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Shang Wenjie: ‘I'm not a Chinese Lady Gaga’
The songstress's radical image transformation provided easy fodder for the media, but Shang Wenjie says she's all about the music
Some call her innovative, others say she’s simply a Chinese imitation of Lady Gaga or an attention seeker who tries too hard. But whatever labels fans and critics throw at her, Shang Wenjie (尚雯婕) is unperturbed.
“I understand they have to do this to appeal to a wider audience, it’s just part of the media business,” says the 28-year-old Shanghainese songstress.
Shang -- or Shang Wenjie as she is known in the Chinese entertainment scene -- first found fame in 2006 as the winner of the third season of Hunan TV’s reality talent contest "Super Girls."
But after a few years of average popularity, she ditched her girl-next-door image, and in early 2010 debuted a spunky, outrageous style that has since filled fashion spreads in "Elle China" and "L’Officiel" magazine.
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But the criticism came fast and furious, with many saying that her new look was merely the creation of her talent management company, Huayi Brothers, meant to boost ratings.
“I don’t need to be known as a fashion icon or a Chinese Lady Gaga or whatever," says Shang in response. "I just want to be known as Shang Wenjie."
Supporting 'Made in China'
I don’t need to be known as a fashion icon or a Chinese Lady Gaga or whatever. I just want to be known as Shang Wenjie — Shang Wenjie, singer
“After each show, reporters always ask me about Lady Gaga this or Lady Gaga that, but I just want to say to them ‘It’s time we start paying attention to made-in-China creations,’" says Shang. "The outfits I wear are mostly by young Chinese designers, so why not ask about them? Why do we always have to say that we are copying others?”
Shang, an alumna of Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, puts the responsibility for supporting made-in-China designs on local media. "The Chinese media should take some responsibility for encouraging creativity from within China,” she says of her critics.
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“If we don’t have more confidence in ourselves, how are we going to have people from outside of China take an interest in us?”
Taking on international audiences
The world, it seems, is ready to listen to what Shang has to say, with her recent release in January of five new foreign-language tunes, four in English from her “Love Warrior” series and the Smurfs theme song “Je passe ma vie à t'attendre” in French.
All five songs also featured sections of music from the Dong minority group in China and were produced by Belgian musicians Jean-Francois Maljean and Silvano Macaluso.
Was it an attempt to introduce Chinese folk music to the rest of the world?
“Not exactly,” says Shang.
I don’t know music, I didn’t go to music school, but I learned to do it slowly. I guess my goal for 2011 is to ... definitely write some good music, some ‘gelivable’ music. — Shang Wenjie
While she concedes that China’s economy is growing very quickly, and as a result a lot of people are becoming more interested Chinese culture, she feels that their understanding of Chinese music “is still very shallow," and that the international music audience still doesn't "really get what Chinese music is about -- yet."
The Dong music additions to her new songs originally came about, Shang explains, because around the time she met Maljean, some friends suggested that she do an East-West fusion, and the timing couldn't have been better.
The pair was introduced during Spring Festival in 2010 and shortly after Maljean approached Shang to collaborate on the trilingual “Our Song,” which was made into the Belgian Pavilion’s theme song at last year’s Shanghai 2010 Expo.
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“I'm very honored that he remembered me from our first meeting, and I feel thankful that I met him. We’ve become very good friends and often talk about music together,” she says of Maljean, who trekked out to Yunnan to collect the music samples while Shang composed the songs’ tunes and lyrics -- a first for her.
Singing in tongues
Shang says that the transition into writing her own songs is a natural progression in her career and something she resolved to do about six months ago.
“Though I call myself a singer, I have been mainly singing covers or working with producers,” she says, and she was happy to be able to expand her talents.
“But I realized that only I understand myself best. Music is a very personal thing and unless you can find a soul mate who fully gets you, it’s very difficult to express exactly what you mean.”
Composing in English is no barrier to the linguist -- Shang studied German for two years and taught herself Spanish after being introduced to Latin American music -- as she often expresses her emotions in English anyway.
“I hope to write more Chinese songs in the future because my core market is still in China, but if I compose in Chinese, it will not be as smooth. I will probably have to write in English and then have it translated,” says the Shanghainese native, who cites P!nk, Katy Perry, Mika and Florence and the Machine as her favorite artists.
She feels that European musicians, despite not being as popular as American bands, have plenty to offer too.
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“Since I have the advantage of language, I hope to communicate and maybe collaborate with more musicians from Europe,” says Shang, a former translator who worked for a French firm in her pre-fame days, but becoming a famous singer -- in any langauge -- was never an aspiration for Shang.
The outfits I wear are mostly by young Chinese designers, so why not ask about them? Why do we always have to say that we are copying others?— Shang Wenjie
“I would sing along with the theme songs of serial dramas in front of the TV at home when I was eight or nine years old. My family thought that I had some talent but all they wanted me to do was to get into a good school and land a cushy job as a manager in a big firm,” says Shang.
And, although she has gone against her family's wishes, she doesn’t think she has disappointed her parents in choosing this career path.
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“My parents have achieved their aim: they hoped that I would get into a good school and I did it. They're just worried that there’s no security in this profession, because it is a fickle industry that is biased towards youth, and they’re right.”
Not slowing down in 2011
Shang had written on her Sina blog last year that she did not think she was the kind of person who could stick with something for more than two years, prompting some to speculate that she might be quitting the industry, an idea that she strongly denies.
If she's not leaving the industry though, as she inches closer to the fifth year milestone in her career, does she have any expectations for the year ahead?
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“I won’t fix myself any goals in 2011, if it comes, it comes. I’m a very short-sighted and quite lazy person, if I’m comfortable now, I don’t care about the future,” she says as she chuckles.
“But who knows? Two years ago, I didn’t think that I could write my own songs. I don’t know music, didn’t go to music school, but I learned to do it slowly. I guess my goal for 2011 is to let myself develop to my full potential naturally. And definitely write some good music, some 'gelivable' music.”