THE MOON AT THAT MOMENT
My Faye Wong article got shot down. The reason given was the music section is full. Dunno. It's always hard as a freelancer to not forget what it's like to be an editor, and every time I get turned down for stuff, I want to say, "No, really. What was it? Are you just being diplomatic?" I mean, good on them for being fair and I don't wish them grief. I am behind their need to do their job smoothly; it's my own cynicism from sitting in that chair. You, kids...you have no idea.
So, anyway, here is the article I was writing. I never found the ending. You can just imagine that, I suppose. Perhaps me in a fiery car wreck, dead dead good.
Faye, looking at a copy of Cut My Hair smirks, "Really? People pay for this?"
I have many sensory memories of my trip to Beijing. The sweet and tangy smell of sliced onions, the sourness of sugared apples on a stick, the smarting cold of the ice when I slipped and landed on my ass. There is also the stinging in my eyes from the countless dusty shops we went into, looking at bootlegs of CDs and DVDs. The most pointed element of that memory, though, was approaching the wall of Faye Wong to claim some of her albums as my very own.
Despite the fact that the Chinese actress/singer is one of the biggest stars in Asia, most of you are probably wondering who the hell Faye Wong is. A portion of you probably know who she is and don't realize it. You ever see Chungking Express? You remember the girl who used to sneak into police officer Tony Leung's place and alternate between secretly cleaning his apartment and playing with his airplane toy while listening to "California Dreaming"? That was Faye Wong. She also sang the Cantonese Cranberries cover that appeared on the soundtrack.
Or you 4AD Goths might have heard her on one of your Cocteau Twins records if you're obsessive enough to have tracked down the Asian release of Milk & Kisses. That's not Elizabeth Fraser singing alone on "Serpentskirt." That other voice, that's Faye Wong.
The Beijing trip was a fortuitous one for me and my desire to learn about Faye. I had only discovered Wong Kar-Wai the previous summer, through the Criterion DVD release of his brilliant 2000 film, In The Mood For Love. It became a movie I instantly started recommending and passing on. I even bought a copy for an artist friend, and she returned the favor by sending me a copy of Chungking Express. Just as I had been an instant Wong Kar-Wai convert with In The Mood For Love, I completely fell in love with Faye Wong in Chungking. Kar-Wai must have known that he had achieved that perfect intersection of casting and script. Why else give the character the same name? What he captured on film was like an X-ray revealing the soul of the actress. Like Billy Wilder capturing Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, or Kate Hudson embodying Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. We had gone beyond what could be written and photographed, into things that can't conventionally be expressed.
From what I can gather on the internet, Faye Wong became a pop star at an early age, but what wasn't exactly happy with how her career was being handled. Given the moniker "Shirley Wong" by her label, she was stuck in the usual young singer's conundrum--she had a desire to create art, but had sold her soul into a business. Unable to choose her own material or the direction of said material, she took her first chance to break away and moved to New York. There, she recharged her energies before returning to her native land to take control of her music and go on to superstardom. While her popularity in China has wained since the start of the new century, she has achieved new fame in Japan and signed a massive deal with Sony. Her first album in that deal, To Love, was released in November.
The accuracy of these internet legends is unknown to me. I have seen several conflicting bios, and this is my own distillation of it, the Faye Wong crash course of international myth.
The first Shirley album.
My speedy education in popular Chinese music occurred, for the most part, in the backs of taxi cabs. The bulk of the tunes I heard were ballads, and it seemed that the men in particular had a thing for wringing the maximum emotion out of every song, and not usually for the better. We're talking schmaltz. While many of the female singers had this problem, as well, I noticed that there was more variety to the production styles, including electronic sounds and moods akin to trip hop.
Unfortunately, when searching for a Chinese artist's material, it was a bit hard to make heads or tails of what was available. As I said earlier, when I had made up my mind to buy some Faye CDs, I was faced with an entire wall of them.
