Written by Chen-Yu Lin.
Image Credit: due to courtesy of台視/GMA
In June 2019 the Golden Melody Awards (金曲獎 GMA) will turn 30. Apart from the most commonly known annual award ceremony that acknowledges musical achievement in Taiwan— and roughly speaking, the Sinophone world— a series of business conferences, networking sessions and showcases (Golden Melody Festival, GMF) are taking place prior to GMA to encourage business exchange between Taiwan and the world.
In the past 30 years, GMA has gradually become the most prestigious musical award in the Sinophone world, not to mention its high economic value for directly stimulating sales and publicity. Each year, a different panel of judges were on jury meetings to decide where the final awards go. It was known as the Grammys of the Chinese-speaking world. Additionally, due to its significance, at the end of 2018, it was widely reported that many artists ‘rushed’ to release their albums to make themselves eligible for the entries to the awards on a special year—its 30th anniversary.
The GMA was founded by the Governmental Information Office (GIO) in 1989 to officially recognize musical talents. Prior to the abolition of martial law in 1987, the GIO was a cabinet-level agency that regulated domestic media and played a key role in media censorship. The GIO not only promoted purified songs (淨化歌曲) and patriotic songs (愛國歌曲), it also established a workforce to censor music that was considered decadent, pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC), or embracing any values deemed inappropriate.
The GMA’s categories of awards have changed since its founding and reflect Taiwan’s shifting identities and cultural policies. From 1991 to 1996 awards for singers were categorized as either Mandarin (Guoyu 國語, national language) or regional languages (方言, dialects). However, in 2003 the two categories of Best Hakka Singer and the Best Indigenous Singer were added, reflecting the gradual processes of Taiwanization (台灣化).
30 years since inception the Awards are still presented by the Ministry of Culture, but have also become a stage where musicians are free to make political statements. In 2013 the iconic and historical Taipei live music venue Underworld (地下社會) was shut down. Bands Mayday (五月天), The Chairmen (董事長), Luantan Ascent (亂彈阿翔), and Quarterback (四分衛) protested its shutdown by singing the song Conscience (良心) while images of news articles and the venue were displayed. Underworld was the cradle of several successful Taiwanese bands including Mayday, LTK Commune (濁水溪公社) and ChThonic (閃靈), and its shutting down was attributed to gentrification and a lack of policy supporting the development of local music scenes.
In 2017 indigenous singer Ayal Komod (張震嶽), MC HotDog and MJ116 (頑童116) delivered the Award’s opening performance. Ayal sang his song Don’t Cry (別哭小女孩) while holding up a banner with the slogan ‘No one is an outsider’ (沒有人是局外人). This was in reference to his support of the Indigenous Ketagalan Boulevard movement in 2017, which demonstrated the on-going pursuit of a more official recognition of land as traditional territories. While the history of the island is certainly not short of mistreating the indigenous groups and depriving their land rights, this protest was also significant for its recognition of the first nation in Taiwan. It was one of the most moving and powerful moments on the stage of GMA when he held the banner up high while singing:
The familiar road back home is in ruin.
Little girl, don’t cry. I’ll hold your hand and walk with you
Although the GMA has in recent years provided a platform for musicians to raise awareness of important issues, the categories of the awards have remained controversial. In 2007, singer Lin Sheng-xiang (林生祥) famously declined the Best Hakka Singer and the Best Hakka Album awards, stating that he believes music should not be categorized by languages but by genres. He protested that segregating musicians singing in Hakka by award category actually marginalizes them and prohibits their music from being considered mainstream, as the Mandarin categories attract the most media attention.
While GMA’s changing categories remain controversial, these changes also provide a lens through which to witness the transformation and democratization of the island. The history of the GMA reflects how freedom of artistic expression has grown and how music and musical performances in Taiwan have become a vehicle for political activism, even on a stage that was founded by an agency used to be practicing state censorship. During these 30 years of the Awards, Taiwan became the second largest music market in Asia in the 1990s. The 2000s witnessed a surge of Taiwanese music into the PRC market and the growth of independent artists and indie music in Taiwan. Today’s Golden Melody Awards and Festival still annually bring together various members of the music industry, casting a spotlight on some of the year’s best music.
The ceremony is guaranteed to be entertaining, exciting and glamorous. At the same time, it could be inspiring and political. The GMA not only reflects the transformation of Taiwanese post-martial law society; it also provides a platform for potential business exchange and future international collaboration. It is the time of the year again to find out who is going to win! Let’s sit back and enjoy the ceremony.
Chen-Yu Lin is Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Music, University of Liverpool. She is also Assistant Editor of Taiwan Insight. Her research interests include Taiwanese popular music, music censorship, music, place and identities.