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A guide to becoming Asia's Next Eternal Queen of Pop
Entering the Japanese Hall of Fame
There are few singers that become synonymous with their nationality. They transcend their native language. I can think of perhaps Andrea Bocelli who represents a lot of Italy, Elvis Presley being very USA and Edith Piaf being even more French. I want to focus my attention on another one of these rare talents. Someone who is beloved in Japan yet famed across Asia. If you’ve read the title, are Asian and over 40, you already know Teresa Teng!
For those uninitiated, I want to introduce you to the reigning Eternal Queen of Pop, but also offer you the chance to be the next monarch on the throne by following these easy steps.
Basics on the Crown
Let me start by sharing more about Asia’s most enduring artist. Where to begin? I’ve talked a lot about nationality, and this is a Substack about Japan, so any guesses? That’s right! She’s Taiwanese.
What does a Taiwanese singer have to do to feature on a Japanese-focused Substack? For one, she sang in Japanese. As well as five other languages: Cantonese, English, Hokkien, Indonesian, and her “native” Mandarin. Sceptics might suggest that lots of people have songs with lyrics in Japanese, from Queen to Styx.
But neither of these artists are featured in Japan’s unofficial official Music Hall of Fame.
Taking a step back, people often refer to the Koga Masao Museum in Tokyo (dedicated to the composer), as Japan’s popular music Hall of Fame, given they have a yearly selection of composers, artists and lyricists that get inducted. Until now, there are around 300 individuals who have been bestowed this achievement. Can you guess the number of non-Japanese individuals?
If you haven’t figured out who the only non-Japanese hall of fame member is, the answer is Teresa Teng! Please also check your inference comprehension skills before resuming this article. For everyone else, I’ll answer how to get the next spot in Koga Masao and be immortalised forever.
Step One: Be a Prodigy
As a starting point, you need to be a very well-trained and gifted singer. For Teresa Teng, she became famous in the public eye early in her childhood as she won an all-ages radio contest in Taiwan at eleven. While your training may vary from hers, she would hone her art in the very classical Chinese operatic tradition, practicing in front of air force crowds (courtesy of her father’s military background). The classical opera training (not her father’s sworn opposition to communism) would later prove helpful in Teresa’s music shining in a notoriously closed off and difficult country, the People’s Republic of China.
One of the key insights when looking at becoming the next generational artist is to have an extensive body of work with variants in genre. The prodigy route allows you to get your start in the coveted “tween” market. No matter what style of music, by appealing to this market you can garner a loyal set of fans who will follow your stardom for decades.
An example track of Teresa’s first album in Mandarin is linked below. Her first of three albums released at 14.
Step Two: Cover lots of music
Songwriting is difficult, especially as a prodigy turned tween singer. Much easier to go the (Insert your favourite TV Song Contest) route and create covers of existing works. Then people can just listen to your amazing vocals while also listening to songs they know and love. If at all possible, source from a number of different artists so that you don’t just become an impersonator.
In Teresa’s case, she was successful in joining the “Mandopop” revolution. Decades before K-Pop took over the world, Mandopop is, as the name suggests, popular music in Mandarin. During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Mandopop was a hodgepodge of music that included jazz-infused Shanghai songs, popular Cantonese crooners, and translated Japanese Enka (sad slow love songs). As luck would have it, Enka ballads were the perfect vessel for Teresa’s voice, and by using translated lyrics for a new Taiwanese audience, Teresa was quickly able to become a consistent name on the 1960’s Taiwanese billboards.
Step Three: Finding a larger audience
For many, being an established crowd favourite in your home country is success enough. Not for those looking to be anointed as a monarch of pop. To achieve that next level of fame there are several options, each with their own pros and cons.
This can bring new fans, but equally might alienate existing fans. Worse still, you might find out your voice doesn’t work when singing bluegrass.
Appeal to a wider age range demographic.
This is a great option in theory but quite difficult to pull off. If you’ve started as a prodigy as instructed, many older potential audience members will retain the image that you are a child. As such, they tend to dismiss your music as young people music. The only way to do this unfortunately is by the process of ageing. As you get older and keep making music, often older generations will start respecting you.
Find a new country to sing to
This opens a lot of new doors since the new country often hasn’t heard your music before. However, most countries are still quite protective of their own local industry, so breaking into the charts can be difficult. Another likely problem that can face prospective foreign superstars is the language barrier. Most songs that feature lyrics are more appreciated when the audience understands what is happening.
