Apr 17, 2024
4 mins read
4 mins read

Mandarin Pop Song Lyrics Shift From Romance to Calls for Freedom, New Research Suggests

Mandarin Pop Song Lyrics Shift From Romance to Calls for Freedom, New Research Suggests
A screenshot of G.E.M. Tang’s music video for her song “Miss Similar”. (Image: G.E.M. Tang/Screenshot via Youtube)

Recent research has surfaced suggesting a major change in the themes of Mandarin song lyrics — particularly those performed by and aimed at Chinese women. 

Where love and romance were once common, now there seems to be a call for freedom.

According to a team led by Wenbo Wang, business school assistant professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, classic Mandarin pop songs that normally focus on love or the longing for romance are being sidelined for more personal songs about “freedom, self-determination and self-confidence,” Radio Free Asia (RFA) wrote.

RFA cited several songs demonstrating the shift. As a comparison, they included “Rain Butterfly” — sung by E-jun Lee and written by Taiwanese songwriters Hsu Chang-te and Chiung Yao — and “Jailbird” — penned by Tracy Hsiao — noting the different themes between the two.

“I fly to you, failing gently as the rain, though there have been tears and pain along the way, I pursue you tirelessly, no matter how far,” the lyrics of “Rain Butterfly” read. “As long as you have no complaints, I have no regrets… I’m intoxicated by the feeling of being loved.”

“If I leave this small castle you have given me, who else could I rely on?” the lyrics for “Jailbird” read, with the singer comparing herself to “a bird caged by you who has forgotten how high the sky is.”

Another song, “Miss Similar” by G.E.M. Tang suggests a woman’s need for individuality rather than beauty.

“Similar girls, chasing similar looks, wanting things, being led by the nose,” Tang rapped. “On similar streets, striking similar poses, following similar trends, getting similar noses. Life really shouldn’t be like this.”

In another track, “Today, We” — by lyricist Icy Cao and sung by Yuan Quan — the singer expresses how she can be comfortable with being on her own.

“Not going anywhere today… people who know how to be happy can embrace beauty in the unknown,” Yuan sings. “Today, I’m not gonna give myself a hard time. Gonna give myself a break.”

Embracing freedom

The study is following the trend in China of young people, overcome by economic tensions and a demanding work culture,  putting marriage, career growth, and starting a family aside.

Recent interviews with women in China by RFA revealed their dissatisfaction with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) insistence on birthing new babies. Wang believes that “there are fewer and fewer songs about love.” Instead, women are getting more concerned about their own needs.

“Nowadays, people don’t want to fall in love, they just want to make money and build a career,” he said, citing the digital media outlet The Paper.

“Women today are more likely to pursue ideals of freedom, independence, rationality and courage,” Wang added.

Wang’s team also found that the shift is also happening in recent TV dramas, through “strong and confident” characters.

Chinese millennial Ellie Li, who now lives in Washington, says she experienced the shift by listening to the band Mayday.

“There’s no requirement to have a partner or start a family by a certain age — it’s more about going with the flow,” she said.

Fred Chen, a notable lyricist, believes the signs have been evident since the 1990s.

“You can’t measure the influence or cultural significance of a pop song by averages,” Chen told RFA. “It’s more about looking at what is revealed or evoked by certain songs that got extremely popular … the special, unforgettable songs.”

He also said that social media has exposed all kinds of songs to much wider audiences, adding that there are more to popular songs than their lyrics.

“People tend to prefer melody, rhythm, the arrangement and visual packaging over lyrics,” he said.

Regardless, he believes that video platforms like TikTok and Douyin can still promote songs focused on self-determination and independence.

He was also asked if he was going to collaborate with Yuan Quan following her comeback into Mandopop after 15 years.

“I miss that era — when can you work with her again?” Chen was asked.