Well. Something remarkable has happened. I was in the same place as Mayday when they were performing, and the world did not come to an end. After so many near misses, I barely thought it possible.
I’m visiting family this week and have a long list of work/school projects that travel with me, but I found the time yesterday to fly to Vegas, see Mayday play four songs, and then grab the red-eye home (thankfully, I was traveling from Minneapolis and not Washington – snow closed all the airports in DC this morning). I was gone 20 hours – 6 of which I spent on the plane – but hey, I’d never been to Vegas before. (My reaction: eh. Without the lure of Mandopop or some such, I doubt I’d return.) And really, if Mayday can fly 26 hours to play four songs, I can fly 6 to hear them, right? Actually, there was the double attraction of not only our boys but the opening performance by A-yue, whom I love. Not to mention my ongoing morbid curiosity with the Shin Band.
Fortunately for me, I have a couple of friends who are the type I can call at the last minute and say, “hey, wanna go to Vegas for a Chinese music show?” and have them say, “er, okay, why not?” It is a good thing they are so easy-going and open to adventure, though, because the concert on the whole was nothing short of bizarre. (Of course, we also benefitted from a relaxing day hanging out in a temperate climate, drinking beer and catching up on the last nine months or so that we haven’t managed to get together, so all was not lost.)
From the start, there was a painfully obvious distinction between the goals and motivations of the American and Chinese concert organizers. While the American side kept promoting the “Fusion” aspect of things – one night of Chinese music, one night of American – for the Chinese side, it was a New Year’s concert, plain and simple. The MC – who spoke only in Mandarin – introduced the evening as the Hunan Satellite TV New Year’s Concert, and although he noted it was the first time they’ve held the special event outside of China, he did not bring up the whole “two nights of intercultural exchanges” aspect. This didn’t really surprise me – if the goal was actually to bring together the two music industries, the planners at least needed to match the genres – you know, an evening of American hip-hop and an evening of Chinese hip-hop. Not an evening of American hip-hop and an evening of the most eclectic mix of Chinese acts they can possibly pull together.
This difference in perceptions was instantly obvious when the audience started getting seated in the auditorium. In spite of the fact that three of the billed acts were rock bands/musicians and two more were young women who sing popular music, the average age of the crowd was probably around 50 or higher. The woman sitting next to me, for example, did not have a clue who any of the performers were other than A-mei and Jackie Chan. She tried in vain to convince me that Ashin of the Shin Band was a balladeer from mainland China – perhaps Hunan – but I knew better (and explained his actual background to her and her mother, along with introducing each of the other acts as they came on. Hey, it was a lovely chance to practice my Mandarin). There were a lot of whole families with three generations present – two white-haired grandparents, their kids, and then small children – sitting together and treating the evening as a special New Year’s family event. There were quite a lot of empty seats, which I attribute to the fact that the list of performers was *so* diverse. Jackie Chan and Mayday just do not draw the same crowd. I suspect that individually, Mayday, A-Mei or Jackie Chan could have sold out the theater for a proper concert, but together, the idea of hearing only a few songs from one’s favorite among them was not enough of a draw to bring most people to Vegas for the night.
Beyond the oddity of the guest list, though, there were even more fundamental problems. The sound system was pretty bad, and the whole presentation was incredibly disorganized. On two separate occassions there were long silences with an empty stage, an impatient audience, people backstage trying to figure out what was going on… and an open mic unknowingly capturing and broadcasting their confusion to the crowd. With the exceptions of A-yue and Mayday, the singers performed karaoke-style to a recorded audio track, contributing to the amateur quality feel of the evening. Seriously, it was a bit like a junior high school talent contest with a few inexplicably big names taking the stage.
A-yue had the unfortunate responsibility of starting off the concert, and frankly, he gets a free pass for his mediocre performance on that alone. He was quite flat on the first two songs (although many of the singers that came later struggled as well, likely a function of the bad sound engineering), but he was launching the night in front of a disinterested crowd getting settled into seats and chatting in English and a variety of Chinese dialects. It did not appear to me that many people in the audience had any idea who he was or had any kind of familiarity with his music (I, of course, was singing along, but I was the exception, not the rule). Even the MC appeared indifferent, as he came out to chat with each performer except for A-yue, whom he let pass without much comment (other than a few jokes about the song “I need money” and it’s appropriateness during red-envelope season). A-yue played “再見,” “愛的初體驗,” “我要錢,”… ah, and one other song, which I’m blanking on at the moment. I should have taken notes, though I’m sure I’ll think of it later. By the third song, incidentally, he seemed to have fought his way through the early difficulties enough to give a solid performance and leave me, at least, with a good impression.
