From Dancing Diva to Phony Queen: Jolin Tsai as a Taiwanese Gay Icon

Written by Paris Shih.

 

On the evening of 6 November 2015, I walked out of a metro station towards the Taipei Arena, and was soon surrounded by a sea of gay men. Each of us held a pink glowstick. Without talking to each other, we recognized one another’s identity. For most people in Taiwan, the night was as usual. For gay men, the night was special. It was the second day of Jolin Tsai’s (蔡依林) Play World Tour. It was our party.

With Play, Jolin Tsai entered a new phase of her career where she proudly incorporated gay elements into her performing arts. In “We’re All Different, Yet the Same,” she famously stages a lesbian kiss with Taiwanese actress, Ruby Lin. The Play World Tour featured flamboyant, drag-queen dancers Johnny Rice and Anthony Garza, who previously worked with American gay icons Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj. The gay references in Jolin Tsai’s Play phase were everywhere. But anyone who has been following her career would have known that her status as a gay icon in Taiwan long preceded her outspoken support for the gay community. Her gay iconicity can first be traced to 2003, when she returned with her fifth studio album, Magic, after a one-year hiatus. When she faded from the music scene in 2001, few people believed she would ever return. But she not only managed to come back; she came back with a major makeover. With Magic, Jolin Tsai transformed herself from a teen idol into a pop princess. For the first time, she was glamorous, chic, and, to young girls and gay men of my generation, powerful. The eponymous single of the album, “Magic,” beautifully sums up her self-reinvention, since its original title literally means “watch my seventy-two changes.” In the song, she playfully sings: “Good bye Ugly Duckling / I am going to turn over a new leaf…Begin your transformation now / A sparrow can fly into the blue sky.” In the accompanying music video, she changes from one outfit to another, showcasing the latest millennial fashion with style and sass. At that time, “Magic” was particularly self-referential, since we all knew Jolin Tsai was basically performing her own story—we were witnessing her “seventy-two changes.” But the song was more than that. Perhaps unknown to herself, Magic embodied elements central to gay men’s diva worship: glamour and self-refashioning. It sent a powerful message to young gay men who were struggling through their teenage years: if I can come back and prove myself stronger than ever, so can you.

If Magic turned Jolin Tsai into a pop princess, Dancing Diva made her a queen. The year was 2006 when she released one of the most important albums of her entire career. On 6 May 2006, six days before the album’s official release, Jolin Tsai performed its eponymous single, “Dancing Diva,” at the MTV Asia Awards. Combining yoga, gymnastics, and ribbon dance in a four-minute extravaganza, she took over the crowd at Bangkok’s Royal Paragon Hall. What she delivered on that stage was more than a performance. It was a cultural event. Across the South Sea, thousands of gay men in Taiwan were screaming and holding back tears in front of the TV. It seemed, through her music and dance, we could easily transcend boundaries. The MTV event marked only the beginning of “the Reign of Dancing Diva.” After the album finally came out, gay men went crazy. While girls copied Jolin Tsai’s fashion styles, gay men picked up the dance moves. From “Dancing Diva” to “Mr. Q,” her beats, her rhythms, her moves had become ours. True, Dancing Diva enjoyed mainstream success, but gay men managed to reclaim it to make a culture of our own. At night clubs as well as on the Internet, gay men started a new wave of dance subculture. Dancing Diva wasn’t just an album. It was our politics. It created a community. It gave gay men a voice and a body. Paradoxically, we only became “ourselves” through “becoming Jolin Tsai.”

With Dancing Diva, Jolin Tsai also entered her role-playing phase. While Magic gave her a makeover, Dancing Diva gave her a persona. For more than one year, Jolin Tsai was the dancing diva, someone, in her own words, “who sacrifices her life for the art of dance.” Following Dancing Diva, Jolin took on a different role with each album. The next year, she became “Agent J.” Like Britney Spears in “Toxic,” Agent J is also a chameleon. She performs her femininities in order to seduce and kill the man. Groundbreaking in the world of Mando-pop, Agent J was both an album and a concept film, with each song representing a different scenario of the life and times of Agent J. Then, in the spring of 2009, she turned into a “butterfly.” Thematically, Butterfly was a sequel to Magic. In its eponymous single, Jolin Tsai echoes “Magic” by singing: “We all want to be different / But dare not to be extraordinary… You can put on your best outfit and become a deluxe edition of Butterfly / You can be more showy and fearless than you’d imagined.” Stylistically, Butterfly brought back the fashion of wearing corsetry and brassieres that Madonna and Jean-Paul Gaultier made famous twenty years ago with the Blonde Ambition Tour. Over and over again, Jolin Tsai showed us that “womanliness,” or femininity, is nothing but a “masquerade.” While feminist theorists since Joan Riviere have thoroughly explored the relationship between masquerade and women, few venture to address its connection with gay men. But feminine masquerade is as important to gay men as to women. For women, masquerade exposes the “performative structure of gender,” to put it in Judith Butler’s words, and has, over the course of history, developed into a necessary survival skill. For gay men, feminine masquerade works the other way: it frees us from the hegemony of masculinity. While it is true that not all gay men are feminine, there is still a historical and structural relationship between gay men and femininity. Because it continues to be stigmatized, performing femininity is never just personal. It is also deeply political. And it is this joint affinity with feminine masquerade that makes Jolin Tsai an important gay icon. Through her, we learn to play with different gender roles. The art of masquerade, after all, isn’t hard to master.

