painstaking “Sorrow at Parting”.*

Even if the whole world were held to ransom by loneliness, I wouldn’t run away.

It’s inescapable, in the end, everyone gets old,

So I build a castle where time and the sound of my piano intertwine.

Innovative thoughts breed a concept

When it comes to describing the loss of love, Sodagreen’s “The left side”, is also extremely elaborate. By transforming their writing technique numerous times, and using poetic imagery, they write a section about a love that is unable to go on. Sodagreen use a new writing technique to approach common subjects such as memories, tears, scars, etc. and make them appear extraordinary:

I packed away the wounds of the past, with the help of an unfamiliar river.

Time rushed forward, separating you and me, separating the beat of our hearts, and I left my memories by the window.

I whitewashed the eaves at the entrance to the alley, and buried my old tearstains.

After turning a corner, I closed the lock of this story.

Please open your hands, and let me die in your embrace.

In this song we can clearly see the importance of choice of words and style. Accompanied by a simple French horn and piano arrangement, a love once fierce but now tending towards uncommunicative silence is described by means of refined vocabulary such as a river, whitewashed eaves, a locked story, etc. When we arrive at the last line of the song: Maybe I just gradually forgot how long, which is followed by the piano gradually fading away, there is a delicate, lingering sensation formed by the sound. The quiet, calm serenity after all the flowers have fallen is mimicked by the silence in the song.

Apart from the great amount of poetic quality to be found in the lyrics, a particular characteristic of Sodagreen’s music that attracts people is their effort towards “Concept albums”. Starting from a specific concept, the lyrics, songs, arrangements, packaging, even MVs, all revolve around a same theme. With regard to the literary meaning, “Concept albums” have become akin to poetic anthologies. From the beginning to the end, the order of the songs can act like a small poem in itself, bringing the whole album together.

Overcoming the separation between highbrow and popular culture, and becoming resonant with life

After analysing the work of these creative songwriters, we can see that the process of popular music becoming increasingly more highbrow opens up all sorts of possibilities. When we sing songs brimming with poetic quality at KTV, singing also becomes a form of art. The strict connection between “poetry” and “highbrow” culture and “pop music” and “common people” culture should be re-evaluated. In the present age, in which a variety of different cultures are in vogue and many different points of view are arising, all of these forms of culture have the possibility to shift and overstep their boundaries, and perhaps the taste of popular music audiences is also changing along with this trend.

KTV Legend, by Sandee Chan and Chen Chien-chi

For readers in Mainland China, please click here.

In the song “KTV legend”, created by a Sandee Chan and Chen Chien-chi, Taiwanese hipsters are ingeniously linked to KTV. KTV at midnight is still a dwelling place for hipsters, despite their obsession, as the song mentions, with poetic anthology, Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, Leica Cameras and things like this which exemplify typical hipster taste (Sandee refers to this trick as “Hipsters have mainstream problems every day”). Therefore, we can repeatedly enjoy the poetry in these pop songs, along with a mainstream melody, accompanying us at every crucial point in our lives. Sometimes it is closer and more intimate to us than any great poetic anthology book, since through the unavoidable rain and sunshine in one’s life, the lyrics of these songs echo and echo, allowing us, too, to leave behind the storm.

There you have it, you might as well order a poem next time you go to KTV!


Brief Introduction of the author:

Liu Jianzhi was born in Gaoxiong in 1984, he has a masters in Chinese from Taiwan University. His research field is contemporary popular music and its correlation with cultural phenomena. He is currently working on his Ph.D. He likes listening to and attending concerts, live house nights, and music festivals. He is deeply committed to tracking down the poetic songs of our era.



Translated from the Chinese by Daniel Pagan Murphy




Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34

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