Jolin Tsai: Myself World Tour

2012-9-25

For most audiences, a pop concert is about the action on the stage. But, for the young Chinese in London, the real show is in the crowd.

When Jolin Tsai, Taiwan's queen of Mandopop, performed at Wembley Arena on Sunday, her concert had all of the elements of a pop concert except one: enthusiastic fans. This absence was the cause of some consternation for Tsai, who between songs demanded to know why the crowd was so sedated. "Are the uncles [security guards] preventing you from standing up?" she asked.

Her question shamed the crowd into rising to its feet, but the loss of face wasn't enough to provoke genuine enthusiasm. Why? Well it has nothing to do with the content of the show or the music: Tsai is an effective performer with more than twelve albums of songs (most of which have sold over a million copies) to choose from. Instead it has to do with the way in which the London-based Chinese attend concerts.

To think of the phenomenon in terms of media theory: it isn't a question of representation or political economy, but rather a question of media practice. This relatively recent focus for media studies is defined by Nick Couldry:

The proposed new paradigm is disarmingly simple: it treats media as the open set of practices relating to, or oriented around media...The aim, however, can be stated directly: to decenter media research from the study of media texts or production structures (important though these are) and to redirect it onto the study of the open-ended range of practices focused directly or indirectly on media. (2010:36)

Media practice theory, in other words, is an attempt to focus on the significance of media rather than its signification.

Riding on the Metropolitan line to Wembly Park, we immediately picked out two girls on their way to the concert. What was surprising was that both girls were dwarfed by the huge Topshop bags they were carrying. Entering Wembley Arena, it was evident that everyone had apparently gone shopping right before the show; For London's expat Chinese, suitable concert attire consists of a bag from a high-end department store on one arm, and a luxury designer handbag on the other. The uniform presence of these effects was shocking, especially to someone whose idea of proper concert attire consists of "clothes you wouldn't mind having beer spilled on."

The challenge is to explain the emergence of this behaviour. The designer clothes, the shopping bags, and the seeming lack of interest in Tsai's performance certainly decenters media from the analysis. From the point of view of media practices, rather than a media spectacle, Tsai's London concert served as an anchor for the conspicuous consumption of China's wealthy scions. For the concert goers, would anything guaranteeing a similar concentration of young Chinese have served just as well?

Frederic Jameson, one of the arch-theorists of postmodernism, once asked about resistance to consumer capitalism:

We have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces - reinforces the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic. (1985:125)

When we speak of consumer culture, there is an assumption that there is a type of culture that is somehow complicit in consumption. If that's the case, Tsai's concert shows that consumption eating its own cultural tail. And if, as is widely believed, the future of capitalism is essentially a Chinese one, the answer to Jameson's question is resoundingly negative.

Jolin Tsai's concert at Wembley Arena was on the 22nd of October 2012. Thanks Siyi!


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