Written by Ellie Koepplinger.
I remember being thirteen with vivid clarity. You are at once gangly, disproportionate, and uncomfortable with yourself, confused and delighted in equal measure by your budding independence. You are constantly trying to untangle a knotted web of hormones, education, and friendships, convinced that one poor decision would permanently impact the chasm of life that stretched before you. At that tender inflexion point, falling in love with fictionalized Taiwanese pop idols was the one thing that kept me grounded. They represented a respite, a home, and a place of consistency away from the chaos of early-teenagehood that was mirrored in the predictability of the music itself. Perhaps most importantly, exploring Taiwanese idol culture allowed me to express my nascent, unsettling sexuality in a sociologically safe way.
The system of Taiwanese idol culture is meticulous and holistic; it’s intentionally designed to engross fans in a fantasy world, fostering connections that facilitate an imagined community both within the media itself and externally between fans. Unlike in Japan or Korea, however, idols are not groomed since childhood but instead often start their careers after completing their education (providing a delectable air of maturity). My first foray into this universe was a Taiwanese drama called 愛就宅一起 (or “To Get Her” in English), released in 2009. Within a few episodes, I was simply engrossed in these characters’ lives – lives that existed in an alternative universe I could almost touch from my childhood bedroom a thousand miles away in Glasgow, Scotland. I was delighted to discover that the main actors not only performed in hours of other dramas – that dealt with themes that became gorgeously formulaic – but they also created music that often became the soundtrack to the TV shows. As a result, my 13-year-old self became immersed in the voices of those I was in love with – they serenaded me through the cheap earbuds of a borrowed MP3 player, through shoddy downloads of poor-quality YouTube videos. The characters came to life in the music, their voices a vivid comfort as I stumbled through my adolescence.
To this day, I find it fascinating that Taiwanese boyband culture is idols’ deliberate appeal as holistic characters outside of their singing or acting abilities. My favourite idol was Jiro Wang (汪東城) of Fahrenheit (飛輪海), who was celebrated partially because of his iconic family values. After graduating high school, he famously worked three jobs to repay his late father’s debts out of devotion for his mother. His filial piety – a Confucian cultural force that still runs deep for many Taiwanese young people – became central to Wang’s engineered appeal. This made him a socially acceptable vector for young girls to project their sexual and romantic fantasies. All four Fahrenheit members had university degrees before starting their careers in the performing arts, which I believe is not entirely unusual for Taiwanese boybands even today (see SpeXial, Anthony Neely, etc.). Calvin Chen’s MSc in Economics from a prominent Canadian university was partially responsible for inspiring me to become an economist myself. I became one of three Black girls accepted to the undergraduate economics program at UC Berkeley in 2018, out of 1,300 other Economics undergraduates and 30,000 students. As adults responsible for facilitating healthy development for the young women in our lives, we can’t discount the kind of multi-faceted inspiration Calvin Chen and idols like him give to young girls.
Musically, idol-genre Taiwanese boyband pop – particularly from the mid-late 2000s – was unoriginal at best. Nevertheless, I found home and hope in the predictable perfect cadences. Harmonies enter at expected times; melodies follow simple major arpeggios. Even the instrumentation is an amalgamation of archetypal rock rhythms, acoustic guitars, piano trills, smooth vocals with simple key changes. The music is nothing special – and nor should it have to be. Idol songs should feel like shrugging on a favourite sweater – there’s poetry nestled between the lyrical cliche and musical simplicity. A personal favourite is Fahrenheit’s “Stay with Me,”
留下來 留下來 繼續沒愛完的愛
Stay with me, stay with me, continue the love that hasn’t finished yet
I can realize the expectations you once had for me
留下來 留下來 在我心裡住下來
Stay with me, stay with me, live in my heart
Don’t even think I will let you go
If I’m candid with myself, perhaps I feel it necessary to simply protest the snobbish snorts of derision I receive from self-proclaimed “musos” when I admit my love for Fahrenheit and artists like them. I sometimes wonder if the real reason idol culture is met with scepticism from the musicology establishment is because, at its heart, it’s an implicit manifestation of young girls’ sexual desire. I can’t be alone in harbouring painful memories of humiliation from peers and adults alike once news of a crush leaked out – but being obsessed with pop stars has always been a socially encouraged anchor for girls’ romantic or sexual fantasies during the turbulence of puberty. What makes Taiwanese idol culture uniquely Taiwanese is precisely because the idols themselves are selected based on their behaviour rather than their artistic talents. Musicians are not alone in this phenomenon – the iconic Taiwanese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin is celebrated partly because of his Harvard education. When it comes to understanding idol obsession, we must counter-intuitively look beyond the simplicity of the music toward the culture and community these idols inspire.
So, as a former fangirl, my confession is this; analysing seemingly two-dimensional pop music while respecting the agency of the people who consume it can transform the art into something infinitely fascinating and nuanced. So, let’s give the artists – and the fans they inspire – the respect they duly deserve.
Ellie Koepplinger is a Communications and Editorial intern at AmCham Taipei in the summer of 2019. She currently studies Economics and Chinese at UC Berkeley, where her research centres around racial inequality within US higher education.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Music of Taiwan.