Being a Mandopop star seems like hard work. Endless promoting, little creative control, mediocre output, a demanding fanbase, a music market that is overrun by counterfeiting and short shelf life. It must get tiring. Wang Leehom is the rare pop star that has not only retained, but gained popularity after 10 years in the fickle Chinese pop business. On Saturday night, he brought his show to a capacity crowd of pop fans at the Shanghai Stadium. And he made it look easy.
Born in Rochester, New York, Leehom’s childhood exploits read like a Chinese parent’s wet dream (read the laundry list here). His music education (BA from Williams, MA from Berklee), seemingly innate knack for playing instruments and purported gift of perfect pitch must have had a small part in what the Shanghai crowd witnessed over the weekend. Despite the classical training, Leehom’s style is heavily drenched in pop stylings, from innocent ballads to hip-hop and R&B influenced dance tracks (much like Jay Chou). Opening with his current single, “Heroes of Heaven and Earth” （盖世英雄), Leehom took the stage to the head-splitting roar of thousands of girls screaming in unison. The uptempo track was followed by his sugar-pop dance hit, “Open Your Heart” (放开你的心). However, the rest of the setlist read like a “Greatest Ballads of Leehom” compilation, featuring such sappy odes to love and heartbreak like “Kiss Goodbye” and “Forever Love” (which lulled at least one person in attendance to sleep). During “Because Love Is In The Heart” (爱因为在心中), Leehom and a group of young fans from the local chapter of his Our Home fan club led the crowd in a stadium-wide singalong. Despite the minor quibblings of this casual fan, the majority of the audience relished every last melisma-ed note of every saccharine love song.
The stage itself was quite large, flanked by screens that displayed the lyrics to all the songs, KTV-style. Secret trap doors on the stage opened at various intervals and dancers shot up through the floor, allowing the kung-fu fighters and b-boy breakdancers to partake in some aerial acrobatics. Not to be outshined by stage tricks, Leehom displayed his skills on the violin and piano, throwing in some improv for credibility, led a group of his cronies in a drumline, played a short unplugged acoustic set and even whipped out the erhu, much to the delight of the crazed audience.
The highlight of the show came towards the end of the set, during his catchy 2006 hit, “By The Plum Tree” (在梅边). Seamlessly blending classical Chinese instrumentation, Beijing opera and modern hip-hop beats, the track is a perfect example of an enjoyable style Leehom has so unfortunately coined “chinked out.” According to his logic, using the term “chink” can help to effectively take the slur and return it to the people. His intentions may be in the right place, but his crusade to create a new Chinese musical style under the banner of a derogatory term seems a little misguided and irresponsible. He should stick to doing what he does well: Being a multi-instrumentalist, singer, dancer and showman.
Not everyone will admit to liking pop music. However, sugar pop or not, Wang Leehom has talent, and on Saturday night, he was the hero to a mass of adoring fans.
Also on Shanghaiist:
Is ‘chinked-out’ the new ‘nigga’?
For more on Wang Leehom:
MySpace Fan Site
Video for “Heroes Of Heaven And Earth” (盖世英雄)
Video for “By The Plum Tree” (在梅边)
Video for “Open Your Heart” (放开你的心)
Video for “Kiss Goodbye”
Video for “Forever Love”
Video for “Because Love Is In The Heart” (爱因为在心中)