China’s pop king briefly broke the internet with the release of his latest single, “Won’t Cry.” But don’t let that song be your entry point to the world of Jay Chou.
When Taiwanese singer/songwriter Jay Chou (周杰伦 Zhōu Jiélún), arguably the biggest Mandopop star of the 21st century, unleashed his latest single “Won’t Cry” (说好不哭 shuō hǎo bú kū) on September 16, it captured every headline and got the entire internet talking. The song has already become the all-time top-selling single on QQ Music, China’s dominant music streaming service, racking up sales of more than 7 million digital copies to the tune of more than 20 million yuan ($2.8 million).
Despite Chou’s sporadic album releases in recent years, the song’s record-breaking sales is just another proof of his tremendous popularity and unparalleled cultural significance. While he’s been unfairly dismissed as a sell-out by a small cluster of listeners, it’s evident that the pop great is still in the prime of his career.
That said, “Won’t Cry” is far from Chou’s best work. As someone who regards Chou’s discography as the soundtrack to my adolescence, the best thing I can say about this underwhelming love song, which sounds a lot like the mediocre filler in his early albums, is that it has successfully triggered a sense of sentimental nostalgia for Chou’s earlier groundbreaking and generation-defining work.
If you’re among the uninitiated, please don’t use “Won’t Cry” as your entry point to the world of Jay Chou. We have a better idea. Recently, I blissfully sank into Jay Chou-induced musical euphoria by listening to every song the pop king has ever put out over his 19-year career. I’ve narrowed them down to my absolute favorite five, which I present to you here:
5. Dong-Feng-Po (东风破 dōng fēng pò)
Most Chinese musicians have their favorite lyricists to work with, but Jay Chou and Fāng Wénshān 方文山 bond on another level. They truly are a match made in heaven: Fang has a knack for crafting charming tales in his lyrics, and Chou absolutely knows how to bring Fang’s ideas into fruition with musical elements. On “Dong Feng Po,” Fang tells a love story set in ancient China. The lyrics, half-written in the style of an ancient poem, are both time-specific and universally relatable, which is a tough balance to strike. Chou, on his end, uses a range of instruments — including piano, erhu, and pipa — to fuse Chinese and Western elements.
4. Grandma (外婆 wàipó)
2002 was a milestone year for Chou. With the release of his third studio album The Eight Dimensions (八度空间 bā dù kōngjiān), Chou was basking in the glow of chart-topping singles and media attention. For the first time in his career, he became a darling at the Golden Melody Awards, China’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards, leading the field with five nominations.
With high hopes, Chou brought his beloved grandmother to the ceremony. But the night turned out to be a nightmare. Chou was seriously snubbed, winning nothing. Afterwards, Chou’s grandma was bombarded by reporters, who pressed the old lady to give a comment on her grandson getting shut out.
Deeply frustrated, Chou goes out of his way in this heartfelt song to discuss personal subjects. “Grandma’s anticipation has slowly morphed into disappointment. Adults just don’t understand,” Chou sings in the chorus.
At one point, Chou takes a shot at the awards. And I’m convinced that this part is where Chou delivers his most honest and intimate lyrics to date. The line goes: “Denying my work and making decisions depending on the moods. I want to stick to my style but they remain unimpressed. No surprise. No change. I’ve been hearing this for three years. I told grandma I didn’t lose and I don’t need to change.”
3. Starry Mood (星晴 xīng qíng)
The exquisite, deeply touching “Starry Mood,” from Chou’s debut album Jay in 2000, is a sophisticated song highlighting the excitement that comes with adolescent romance, the kind of infatuation that makes first-time lovers see their crushes in literally everything. Chou sings, “Carrying you, as if carrying sunshine / No matter where we go, it’s always a sunny day.”
Listening back to that line, it boggles my mind that Chou has evolved into some alpha-type corny male who asks his love interests to lie on his “big chest” (which he sings in “If You Don’t Love Me, It’s Fine,” a song released last year).
2. Qi-Li-Xiang (七里香 qī lǐ xiāng)
As catchy as his other love songs, “Qi Li Xiang” adds a mesmerizing poetic touch. The line “Rain falls for the whole night, my love overflows like the rain / Leaves fall in the courtyard, with my thoughts in one thick pile” is possibly the most romantic lyric in Chou’s discography. Anyone who’s ever had a sun-kissed summer fling that extends beyond the pool season can probably recall the precise moment when their passion reaches such a fever pitch that they want to, as Chou puts it, “write ‘I will always love you’ at the end of the poem.”
1. Nunchucks (雙截棍 shuāng jié gùn)
Full disclosure: This was the first Jay Chou song I ever heard, and I found it irritatingly jarring at the time. Who’s this average-looking boy sing-talking about his fondness for nunchucks, and doesn’t he know what a proper song should sound like? What I would soon learn was: No, Chou was not here to play by the rules. He’s a straight-up music genius who for a long time stayed ahead of the curve by writing songs like this, which, given a second chance, I’ve found to be insanely catchy.
What are your favorite Jay Chou songs? Let us know in the comments below.
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