Sailing Rough Waters
Taiwan's legendary The Clippers are smart, edgy, and very adaptable. But when charting beyond their own sea, their sound is not always as well received as maybe it should be.
The Clippers are probably one of Taiwan's oldest rock bands, and back in the day two of its six members were pom-pommed dancers, Lili and Lala, who performed alongside the band on stage, partially in tribute to the traditional Taiwanese 'mobile strip shows' of yesteryear. Today, lead singer Xiao Ying's histrionic one-man theatre play is a regular part of their performance program, with him jumping hysterically back and forth between two voices and two parts. In an old interview, Xiao Ying claimed that there was something about their music that appealed to the general public, something exciting and sometimes startling. On the first track of their debut album, a rock opera military march entitled 'Clippers' Battleground', they also tell us that "all of us workers aboard the Clippers Battleship wish to express a human nature surreal and incredible through a mixture of sorrow and joy".
The song is simple and catchy as well as being extraordinarily easy to sing along to, something that is probably significant here where karaoke is a national sport. It can be heard playing in the most unexpected of places, ranging from the tailor in the marketplace to a party conference televised briefly on the news. In the music video, we see live shots of the band playing at an outdoor street concert with clusters of elderly people smiling and clapping to the beat.
Some people have written about the song's proletarian sentiments and the appeal of this to the general public, who may very well not care about Edison. Others view it as a piece of social commentary on a materialistic world, one that highly values something akin to looking at lots of bright and pretty colors. Many attribute the band's popularity to their ability to create a visual show through their dancers and their theatrics. Most of all though, I would wager a guess that their appeal to people of all ages and social groups probably lies in the successful integration of local and traditional forms with new and foreign ones, so that their music and performances are accessible both to those that enjoy rock as well as those that have grown up only knowing Taiwan's music traditions.
Roughly 10 years ago, when most up-and-coming bands were building their sound on Western-style rock, The Clippers were building their foundations around popular local traditions such as the aforementioned mobile strip shows and Nakasi, the former being performances usually involving an MC, singers, magicians and strippers, and the latter being a traditional pop form popular in tea parlors and taverns, which could clumsily be described as a sort of folk-pop involving the use of keyboards. Both were popular among the working class, and the latter as well among (and arising in part from) students.
Xiao Ying saw many local traditions disappearing as Taiwan was beginning to undergo rapid development and Westernization in the '80s, and worked to incorporate these traditions and an everyday feel into their music. He integrated singing, dancing and short theatre into their performances, with music only one factor out of many.
Xiao Ying took the place of the MC, talking with the audience, giving explanations along the way and injecting a dose of comic relief every few seconds; Lili and Lala replaced the titillating strippers with their brand of innocent cheerleader-like dancing -- always more good-humored than sexy; and the music itself was very much written for live performance, containing within it a strong sense of spontaneity. Xiao Ying's dialogue with Lili and Lala and running commentary on their actions are written into the songs, like musical theatre ("Cha-cha! Cha-Cha! Lili does the Cha-Cha!" and "Lala, the original hoodlum girl / became full of character in a flash / she can dance in so many ways… Next up, let's give our warmest applause to welcome Lili and Lalas disco dance!"). Even when listening to the album, you can see the two of them dancing on stage. It is strange, however, to watch The Clippers live and hear the dialogue reproduced as it is on the album as it reveals that the show's spontaneity is largely choreographed.
Mirroring a live stage show, the debut album begins with an introduction to the band and statement of intentions in 'Clippers' Battleground', introductions before each song integrated into the songs. In 'Climb up on the Roof and Shout': "We are The Clippers, not the Shelves and not the Eggplants. Want to go on the roof and shout? Come on, let's shout together, we'd better climb up on the roof and shout!" ['Clippers', 'Shelves' and 'Eggplant' sound similar in Mandarin Chinese, being 'Jiazi', 'Jiazi' (with a different tone inflection) and 'Qiezi', respectively.] The album ends with a track called 'Encore', a self-referential piece through which the band both calls for an encore and provides one for audiences at the same time.
After martial law was lifted in 1987, the mobile strip shows were banned for their vulgarity and immorality in the drive to bring Taiwanese society up to Western standards. In a sort of Hegelian story, The Clippers revived the tradition -- without the blatant sexuality -- and consciously synthesized it with the Western pop tradition. Although some critics have honed in on their revival of a practice that objectifies women, they seem to have done so consciously and tweaked it in the process, with Lili and Lala not on stage to be looked at, but rather seen as dancers or performers, much in the same way that Xiao Ying is seen on stage. Their sexiness is incidental to their function.