The next performer was not billed on the program, which became a repeated, frustrating theme of the evening. Tan Weiwei of Sichuan Province was the runner-up in the 2006 Supergirls contest (a Chinese version of “American Idol,” which of course is just an American imitation of the British show “Pop Idol.” The contest also gained some attention as being a rare completely democratic voting process for the mainland Chinese, but that is a political issue for another day). I thought at first (well, I hoped, really) that she was a substitute for the 2005 Supergirls winner, Li Yuchun, but I was proven later to be sadly mistaken. Weiwei actually seemed to have a pretty good voice, and what was better, a reasonable understanding of the audience, choosing to perform a handful of folksongs. The only one I recognized (and that thanks only to Gary’s recent album) was “茉莉花/姑娘.” She was a bit stiff as a performer (likely due to inexperience), but she sang pretty well. The sound for her mic was cranked up way too high, though, so a couple of her high notes turned earsplitting. My friends Dan and Laurie, who are not at all familiar with Chinese music (traditional or otherwise), were a bit taken-aback by her performance, but I assured them that the “screechy parts” were supposed to sound that way.
Weiwei was followed by another surprise, an American song-writing duo called Two for the Road (I think), who performed songs no one had ever heard of entirely in English. Their connection to the Chinese music industry is apparently rooted in the fact that they have written songs for a few Chinese/Taiwanese artists, but their presence at the concert was unnecessary and unwanted. They seemed to realize this, and thus thanked the audience so many times for its forbearance in listening to them sing that it began to sound like an apology. We thought that in general, they ought to stick with songwriting and not inflict their live stage shows on an unsuspecting public.
The next act was Ashin of the Shin Band, who had apparently arrived sans band and was introduced as simply “Shin.” No clue what was going on there, but it was not without good reason that my (Taiwanese-American) seatmate mistook him for a mainland crooner. There was not much about his performance that resembled the “all rock-and-roll” reputation he seems to covet. He sang two songs I recognized, “One Night in Beijing” and “離歌,” and one song I didn’t know (and again, did not take notes to look up later). Like everyone else, he struggled a bit with staying on-key, but he managed to give an unembarrassing performance. I found that I actually sort of like some of his songs, once they are divorced from his grandstanding about what is and is not rock music. Still, it is obvious that he is the Shin Band – so much so, that he could fly off and perform their songs alone along with some taped music and it didn’t much matter. In other words, he is a lot more of a Jerry Yan than he is a Chen Hsin-hung. If he could shut up about the relative merits of the Shin Band versus Mayday, I might even go so far as to buy another of his CDs.
The next act fell squarely in the category of things that are popular for totally inexplicable reasons, like (in my mind) S.H.E and most boybands (Asian or otherwise). Li Yuchun may have won the popular vote to be crowned the winner of the “Supergirls” contest in 2005, but she cannot sing. Worse yet, she not only does not have a good voice, but she can’t dance, has zero stage presence, was incapable of joking with the MC and didn’t understand his attempts to joke with her. Overall, she gives the impression of being an awkward teenager forced onto the stage against her will at a school assembly. I really do not get what the attraction is here, though I’ve read that there was some interest in the way her appearance defies norms for the stereotypical Chinese songstress. In my mind, that is just not enough. Still, the orchestra pit appeared to be full of people who attended the show simply for her, though this led my friends to observe somewhat uncharitably that surely her record label paid them to be there, perhaps so they could use the footage in a music video. I agreed that I could see no reason why anyone would cross the street to hear her sing, much less pay big bucks for a concert ticket.
