Get Ready For The Real Jane Zhang
Pop star knows some fans might not approve of her new hard-edged album, but the former Supergirl star is determined to be true to herself, report Han Bingbin and Qin Zhongwei.
With her fame and reputation, Jane Zhang, the diva-to-be, finds herself struggling to decide between what she wants to sing and what the public wants to hear from her.
As soon as she became a professional singer after winning the Supergirl competition in 2005, one of the nation’s most-watched singing contests and an attempt by Hunan Television to identify talent from the grassroots, Zhang’s recording company gave her final say on what material she chose to sing. But as a 20-year-old back then, she was too kind to let anyone down by refusing a song.
So, many of her “No 1′s” have been crowd-pleasing plaintive love songs. But Zhang said that was not her true self.
Although on many occasions she has behaved bashfully, Zhang said she was in fact an outgoing and passionate person. She always wanted her albums to be not only a flattering commercial success, but also an honest expression of her artistic disposition.
So here she is, announcing that she is ready to surprise and challenge audiences with a breakthrough fifth album, Reform (her second album with Universal International). Zhang said more than 60 per cent of the album, which was released on June 1, can be labeled as typical Jane Zhang style.
Seven of the 10 songs on the album were composed by US musicians and a US postproduction team was involved to guarantee top quality. The company has two notable names – Michael Jay, who worked with Eminem and Kylie Minogue, and Gene Grimaldi, who is said to be Lady Gaga’s exclusive recording engineer.
The musical style has little to do with Chinese-style pop sentimentality. The songs cover a range of styles, from R&B to rock, hip pop and dance. Zhang said fans will immediately hear the changes as soon as they put on the earphones.
A loyal fan of Mariah Carey and Beyonce, Zhang is no stranger to these musical forms. But after years singing rueful, romantic melodies, it still took time for her to settle into more energetic beats and sexier tones.
Zhang had to get rid of the habit of restraining her voice and sing with a more open and forceful attitude.
That was not too hard, she said, compared to some physical changes, such as dancing and dressing in a more overtly sexy style.
While shooting the album cover in leg-less one-piece tights, Zhang felt too shy to stand before the camera although she was assured that she was dressed appropriately and attractively. She was still a little concerned when her sexily packaged album was handed out to the media and fans during the press conference that launched the record.
After so many years it seems Zhang’s voice is ready to be a big star, but her mind is not. She still prefers to stand for interviews for hours if she has worn a short skirt.
She hates to be photographed candidly, although many other performers would see that as a way to increase their exposure. And unlike many other pop stars who skillfully hedge questions about their personal lives, Zhang’s way has been to stare straight into a questioner’s eyes and firmly say “no” to such questions.
“It is so restrictive, being an artist,” she said. “I want to be just like I was before, to overcome my misgivings and struggles, say what I want to say and do what I want to do. To be the real me.”
That attitude is reflected on the new album. Zhang wrote the lyrics for three songs, including one she composed herself. One of them, called “Brave”, is a faithful reflection of Zhang’s personal attitude to being a pop star: “Why should I be restricted, I like to dance freely.”
But after releasing four bestselling albums and two runaway singles that were mostly based on love melodies, Zhang knows there is a price to pay for being free and changing her style.
Many people, even loyal fans, have already complained online about the lack of love songs on the new album. On the music site of Baidu, the so-called Chinese Billboard, the most popular song on Reform had been listened to more than 320,000 times by Monday, while all the others had not quite reached 100,000 hits each. Some songs by Zhang’s successors on Supergirl, mostly soothing love songs, have been listened to more than 10 million times.
Zhang has finally realized that to change her style does not require her to battle with herself but with the general musical taste of the Chinese public.
Actually, Zhang has a goal behind these changes. She thinks the reason why many young people like quiet melancholy songs is because the sadness they express corresponds to their loneliness.
“They feel lonely because they spend too much time online alone”, Zhang said. She hopes that people can escape from the isolated Internet world to embrace a happier party mood.
Despite having a positive aim with her new direction, the challenge is still there. When swamped by questions about whether she was afraid of losing fans because of her pioneering stance, the young singer honestly admitted that she was concerned.
“Sure, I’m worried, but I don’t want to be worried,” she said. “I don’t want to shoulder too many public expectations. I have my own expectations, too, and I will be the kind of singer I want to be.”
Questions & Answers with Jane Zhang
How much do you think this album represents your true self?
Why? Is it because there are more fast-tempo songs this time?
I think I am actually a more outgoing person. But before (this album), I tended to sing slower or sad songs, and I was somewhat reserved when I did interviews. So it was easy to give people the impression that I was melancholy every day. I just wanted to throw that impression away and be myself on stage.
So you want your album to express yourself? Or show that an album is not just a piece of merchandise, but can be something by which you identify yourself.
It should have the things I want to express, yes. If it doesn’t have them, I don’t think it would mean a lot to me. Otherwise, it is much easier to release singles or hit songs, and it wouldn’t be energy consuming for me to do that.
The new album is called Reform. What price a singer needs to pay for making such reform or change to her style? As you said, you don’t like those sad love songs. But how do you persuade your company to allow you to do something different, as it must consider the needs of the market?
I don’t need to persuade. I just don’t sing them. I have been saying that, really, from Huayi (Zhang’s first record company) until now, nobody has forced me to sing those songs that I resist.
I don’t mean that I hate sad love songs. I just don’t want to do them over and over again. It is too hypocritical.
It is not me, and I just cannot stand it. Everyone is multi-faceted. I have a quiet or silent side as well, but most of the time I’m not like that. So I hate other people putting me into a certain group.
You just mentioned that foreign songwriters contributed about 70 percent of the songs on Reform. So is the huge network of musicians and resources worldwide the most attractive reason for you to sign with Universal, a world-famous record company?
I think the most important thing was that it allowed me to get to know Adia, (the Taiwan producer of this and Zhang’s previous album), that I found someone who was “on the same beat” as me.
It is so important to work with someone who helps you express what you want to say in your heart but you struggle to find the words to say it.
He helps you find the right word. That feeling is terrific. And maybe because both of us are outgoing and straightforward, the communication between us is very comfortable and easy. I think we will continue to work together in the long term.
You wrote on your micro blog recently: “I feel blessed that I have been making changes in recent years, but fortunately I was not changed.” So what do you think is the most important quality that can help an entertainer like you be themselves?
Be happy and follow your bliss, as you will resist things that don’t make you happy.