When American Idol made its debut in 2002, viewers had no idea that reality TV singing competitions would soon transform the music industry worldwide.
Last month, The Voice of China, part of the franchise The Voice, began airing its fourth season on Zhejiang TV. One highlight so far has been Vanutsaya Visetkul (known in the Sinophone world as Lang-ga-la-mu 朗嘎拉姆), an ethnically Chinese Thai teenager whom netizens have described as the reincarnation of 80s legend Teresa Teng. Unfortunately she has not progressed further in the competition.
Unlike its Western counterparts, The Voice of China transcends borders. Though the competition is held in mainland China, it draws upon a global pool of Mandarin-speaking contestants. Two of the four judges are from Taiwan, among them Jay Chou. The show is broadcasted on Now TV in Hong Kong, CTi Variety in Taiwan, Channel U in Singapore, and 8TV in Malaysia.
This means that The Voice of China is a form of soft power, says the People’s Daily on the mainland, and even China Times in Taiwan. Perhaps even President Xi Jinping had the show in the back of his mind when he declared, on the subject of soft power, that “the voices of China [should be] well spread.”
The Centre of Civilisation?
Yet soft power is a widely misapplied concept. Political theorist Joseph Nye warns against equating it with cultural resources, or the sheer amount of cultural goods you produce.
According to him, soft power refers to a country’s ability to influence behaviours by attracting others with culture, values and policies, like Western democracy or Beijing’s model of development. It is contrasted with the “hard power” of military threats and economic incentives.
Interviewed before and after her performance, Visetkul announced that she arrived from Thailand because her “dreams and hopes lay in China,” and she “wanted to learn about Chinese culture.” Ironically, for political reasons Teresa Teng herself never performed in mainland China, but Visetkul’s statements give us an insight into the theme of the show.
The Voice of China reinforces the idea that the mainland is the centre of Chinese popular culture. This is a place where, 40 years ago, there was an ongoing revolution to destroy all bourgeois culture. Back then, peripheral regions such as Taiwan and Hong Kong served as the cultural poles that attracted the Chinese diaspora. But now the mainland wants to take back the mantle, as it has historically.
While there were only four non-mainland contestants on The Voice of China during the first season, the show has since diversified into a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities. Uighur rock musician Parhat Halik won the third season, sometimes singing in his mother tongue.
The line-up in the August 7 episode consisted of singers from Hong Kong, the US, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan. Two were from Xinjiang, one Han Chinese and another Kazakh. One Taiwanese singer came from the indigenous community. The episode on July 24 featured more contestants from outside mainland China than within.
This increase in diversity might not be accidental. The show is arguably trying to portray ethnic harmony within the country, and strengthen the “Chinese” identity among overseas Chinese.
The Chinese Market
Clearly, however, China’s “hard power”—the sheer size of the mainland market—is irresistible to many overseas artists. Nothing in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Southeast Asia compares to the 1.3 billion potential consumers in the mainland, and the fate of their own TV singing competitions demonstrates this.
In Hong Kong, the grand finale of the latest series of TVB’s The Voice was broadcast during prime time, on January 31st 2015. Yet it recorded a paltry 15 viewership points. It was the ninth most-watched programme of the week.
Taiwan’s One Million Star was originally a weekly show. It adopted a seasonal format in 2011 due to declining viewer numbers, and was discontinued two years later. Its third-placed contestant in 2008, Uni Yeh, subsequently competed on The Voice of China.
The Voice of China outcompetes its counterparts because it is a platform for the mainland to showcase its immense market to budding artists on its periphery and overseas. After their stint on the show in July 2014, Hong Kong duet Robynn & Kendy went on to play mini-concerts in Beijing, Shanghai and across Guangdong province. They follow in the footsteps of Cantopop singer G.E.M., also known as Gloria Tang, whose breakthrough in the Chinese market was her appearance on Hunan TV’s I Am A Singer.
None of this is news to the music industry, or indeed to the media and cultural industries. The dominant mainland market has meant that the status of Cantopop among Chinese popular music has fallen. One analysis from local independent outlet VJmedia even laments that The Voice of China “perpetuates the narrative” that “Hong Kong would be nowhere without China”.
To break into the mainland market, artists are careful to play by the rules, especially the political ones.
Introducing themselves on the show, Robynn & Kendy claimed that they were from “Hong Kong, China,” before judge Yang Kun’s remark—“You’re from Hong Kong? Welcome!”—reminded them that overt patriotism was not necessary.
Similarly, Uni Yeh described herself as a girl from “Pingtung, Taipei, China.” Singer-songwriter Liang Bo won the first season controversially with a song titled I Love You China, performed the night before National Day.
Looking further back, earlier attempts to bring reality TV singing competitions to a Chinese audience had been thwarted for alleged political reasons. Hunan TV’s Super Girl (2004-06) was discontinued reportedly because it allowed viewers to democratically vote for their winners. Happy Girl (2009-11) suffered the same fate.
Perhaps for the artists, positioning themselves on the correct side of Chinese politics can ensure business is not affected by an unpredictable censorship system and new political developments.
But clearly, as a cultural export, The Voice of China does not only operate on the logic of soft power. Viewers outside of the mainland also face an onslaught of direct economic and political messages, that are part and parcel of the cultural product.
As a final note, I should explain I am not a fan of reality TV singing competitions in general. They stunt innovation by imposing an authoritative measurement of music quality. They also take deserved attention away from instrumentalists, composers and producers. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Chinese artists and musicians have survived much tougher tests in the past.
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