The best fan site online for Faye Wong is Josh's Fayevourite Faye Wong Page. Josh, a fan living in Toronto, keeps exhaustive databases of news, releases, and translated lyrics. According to his discography, there are 46 official Faye Wong albums, including numerous compilations. None of what I initially bought myself in Beijing, outside of a VCD of her Budokan concert, was an actual release, but dubiously compiled bootlegs. Something I was unaware of at the time.
Listening to music in a foreign language is a little like looking at abstract paintings. It's a whole different level of artist-to-audience communication. You're not going to get it exactly on the first glance, and even once you think you've figured it out, you're relying on instinct, on educated guesses, and most importantly, how it makes you feel. In that sense, singers could arguably find their best audience in countries that speak an entirely different language. Ever see a video of Duran Duran playing someplace like Italy, where girls with hairy armpits sang along to every word of "Save a Prayer" as if their lives depended on it? Chances are, they didn't have any idea what Simon Le Bon was talking about in a literal sense, but they knew for damn sure how their bodies were reacting to the music. Isn't that really more pure of a listening experience than being hung up on what exactly a particular line means?
So it is with Faye Wong and me. She and her collaborators may be the greatest poets who've ever lived, but I wouldn't have any idea. The closest I get to what she is actually singing is occasionally browsing fan translations, which can often be as dubious as the English subtitles on a Hong Kong film or the text of electronics manuals.
My favorite Faye Wong song is "The Moon at that Moment," off of her 1999 album Lovers & Strangers. An acoustic guitar leads a full string section. There are no drums or beat. Faye's voice is often in a higher register on the track than on her poppier numbers, or on her bolder ballads. There is a calmness to her performance, her voice sounding both resigned to her fate and wistful, as if her current situation is a fait accompli and she's okay with it. Listening to the song, I feel a sense of longing, of loneliness, and of heartache. I get the impression of being by myself, of the night. Yet I also feel twinges of hope, and the sense that there is a romance at the heart of it all, that it may pass or might already have done so, yet the memory of it lingers.
Sure, I could have it wrong. "The Moon at that Moment" could be about a pirate who has to fix a hole in his boat and does so by the light of a full moon, but does it matter? Isn't it more important that every time I hear that song, it stops me in my tracks, brings a hint of tears to my eyes, and stirs up a complex whirlpool of emotions in my chest? Do I need to know anything more than
Faye's voice is like a tractor beam. It has a warm, magnetic quality to it. I'd hate to say it's like honey, even if it is apt. There is a thickness to it, and a sweetness. It coats your ears. Her tones are different than we are used to, different than an English singer's. More right angles.
Lovers & Strangers
There are many sides to Faye Wong, just like any singer, just like any artist. Current album To Love is a good representation of where her music has evolved to, featuring an equal selection of techno pieces, big production ballads, and softer melodies. Culturally, one could argue she straddles a line between history and modernity, equally at home singing traditional Chinese numbers and futuristic dance music. It's a contradiction that reminds me a lot of Bjork, a comparison that begins to hold more water when you consider Wong's ever-evolving image and bold fashion statements. (In her Budokan concert, she spends much of her time wrapped in a plush, stuffed swan; the opening track of To Love sounds a tad like "Army of Me.") She's also been known to cover Western artists, largely other female signers, including Tori Amos, Karen White, Sophie Zelmani, and Sinead O'Connor. She even did a rather ballsy cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on her 1999 tour. You haven't understood grief until you've heard Faye Wong sing "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all."
Or consider the case of 2000's Fable. A twelve song narrative composed of two parts, full of luscious orchestral swashes interwoven with squelches of electronic atmosphere. The epic allows Faye to show off, moving across the vocal register as the story hits its peaks and valleys, al the while spinning a tale of love forbidden, funneled through lyrics working with the best imagery of Asian poetry (fireflies, lanterns, princes, etc.), encompassing the dawn of time, Cinderella, and filmmaker Zhang Yimou.
If you'd like to see all the false starts and random noodling that this article went under before we got to what you see here, follow this link.
Current Soundtrack: Kelis, Tasty; Dashboard Confessional, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar