Claire (Fu Yi) Student ID: 11188378
Tan Te: The Voice of Catharsis of Chinese Public
Mentioning about the most remarkable artistic work in China in 2010, “Tan Te” as a piece of “new traditional” music may not be the first nomination on the list. However, “Tan Te” earns its reputation and position in the popular cultural field in terms of its unpredictable public impact. For the netizens and audience in China, “Tan Te” is another vivid ‘legend’ made by internet and be boosted by the mainstream media. The song has hit the internet first in late 2010. It has been played more than 100,000 times on internet in three months and has numberless cover version made by netizens. More dramatically, Gong LinNa as a little-known singer, who has left China for eight years due to the unsatisfied career in her early age, has been invited to perform “Tan Te” in Spring Festival Television Galas which are hold by several most influential TV channel in China. She also held her personal concerts successfully in different cities. To some extent, “Tan Te” becomes an unexpected surprise for Chinese public and media as well as the musician herself. It is hard to tell whether it is the media and internet pushes this song into a position as avant-garde piece of art or it is the public’s choice to be possessed by the power of the song, which in turns influence the choice of media. Whatever the answer is, there is a fact of “Tan Te” that we could not ignore, which is this song challenges the common public aesthetic in China and hit the nerve of the Chinese society in a certain way in terms of its ‘mysterious’ lyrics, exaggerated performing style and its space for recreation. This report will focus on the artistic characteristic of “Tan Te” and the interpretation of Chinese public which would leads us to the discussion of the interaction between art and society.
The Analysis of the Characteristic of Tan Te
The mysterious lyrics
Tan Te in Chinese means “mentally disturbed”. The most notable characteristic of this song is it is composed in a traditional Chinese musical style and every word in its lyric comes from the Beijing Opera and has no literal meaning at all. The continuous ups and downs of notes and vocals make Tan Te untranslatable into any language, which makes the song be praised by netizens as a “divine tune”. The term “divine tune” originally means supremely good or beautiful music, but on internet, the netizens use this term to describe a song that is distinguished from the mainstream music and is difficult to be imitated. The new interpretation of this term is “a song can only be understood by gods”. From this comment, we could observe the first key point that turns the song into a widespread popular piece of work—the attraction to one of the most important human nature—the curiosity. As audience we could not accept that we heard noting meaningful in Tan Te which lasts for 3min 45sec. People start to persuade themselves that there must be something hidden in the lyrics.
Actually Tan Te borrows the style of Chinese traditional song especially from southwest China and is accompanied by Sheng (traditional Chinese instrument), Bamboo Flute, Violin, and Dulcimer. The whole lyric is constructed by interjections from Beijing Opera and combined with characteristic timbre of the characters in Beijing Opera like LaoDan(old woman), LaoSheng(old man), Huadan(a vivacious young woman.) All of these characteristics requires for excellent singing skills and makes the song so unpredictable that there comes a saying on internet—you can never learn how to sing Tan Te even after hearing it for 10,000 times.
The distinguished Performance
Besides the content and style of Tan Te, audiences are also attracted by the interpretation and expression of the Singer Gong LinNa. David R, Shumway defines in Key Terms In Popular Music And Culture that “music has long been defined as a “performing art”… in the performing arts, performance has traditionally been distinguished from the text or work…It carries the sense of being for an audience.” Gong LinNa claims that it is a improvisation every time when she performs the song and the title of the song describes her feeling of performing it accurately. “I feel like my heart goes up and down when I sing the song, it is so straightforward…I never thought this song could be described as ‘beautiful’ in the context of ‘music’ but it is powerful with its entire sense of humor. It is a song full of vitality.” (Interview of Gong Lin Na) This point of view is not exclusive to the singer herself. Most of people are ‘shocked’ at the first time when they watched Tan Te has been performed. They have no idea what they are listening to as well as what they are watching.
The representative attire of Gong LinNa when she performs Tan Te is a dress married the Beijing Opera costume and exaggerated fashion design. Her make up also borrowed some aspects from Beijing Opera such as grease painting facial makeup, the hanging eyebrows and the intense contrast color. All her emotions could be observed through her facial expressions. Her eyes are wide open for a while and narrow them for another while; she put her force to throw her head when it comes to high pitch and twists her waist with the tempo. Her performance is so exaggerated, self-indulgent and full of symbolic meanings that audiences find it is “wired”. Some netizens describe her as an androgyny ‘dancing’ with a song in a language from another space. Gong LinNa explains that as a singer all she is focus on are the soul of the song, she feel connect with the spirit of the song while forgetting the sex, the words and even the audience. For her, the performance is never about herself but about the song with the unbelievable power.
Tan Te’s Influence on Chinese Public
The most remarkable influence of Tan Te is its potential for public to recreate. It stimulates public’s imagination in terms of how to interpret the mysteries lyrics and how to feature their own performance of Tan Te. More and more netizens participate in this discussion about what the lyric means. It all starts when netizens try to ‘translate’ the meaningless lyric into words that people could sing with. Then they turn their interest into the sub context of the lyric, from which they could make so many stories like ‘screenwriters’. Someone writes that this is a story that has been telling by a peasant woman who experienced something urgent and unfair; someone claims this is a song describing people’s confusion in the age of massive information brought by internet; there are others thinks this is a song melting fear and anger towards real estate developer. There are also some entertaining explanations. One of the netizens says this is exactly an erotic poem that delineates a young couple from village release their sexual desire on the mountain. The climax of the song ends with the words pronounced as ‘A’ ‘I’ ‘yo’ describe theirs joy after breaking the rules from the secular world.
Besides these lyric interpretations, there are so many cover versions of Tan Te that have drawn even more attention form the public. There are two kinds of cover version of this song. Some one practiced the lyric a lot and record it when they are actually sing the song themselves; others are more inclined to perform the song in their own exaggerated way by following Gong LinNa’s singing. The most popular one includes Talking Tom version,(an application on iphone); the pregnant young mum’s crazy performance with a nursing bottle; a musical teacher’s crazy facial expression version; the piano talent’s playing performance version.
Analysis of the Significance of Tan Te
Behind all these manifestations illustrate that Tan Te ‘rock’ the whole Chinese society, here raises the question—what gives its power? According to some artistic critics, Tan Te is a song borrowed many aspects from traditional Chinese music but almost break every rule in that domain at the same time. Tan Te jumps over the words, style and language to pursue feelings and emotions that transmitted from facial expression, vocal performance and acting. Some critics labeled Tan Te as a piece of postmodern music in which context is not important any more. I think this is exactly the characteristic that corresponds to the physiological condition of Chinese public in this period of social transition. It is the similar phenomenon when the ‘street pop rock’ swept though China between the late 80s and the early 90s as Jeroen De Kloet observed in China With a Cut. He claims the meaning of music proliferate in the dialogue between the work and the audience. The work speaks to the audience, just like the audience speaks to the work. It brings us way back to the original myth of music in ancient Greek when the ‘music is conceived as subjective emotion breaking forth from the human breast’. (From The Music of the Environment) Similar to the confusion caused by the economic transition period in early 90s, Chinese public are ‘mentally disturbed’ by what happened in the past few years as well as the unknown future. We are terrified by all the tragedy happened since 2008—the earth quakes, mud-rock flow and other disasters; we feel insecurity about what we are experience at the present—unstable social structures, unsatisfied living conditions, high unemployment rate, incomplete social security system….The list goes on. Chinese public is in the certain phase of helpless, in control, insecurity and confused. They could feel the current under the bridge and the anger from their subconscious but there is no way they could integrate these feelings with concrete expressions. Music like Tan Te offers Chinese public an ‘exit’ of their emotions, from which they could feel release from so many feelings they can not speak out.
As ridiculous as the song seems like, it builds a connection with Chinese public. Whether a song like Tan Te could be considered successful, artistic or not, the whole concept it relies on would be viewed as an innovation. No matter what kind of artistic form Tan Te should be defined as and what phenomenon it is subject to, it creates a collective catharsis for Chinese public to entertain themselves; from this point of view it could be seen as a revolution for the public to aspire after their voice. It represents a new trend of aesthetics among Chinese public: armed with innovated art piece, they could create the possibility to challenge the conventional art and release their true feelings by interacting with acoustic art.
Cox, C. & Warner, D. (eds), (2004), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Continuum,London.
Horner,Bruth and Swiss,Thomas(eds.),Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, Blackwell,1999.
Kloet, Jeroen de, (2010). China With a Cut, Amsterdam University Press ; Manchester : Manchester University Press [distributor], 2010.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJ3c0ZHbTZc, Tan Te by Gong LinNa at New Year Eve concert in Hu Han provice.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_KL731MhVQ, Talking Tom Version of Tan Te
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mDn57iDDf8, Cover version of Tan Te by musical teacher
http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/HQBmKbZN5mw/, Cover version of Tan Te by American boy
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML6-38NuKi8, Cover version of Tan Te by the ‘crazy mum’.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfemxaEEwNU&feature=related, Improvisation Piano playing Tan Te