Before Play, then, Jolin was already pretty gay. What made this “gay history” of Jolin Tsai intriguing was that it remained mostly underground. Nobody openly acknowledged it, but gay men all knew it. Before she became a public gay icon, she was our underground queen. But in some way, Play did make her gayer. Not, like most people assumed, because of the lesbian kiss, but because with Play, Jolin Tsai finally camped it up. She first developed her camp aesthetic in “Phony Queen,” the lead single of the album. In the accompanying music video, Jolin Tsai plays a phone-obsessed prima donna in a comic, exaggerated manner. The title of the song also playfully captures the essence of camp with its double meaning. Subtly alluding to a quintessential gay art, it announces the advent of a newly-crowned camp queen. But Jolin Tsai did not stop there. In the second lead single, “Play,” she portrays a series of cartoonish characters—the Rich Queen, the Red Carpet Diva, and the Hipster Girl—in an even more theatrical, stylized way. Such camp mannerism ran through her entire Play phase. Her transformation was obvious: for the first time in her career, she was fun, playful, and flamboyant. Play again achieved mainstream popularity and proved to be her most successful work since Dancing Diva. But it meant something very different to gay men. To us, she was more than a “playful Jolin”—she had become our Queen of Camp. While there was a complicated and often troubled relationship between camp and the gay community, it was, and continues to be, an important part of our heritage. Some people argue that camp has lost its critical edge after pop female singers “appropriate” it. What they fail to see is that these women are often gay icons. The history of women and camp has never been just “female.” It is also colorfully gay. Unsurprisingly, Jolin Tsai’s camp made its way to the gay subcultural scene. With Play, she revived the queer art of parody.

But glamour and camp only made up half of the gay history of Jolin Tsai. The other half was made of tears and wounds. As much as she stayed glamorous and poised on the stage, she could easily fall victim to tabloid journalism and public humiliation. For a long while, she was either too much or not enough in the public eye. At times, she was trying too hard, working too much. At others, she was not pretty enough, not extraordinary enough. Whenever she was praised, people fired back. At 2007’s Golden Melody Awards, for example, she took home the Best Mandarin Female Singer statuette for Dancing Diva. But the next day, she was panned by journalists, critics and the general public. What made her a queen, then, made her an underdog at the same time. Counterintuitively, it was this contradictory image as both a power queen and an underdog that made Jolin Tsai even more of a gay icon. As Richard Dyer has argued in his seminal essay, “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” what made Garland an archetypal gay icon was her embodiment of both strength and vulnerability. Most importantly, no matter what happened to Garland, she came back. This was why Jolin Tsai’s early career struggles were essential to her current status as a gay icon. Without those “pre-Magic” struggles, her comeback story wouldn’t have resonated with the gay community like it did. Without the suffering, she wouldn’t have become the epitome of gay experience. Let’s not forget that with Dancing Diva, she not only made herself a queen, but also became, in the words of Taiwanese critic Chien-Chih Chen, the archetypal “earth-made” talent. Unlike other pop divas, Jolin Tsai’s stage presence was never effortless. Often, it was self-conflicting. See, for example, her highly-acclaimed Myself World Tour. After a series of dazzling dance numbers, she delivered a sentimental speech where she revealed her past struggles and traumas. Such a dramatic transition might have puzzled a new follower, but for gay men who’d been there for her through all these years, there could be nothing more quintessentially “Jolin Tsai.” To her, glamour and suffering were never mutually exclusive—they were mutually constitutive. And, growing up gay and gorgeous, we could all relate to that. It was this paradoxical image as an “underdog diva” that led to a gay reading of Jolin Tsai. It was also the very same image that created a strong bond between her and gay men of my generation. In fact, the nickname of Jolin’s followers were, very fittingly, “knights,” which came from her 2002 single, “Spirit of the Knight.” “Knights, show your spirit,” she sings, “The proud princess is returning home/ Getting ready to come back.” This self-referentiality could not be achieved without our ready knowledge. We were the knights, and she the proud princess. There was no prince in this story. It was a romance between the princess and her knights. It was a love story between Jolin Tsai and gay men.