With three acts out of the way, I was certain Mayday had to be next. Boy, was I wrong. The next act was… actually, I’m not quite sure what the next act was. Taking the stage was a guy with a turntable, two women (one of which was a bit, er, voluptuous) wearing t-shirts and tutus, and a women with bubblegum pink hair and a pool of pink tulle swimming around her, proclaiming herself to be “The Lady Tigra.” The women next to me said it best when she asked, “What the f**k is this?” She did not look the type to use such language, nor had she said much in English all night, so I was suitably impressed. What followed was something that was not singing, nor was it rapping; it was neither melodic nor rhythmic. It was in English when it wasn’t in random, ungrammatical French. My friend Dan expressed concern that we had, perhaps, accidently ingested some magic mushrooms at dinner, because it seemed unlikely that what was going on in front of us was real life. Later, we discussed at length the lows to which one’s life must sink before one becomes a back-up arm-flailer (what they were doing could hardly be described as dancing) for The Lady Tigra. When she wasn’t “performing,” she was gushing on about Valentine’s Day, leaving us with the impression that someone mentioned to her that the concert was celebrating an upcoming holiday, and ignorant of Chinese New Year, she assumed that was the one. In short, when she completed her turn on stage, the entire event had reached a low point, and there was absolutely nowhere to go but up.
When next addressing the stunned, post-Tigra crowd – torn between bored (in the case of the elderly Chinese faction) and hysterical (like Dan, who laughed so hard he cried) – the MC noted (still in Chinese, of course) that her performance had been presented to him as a “surprise” by the event organizers. He noted confidentially to the audience that not all surprises were welcome ones. Ms. Tigra, of course, had no idea the audience was laughing at her, which I thought was as it should be.
Thankfully, at this juncture, Mayday really was next. We had borne just about as much as we could, to be perfectly honest. We were more than two hours into the production (which naturally started late), and we were starting to eye the clock with an eye to our later flight home. After a series of performances that were off-key, amauturish, or just plain outlandish, Mayday was a breath of fresh air. This was the first time I’d ever seen them live – it still doesn’t count as a concert, of course, but I did at least get a taste of what I’ve been missing. Certainly, they demonstrated an air of professionalism that the evening had, thus far, sorely lacked. Ashin hit a few bad notes, but (remarkably) fewer than most of the artists to precede him. They were also playing instruments, naturally, but after a night of karaoke-style performances, this gave the sound a fullness we had not previously heard. But more than anything else, they filled the stage. They moved around while they sang, and they tried to engage the audience. It was a tough, tough crowd – the very definition of a 冷場 – but our boys worked very, very hard.
They sang (as advertised) “為愛而生,” “戀愛ing,” “我有初戀了” and “倔強.” The audience was, let’s face it, not there for Mayday. But there were a few fellow fans floating about, and if nothing else, I can’t help but think they earned some respect for actually giving a polished, practiced, and professional performance. When I asked my friends what they thought, Dan said that Mayday was very obviously the best act yet, and Laurie added, “yeah, and by a magnitude of ten.”
I think I’m starting to understand why so many people say that you need to see Mayday live to appreciate them fully. I got a little taste of that last night. When I left the concert, the first words out of my mouth were, “they were worth the trip.” Sadly, given the disorganization and the sheer amount of “filler” in the concert to that point, I couldn’t stick around to hear A-Mei or Jackie Chan. I’d gotten what I’d come for, though, and I left for the airport without regrets. I have to say that I think Mayday’s appearance was likely a turning point in the concert – though I didn’t see them perform, I can’t imagine that A-mei and Jackie were not equally professional because they are seasoned performers, even if they did lack the full band backup that benefited Mayday.
All too soon, I was back on the plane (and can I just say, Las Vegas to Minneapolis is not far enough for a red-eye flight. You lose two hours, so you can leave Vegas at 1:00 a.m. and arrive in Minnesota at 6:00, giving you the impression that the night has passed, but the flight itself is only a little under three hours long. That is not enough time to get enough sleep to function well the next day. Maybe when I was 22 it would have been, but it has been a few years since that was the case). Oddly, this was not the last of my day trips to casinos for Mandopop this month – my mom has decided she needs to see Leehom in Connecticut. Given the fact that my mom gets all of her knowledge of Mandopop through me, and given the fact that I’ve never been a real fan of Leehom, this is somewhat inexplicable. I have a sneaking suspicion that she is simply stressed, anxious to get out of town, and grasping at the first possible excuse. I had mentioned the fact of a Leehom concert in the U.S. this month while describing a conference paper I’m thinking of proposing on Mandopop and the Chinese Diaspora. If I had said I was writing about rodeos in Wyoming, I suspect we’d have plane tickets to Cheyenne by now. Whatever, Mandopop is Mandopop, and I’ve never been to Connecticut.