Their play on forms produces a completely unique sound, one that is pop in instrumentation (to a large extent) and song structure but distinctly Taiwanese in foundation. The use of keyboards in the bridges in tribute to Nakasi, the melodies molded along the same interval patterns as found in folk songs and Xiao Ying's lapses into various Chinese operatic and pop singing styles all contribute to the Taiwanese feel, and all are seamlessly integrated into the music without becoming gimmicky.
At the same time, they treat the forms they use satirically and address serious matters through humor, deconstructing both language and culture along the way. They play with words, basing 'Trumpets of Love' on the fact that 'trumpet' and 'piss' are the same words in Chinese; they play with the disjunction between languages, with 'What's Up, DJ' opening with a misunderstanding between English and Chinese; they play with rhymes, coming up with totally nonsensical but perfectly rhyming verses, one example being Xiao Ying's only foray into rap, which also functions as a spoof on the form itself ("there are lots of records and each can only be played once / I want to eat noodles at dawn but it's inconvenient"); they are unconventional and sometimes strangely Simpsons-esque in their expressions ("looking into your bright and intelligent eyes, shining and radiant / I think about supporting nuclear power in a fit of confusion"); and they frequently employ the use of vulgarity ("you're going to the bathroom, I'm the toilet, oh my baby touch me yeah").
This is how they succeed in providing a socially aware but, perhaps more importantly, full-out entertaining extravaganza for the masses. In the end, however, Turn on the Disco Ball is a great pop album not simply by way of these things, but rather because it understands the forms it uses then plays on them and uses them in interesting ways. The Clippers are well-known in Taiwan for the single 'Turn on the Disco Ball' and their live performances have been enjoyed by a large number of people, yet their wholly unique and singular contribution to Taiwan's cultural history has thus far remained largely unarticulated.
In 2002, The Clippers released another album entitled The Clippers are Coming -- a decent album but not nearly as good as the first -- after which they twice underwent major changes in their lineup, which now consists of Xiao Ying, Lala and a new addition, DJ TY. They no longer have any live instrumentation, save for Xiao Ying's tiny electric keyboard. Under this arrangement, they have released two albums to date and have focused more on electronic or computer pop, for lack of a better term.
Unfortunately, The Clippers may be a band cursed with never being able to live up to their initial achievements. Although the new albums certainly have their moments, they often feel gimmicky and uncompelling, as if the songs were simply shells or skeletons of a genre and not fully manifested in form.
Turn on the Disco Ball wasn't just a great piece of satire, it was also a great pop album; the new albums do not seem to fully grasp the forms they use, and as a result they do not stand on their own. The catch about satire is that it first requires a mastery of the form it satirizes to be convincing. The Simpsons or Family Guy are successful precisely because they understand sitcom and modern television and utilize that knowledge in full force of their goals, as is the case with Turn on the Disco Ball. Neither are the band's live shows what they used to be, with the lineup dwindled down to three people. Much of the excitement that now arises at their live shows is in reaction to their older songs. It is as if the band's uniqueness had been watered down, leaving just another electronic or computer pop band.
The last time I saw The Clippers live was at The Underworld, the tiny but legendary bar for 'underground' music in the Shida district in Taipei, and there were very few people there that day among the black walls and dim lights. It was one of the first live shows held there since the venue had regained their license to host live performances, which they had lost for over a year.
The only foreigners there were the two people I brought along, and they were thoroughly unimpressed, leaving halfway through the show. It is true: The Clippers are not really a band, anymore, and their forte is no longer music in itself, nor are their performances particularly impressive, anymore. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but wonder how well different pop cultures can translate, regardless of whether successfully translated into English this particular time. There is the question of language (translation in its literal sense), and whether things like puns and cultural references (both major aspects of The Clippers' music) can be successfully conveyed. This is provided, of course, that there is a translation at all, which, in the case of The Clippers, I don't believe there is.
At the same time, however, there are elements of music that do not need to be translated to be experienced, but because that music might be very different from ours, it is only fair for us to suspend judgment on it before we've tried to understand it from its own basis, not ours. The Clippers straddle the line between local and foreign in many ways, and though, like every other band in the world, their sound may not appeal to everyone, their contribution is certainly deserving of consideration and attention.