I walked into the Taipei Arena along with the stream of gay men. Most of them seemed my age. The gay history of Jolin Tsai was not only a gay thing. It was also a generational thing. For every Taiwanese gay man growing up in the late 90s and the early 2000s, there was a Jolin Tsai. It was both personal and political, individual and communal. I was not yet fifteen when Magic came out. For the next fifteen years, I went through every stage of self-transformation with her. Her comebacks were my comebacks. Her tears were my tears. It would be an understatement to say that Jolin Tsai made me gay. She did not just make me gay. She made me gorgeously gay.

 

 

Paris Shih is a writer and cultural critic based in Taipei. He specializes in feminist and queer theory, the history of gender and sexuality, as well as pop culture studies. He is the author of The Power of the Badgirl: The Rise of Postfeminism in Popular Cinema, The Girl Revolution: 100 Years of Girl Culture from Flappers to Girl Power, and Sex, Heels, and Virginia Woolf: A History of Feminist Polemics. Currently, he is working on a history of modern gay icons. Image Credit: Warner Music.

 

 

 

Editor’s Note:

It is our pleasure to present Paris Shih’s article as the final part of the special issue on LGBTQ and gender issues. It is longer than our regular contributions, but provides a heartfelt analysis of Jolin Tsai’s work. Importantly, he shows how Tsai’s oeuvre relates to Taiwan as a unique centre for the Asian LGBTQ movement and as a producer of innovative pop music. Along with his article, this special issue has highlighted that Taiwan has been, and still is, actively and progressively enriching global dialogue on gender through culture, music, films, technology and research. We hope this special issue will shed some light on this diverse and creative field. (Chen-yu Lin)

One comment

  1. This story is quite poetic. I feel touched but a little sad, too. It appears that I hold a few preconceptions I cannot readily shed since my life experiences are all too different.

    1. If a pop entertainer wants to be elevated to pop icon, they have to allude to the zeitgeist. Some may have it in themself (think of David Bowie), most need the help of a manager, a producer and a marketing team (Michael Jackson). The goal is to increase the artist’s appeal and such to maximise revenue.

    Jolin Tsai (or her team) identified rooting for LGBT communities as a heartfelt feature of today’s zeitgeist among younger generations. So, “she proudly incorporated gay elements into her performing arts” and she “famously stages a lesbian kiss”. Yes, it worked and, yes, it was staged. Was it sincere or just a marketing ploy?

    2. “We’re All Different, Yet the Same” meaning: each of us is special, yet of the same species. No surprises here. Anybody will agree, gay or not. But where is the deep, uplifting meaning?

    3. “With Magic, Jolin Tsai, … was glamorous, chic, and, to young girls and gay men of my generation, powerful.” It is true, I am neither a young girl nor a young gay man, so it’s not surprising that it’s beyond my imagination what is powerful about “changes from one outfit to another, showcasing the latest millennial fashion with style and sass”. But, still, is there nothing more powerful in a young person’s life than one’s outfit? Or, to be more specific, is there nothing more powerful in a gay men’s life than diva worship based on glamour and self-refashioning?

    4. What makes a performance a cultural event? It’s the creativity in the performance. So, when “gay men picked up the dance moves” from ‘Dancing Diva’ and “managed to reclaim [them] to make a culture of [their] own”, the claim to culture rings empty in my ears because I see imitation only.

    5. “We all want to be different / But dare not to be extraordinary… You can put on your best outfit and become a deluxe edition of Butterfly / You can be more showy and fearless than you’d imagined.”

    No doubt, one can make a spectacle of oneself by putting on one’s best, deluxe outfit and showing off fearlessly. Does this make masquerade into something quintessentially feminine? Is there really nothing more to femininity than masquerade? Then what more is there to masculinity? No masquerade there?

    I see shallow play only. How to create a meaningful life out of this? Perhaps, some are satisfied with a glamorous life, hopping from one spectacle to the next.

    Like

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