To use Teresa Teng as a case study, she left school at 14 to pursue music. Despite selling out venues in Taipei, the world beckoned. By 16, Teresa sang at her first overseas foray, a Singapore concert with other Mandopop singers. Soon after, she experimented with other languages (Cantonese) and record labels to succeed in Hong Kong. Then 1973, at age 20, the chance opened to record with Japan’s Polydor Studio. Switching languages and countries twice by age 20 is a bold strategy for any artist. Yet within a year of arrival, in two completely foreign markets, she found critical and commercial success.
To draw an age comparison with a more modern Western artist who has seen a modicum of success, let’s see Taylor Swift’s career up to age 20. Like Teresa, Taylor focused on recording at 14. She also found success touring with artists of her genre at age 16 and releasing a well-received self-titled album soon after. We know how her career has panned out since then.
However, imagine an alternate sequence of events. Taylor moves studios to French Canada for a year off the back of a self titled album, finding the US country music scene being too small. She makes it big there too and is lured by the flashing lights of Mexico’s music scene.
While Taylor Swift and Teresa Teng’s paths diverged greatly, now yours doesn’t have to! The takeaway here is that both sought to quickly expand their audiences. Both employed the technique of ageing into older fans. They diverged where Teresa chose to seek foreign markets, and Taylor looked at the genre switching option.
To showcase the diversity of languages, I’ll include arguably her most famous Cantonese song here that is still sung today in karaoke bars. While it is some of her later work, it is a song that has endeared her to generations to come.
Step 4: Conquer the world
Given that you have followed these steps with the precision required, at this point you will be one of the most famous people in every country you visit. You will be able to command throngs of adoring fans to follow you at every beck and call. This is a time where you’ve surpassed your wildest dreams of fame, so are you happy?
If you are anything like Teresa Teng, this is the central question you are grappling with. At this stage you have nearly endless power to influence the arc of history. Simply a word or action by you can determine the fate of countries.
That sounds dramatic, but there’s a widespread agreement that her music was the primary reason Communist China in the 1970’s reversed many of their isolationist policies. Prior to her, any music produced outside of China, especially music from Taiwan, would need to be smuggled in. Still, her songs bypassed this blockade.
There’s a popular Chinese saying, “Deng XiaoPeng (the former Chairman) rules China by day, Deng LiJun (Teresa’s Mandarin name) rules China by night”. By the 1980’s, her music was beloved in the country and even censorship of the “enemies’ music” was stopped. Even after she performed a memorial concert in Hong Kong called “Democratic Songs dedicated for China” immediately following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, she was still invited to perform in the People’s Republic. Not even Deng XiaoPeng wanted to confront her.
In the midst of reversing policies of Communist China, she spent time being the most popular musician in Japan. Her hit songs Tsuganai, Toki no Nagare ni Mi o Makase, and Aijin, were each the biggest song of their year. This meant she had three consecutive years atop Japanese charts. She was given the reigns to the New Years Day Super song television special (Kōhaku Uta Gassen) each time.
Given the various record-breaking songs in Japanese, I’ve linked a playlist of some of her biggest hits performed on Japanese TV below.
Step 5: Die Tragically Early
Immortality comes with a price. The great icons of the 20th Century are frozen in their youth; Bruce Lee, Martin Luther King Jr, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon, to name a few. The words, actions, and immense cultural legacy live on, beyond the individual.
Teresa Teng sadly passed away at age 42 from an asthma attack. An ordinary everyday treatable illness ending an extraordinary life. As news of her sudden passing reached fans, an outpouring of grief ensued. Her state funeral was attended by an estimated two hundred thousand. As Taiwan’s most beloved daughter, she is remembered through the countless tributes in songs, media, statues. and museums.
Perhaps her recognition is best summed up by the adoration that she received from Chinese fans. This was a singer who was from a “rogue state” singing banned music during a period where Chinese citizens faced severe punishment for mild infractions. Yet she still endured and thrived in that environment, and was voted by a Chinese-Government-run online poll in 2009 as the “most influential cultural icon in China since 1949”. Considering that Mao Zedong was on the ballot too, it speaks to her transcendence.
An article dedicated to her would be remiss without sharing her song, The Moon Represents My Heart. This is the most famous of all Chinese songs. No matter where you are, if you play this song, people of Chinese heritage will be drawn to you like moths to a light. If you haven’t already, have a listen.
These steps, followed properly, may provide you the chance at becoming internationally beloved. Get in another 20 years of consistent record music and that next spot in Japan’s music hall of fame might be yours. If all this sounds above your pay grade and you’d rather look for a new karaoke hit, there’s probably a Teresa Teng song in your language too. She touched the hearts of billions and seems to be the only unifying figure across all of Asia. Quite a legacy.