A few days ago, I was browsing YouTube aimlessly when I found out two of my favorite Asian pop artists of all time, Jay Chou and Mayday’s lead vocalist Ashin, had just dropped a collaboration. And the music video had quickly taken over the top spot on the trending list.
These days, I don’t listen to music in my mother tongue often, let alone keep track of the continuous rises and falls of the newest singers and artists. The small number of songs that are still on my playlist are mostly from the few artists who have been popular since at least the late 2000s and still remain relevant today (Jay Chou, JJ Lin, Mayday, G.E.M. and the likes). Among that very small group of artists, Jay Chou has barely released new music since getting married, so you should understand my excitement of finally being able to add something new to the mix.
The song, called “Won’t Cry,” seemed to be everything a fan of these two artists could want on the first listen. The lyrics are written by Chou’s long-time collaborator Vincent Fang, without whom Chou would not be where he is today. Further, the new music resembled some of Chou’s earlier romantic ballads. I was loving the song, until the video took an unexpected turn.
The video, set in Tokyo, depicts the love story between a young woman who works at a bubble tea shop, and a guy who is an emerging photographer. When the woman finds out that her boyfriend is looking into attending art school in the UK, she secretly fills out an application for him, and later surprises him with the acceptance letter, and gifts him with an expensive camera when he eventually leaves for school. Now, it becomes very clear that the lyrics are telling this story from the guy’s perspective. As the photographer looks back in his cab at his girlfriend, the lyrics say something along the lines of: “You have nothing, yet you give everything to support my dreams.”
Right then, the video and the lyrics began to rub me the wrong way, and only more so when it’s revealed that the guy ended up having a very successful career, while the woman’s life didn’t go anywhere while she pined for the guy, fantasizing about his return and their reunion. The song essentially praised the woman in the story for being unconditionally supportive and self-sacrificial for her boyfriend, to the point of giving up on her own life and future. It reinforces not only a toxic model of romantic relationships, but also a problematic archetype of a subservient Asian woman — something that even the cheesiest Asian soap operas today do not like to depict.
I couldn’t, however, negotiate my initial liking of the song with being very much adverse to its message, until later that day when I was cycling through my musical theatre playlist, and the song “You and I” from the Broadway musical Pretty Woman came on.
The musical, based on the 1990 rom-com, received mostly mixed to negative reviews and did not stay on Broadway for long. Critics seemed to agree that simply taking the plot of a romance movie from almost thirty years ago and directly dropping it onto the stage is not the right way of adapting an older story for a modern audience.
And so I began to understand why I had in a way liked “Won’t Cry,” but could not stomach its message and the supposed “romance” in the video. In other words, I finally understood why we all seem to have “problematic faves” of one form or another. The style of the songs and the lyrics, as well as the artists who created them, are familiar and trustworthy. But that trust comes from another time — in my case, a decade ago, when I was still listening to physical Jay Chou albums on the CD player with my mom at home. But somehow the artists themselves, Chou and Fang especially, have not evolved with the times as much as they were supposed to, and the fans’ love for them is really half the need for that comforting nostalgia and half an unquestioning loyalty to their talent.
That’s not how real art comes to be. Art has always strived to reflect the times, if not stay ahead of it. When art looks back on the past, it’s always attempting to do so from a new perspective, with new eyes. Art is one of the most important ways through which the world sees and evaluates itself. To quote my favorite superhero: “It is tempting to want to live in the past. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, but it’s also where fossils come from.”
Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.