“Sadness” (默 Mò), released in 2015 by Na Ying 那英, is not as much a song as it is an atmosphere of sadness and desolation built on a foundation of strength. It’s a triumph of somber lyrics and controlled vocal performance.
Na Ying is a beloved star from the mid- to late-90s, regarded as a solid performer, but she didn’t have a truly transcendent hit until Mo in 2015. Before the song’s success, like many stars who have phased out of popularity, Na was a judge on Voice of China in 2012. Being on TV is respectable enough, but imagine if Paula Abdul released her most impactful song after American Idol. That’s essentially what Na accomplished with Mo.
The song became the title track for Silent Separation (何以笙箫默 héyǐ shēng xiāo mò), a movie co-starring Angelababy at the height of her virality, a generic melodrama about lovers who, due to years apart, have found new people, but (spoiler alert) get back together. One critic noted that this movie was “more like a PowerPoint presentation.” Regardless of the film’s merits, Na Ying’s performance is undeniably powerful.
Mo sets us adrift from the start with the sound of a gentle slosh of tide against beach. The descending scale at the start gives the audience a sense of peacefully sinking into the ocean. After a brief pause, there’s a panicked, despairing riff hinting at the visceral pain of our narrator, and it’s then that the cool and calm timbre of Na’s voice kicks in.
She begins with a narrative about a fish swimming obstinately against the current as a metaphor for knowing that she’s yet to acknowledge she will lose the one she loves. She’s hurt, but strengthened by the loss and committed to her course regardless of the repercussions. The urgency of the central piano riff provides dissonance, suggesting that behind this strength are more volatile feelings that will never be betrayed. The simple arrangement echoes, giving the listener the sense of being suspended: suspended in time, suspended in the depths of sorrow, possibly drowning.
“I’ve been sentenced to a life of loneliness,” Na sings; the passive voice here suggests that the forces working against the narrator are beyond her control. As much as she may struggle, she has resigned to sinking into the depths. “The circle beneath my pen cannot be completed” and “my heart cannot be filled in” mark a narrator stunted and suspended.
The second part of the chorus asks why love condemns us to be lonely. The somewhat odd line here is, “My brow will never be unfurrowed” — perhaps condemnation by the fates, love’s mark of Cain. The chorus ends with “this is life’s blunder, for which I will never escape.” The narrator is imprisoned in the depths of her deep sorrow, and she has brought us here to witness.
The second verse is a repetition of the first, except with the addition of instrumentation from a studio band. This detracts from the desolate atmosphere, but doesn’t hamper Na’s vocals. The entire song has been building toward the second chorus, the crescendo. The master stroke is when she hits it: as forceful and gorgeous as it is, it’s not explosive. It is a controlled and sustained burst. The entire performance is about control. Something more raw is there, but this performer refuses to leave herself vulnerable in that way. She’s strong, she’s accepted love’s sentence, and she will suffer alone.
Na Ying has since stepped away from the spotlight, leaving her role as a TV judge. Perhaps this triumphant return to popular music is also Na’s swan song. It’s certainly a strong finish.
rěn bú zhù huà shēn yì tiáo gù zhí de yú
nì zhe yáng liú dú zì yóu dào dǐ
nián shào shí hou qián chéng fā guò de shì
chén mò de chén mò zài, shēn hái lǐ
I can’t help but embody a stubborn fish,
swimming against the current until the end.
When I was young I swore an oath,
so I now silently sink into the deep ocean.
重温几次 chóng wēn jǐ cì
结局还是 jié jú hái shì
失去你 shī qù nǐ
I’ve reviewed it several times,
the result is still
I lose you.
wǒ bèi ài pàn chǔ zhōng shēn gū jì
bù huán shǒu bú fàng shǒu
bǐ xià huà bù wán de yuán
xīn jiān tián bù mǎn de yuán shì nǐ
I’ve been condemned to loneliness for life.
Don’t retaliate, and I don’t let go.
The circle under my pen remains unfinished,
the reason for my heart not being filled in is you.
wèi hé ài pàn chǔ zhòng shēng gū jì
zhèng bù tuō táo bú guò
méi tóu jiě bù kāi de jié
mìng zhōng jiě bù kāi de jié shì nǐ
Why are we all condemned by love to be lonely?
I can’t struggle free, I can’t escape.
My brow will never be unfurrowed,
This is life’s blunder, for which I will never escape.
啊 失去你 Hmm,..he,hā.., shī,.. qù nǐ
啊 我失去你 hā,..hm..a.., wǒ shī,.. qù nǐ
I lost you.
The second verse and the second chorus are the same, but the refrain after the verse is a bit different:
周而复始 zhōu ér fù shǐ
结局还是 jié jú hái shì
失去你 shī qù nǐ
The cycle repeats itself,
the result is the same:
I lose you.