Someone new to Hong Kong was asking if there were any local artists like Sia, Pink, Janelle Monae, or Jhene Aiko- pop artists but with that creative quirkiness that gives them an edge.
We were having dinner, the video for “Pressure” was being shown on one of the music channels, and she wanted to go out and hear some good ‘live’ music- like the type of music Jhene Aiko makes. But where? And whom? And why not?
What’s not only sad, but horribly outta sync with the times is the minuscule talent pool out here, which is divided into enthusiastic fortysomething “indie” bands still paying homage to Blink-182 or Siouxie and the Banshees (eyes roll upwards) and flinging themselves about with some middle class angst usually seen at The Fringe or The Wanch while there’s the other crop of musicians comprising the usual suspects that straddle what they think is “jazz”, but, depending on the gig or “function”- and the budget- can morph into “Adele”, “Beyoncé”, or even Maroon 5.
A Sia, Janelle Monae or Jhene Aiko in Hong Kong, or a band like Placebo? Never.
Of course, there are the Canto-Popsters and local Hello Kitty moppets- Jacky, Aaron, Sammi, Joey, Hins etc. They’re all, basically, the same person with most of the extremely wealthy male Canto Pop “idols” pushing sixty and known for their gaudy costume changes at their sellout concerts that go on and on and on.
Also going on and on are their formulaic songs- always ballads- comprising two ponderous verses, a chorus that is pounded into submission, another verse, key change and then back to that BIG chorus full of manly pathos.
Most of their songs have been written by the also very wealthy Mark Lui and are actually “Desperado” with some minor changes to hide the similarities. Blurred Lines, indeed.
The concerts go on for fucking hours with much time spent on cornball banter, trotting out a few guests and more mindless chatter, and more costume changes than a Cher Tribute by drag queens.
Everything is way over the top. Like what? Like Aaron Kwok often bringing his horse onstage. Yes, his horse. Oh, please, Aaron, stop this madness.
The female of the species act cute, make V signs with both hands, try to sing, try to dance and keep mentioning and thanking their hair stylists.
Like their male counterparts, they, too, are filthy rich, stage a fashion show at their concerts, bring out various guests, pad out the 3-4 hours of tediousness with cornball schtick, and audiences lap it all up like happy little seal pups. They’re the result of years of brainwashing.
Most of these Canto-Popsters were manufactured at the right time- the Eighties- based on their looks and with huge heavyweight support from television station HKTVB and its buffet of dodgy awards shows with businessmen in the money laundering side of the A Train, and music, television and radio executives being part and parcel of the games played.
With commercial radio in Hong Kong all but banning English recordings, an entire generation lost out on an entire era of music, which is unforgivable, and a key reason why musical tastes are the way they are and why the local fat cats continue to invest in the formulaic artists and music that they do. It’s all a bit like Hugh Hefner and the bunny rabbits in his faked out fountain of Viagra youth.
Today, with their various investments and ten, twenty and thirty years worth of material, the shows goes on along with multi-million dollar sponsorship and appearance fees with absolutely no thought nor need to be original. Their fakeness is their originality and it’s made them and their one-time enablers very rich in the process.
Actor-pilot-singer Michael Wong is an exception to the rule- a Fiftysomething work-in-progress and releasing some truly awful recordings that are so creepily camp, they’re good high kitsch.
What about the rest of Hong Kong’s musicians- the small handful that’s around?
It’s been said before here, and it will be said over and over and over again, but Hong Kong’s “working musicians” are working so frequently to eke out a living that they have no time to be original.
Do they have the time or the interest to stay in touch with who and what’s happening in music “in the Now” so they can try to be relevant and not be, in some cases, talented musical copycats?
Mostly, No, and which is why one appreciates what drummer Nate Wong, singer Jackie Yin, or band maRK, each, young and committed to their craft built around the Jazz genre. All are doing things to create something new, and one can only applaud and support their efforts.
The one hiccup is that not even Dorian Grey stays forever young and there have been way too much young local talent who have grown old and flatulent through a lack of ambition, no mentors, and zero competition.
Sorry, but covering pop songs by following written charts, and singers having to keep glancing at lyric sheets goes against the very basic fabric of what pop music is meant to be- spontaneous, creative, musicians being inspired enough to feed off each other, and pluck words and melodies outta thin air.
Some might say that legendary session people like Steve Gadd, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and the rest of the Wrecking Crew, Harvey Mason, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Tom Scott, Merry Clayton etc etc didn’t “write”.
Not really true, but each and every one of these musicians added so much to every session they were hired to play on- uncredited work like Gadd’s drumming that gave Paul Simon’s “50 Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” it’s body and personality, Larry Knetchel and Joe Osborne’s creativity on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and, lest we forget, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner and Eric Clapton’s contributions on so many recordings by the Beatles, George Harrison and John Lennon. There were no charts. Only all heart and commitment and mutual respect.
If unable to write or be part of the creative process, then continue to be a “Charter” member of music and stay locked forever inside a cover version.
Does the world, however, really need a third rate Jason Mrazz, Bruno Mars or Adele or any other Top Forty act? Maybe in Shenzhen and some “function” or hotel lounge catering to middle age tourists wanting to hear something they’ve heard before, but with no surprises.
Does any of this go towards creating and producing anything new? Of course not. It’s just reproducing everything that’s already been done, but not anything new that will take careers beyond Shenzhen. And “functions”.
When even the handful of venues around where musicians can stretch themselves, and see if something unique can be ignited, end up with the usual suspects doodling together for 3-4 tedious hours like the self-indulgence that takes place every Friday and Saturday evening at that five-star hotel lounge where even a Man For All Seasons runs out with his hands over his ears screaming, “Stop all that jizz!” it shows a lazy musical environment where there are way too many legends in their own lunchtime. It’s shlock value “stuff”.
It might be wishful thinking but, oh for there to be a venue- and with the apps and technology to go with it- where proven A&R people from outside of Hong Kong pick and choose talent that MUST play mainly original material. If covers are to be included, these, too MUST be given an original spin.
That day might not be that far away. It has to be if music in Hong Kong and those making it are to get out of their rut while “re-learning” the rudiments of what is termed “pop music”, and which came out of the creativity of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and all those pioneers of music that once upon a time came without labels.
Chairman and CEO
We-Enhance Inc and Fast Track Global Ltd