Working class girls and popular music in Taiwan
page 2

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 74-84
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006


According to the girls, language is also a defining feature of this pop genre. The most popular languages used in Taiwan are Taiwanese, Mandarin and English. Most people's native tongue in Taiwan is Taiwanese. They start to learn Mandarin when they start formal education. English is required only when people start the seventh grade; however, learning English in Taiwan is mainly a preparation for higher education. Here is how the girls use language to distinguish "good" songs from "bad" songs.

Y: "Do you have any preference for Taiwanese songs or Mandarin songs?"

B: "I don't like Taiwanese songs, 'cause I don't know what the lyrics are about. But English songs, though I don't understand the lyrics, I still like them, 'cause the melodies are good. For the Mandarin songs, that depends. The recent songs are not good."

Y: "You said you like the melodies of English songs. What kind of melody do you prefer in English songs?"

B: "The dance music. I like to go dancing. If you play the dance music in the dancing hall, all the people will dance together, and that makes you feel good. But if you play the soft songs, nobody will dance there."

Y: "What's your definition of a good song?"

L: "The melody should be good, and then there must be something in the lyrics. I think the songs nowadays, especially the Taiwanese songs, are about cursing people, or they use very bad language. I don't like this kind of song."

The girls prefer Mandarin songs and English songs to Taiwanese songs. Although they do not necessarily understand the lyrics, they still think the melodies of English songs are better. However, as for Taiwanese songs, even though they understand the lyrics, they do not like the songs. In B's case, she even claims she doesn't understand Taiwanese (This could not be true, for she was born in a Taiwanese family and speaks Taiwanese sometimes when she talks with her friends and me; furthermore, her Mandarin has a Taiwanese accent).

The girls' preferences for Mandarin and English songs can be accounted for in three ways:

  1. the KMT suppression of the Taiwanese language;
  2. the influence of English songs on Mandarin songs;
  3. the lyrics of the songs.

As discussed in the previous section, as a result of KMT suppression in Taiwan, Taiwanese songs connote vulgarity while English and Mandarin songs connote "high-ness" and elegance. Taiwanese is the language of the lower social strata. These girls' refusal to like or even to know the language reflects a general ideology about Taiwanese.

A second reason can be traced back to the birth of present popular songs. The origin of popular songs was influenced by U.S. folk songs and hit songs. Melodically, almost all Mandarin songs are similar to U.S. songs from the 70s. This leads the girls to like English songs due to their familiarity with Mandarin songs. The third reason is the difference in content between Mandarin songs and Taiwanese songs. Taiwanese songs are folk-oriented, about the lives of working-class people and about the pain that people suffer due to economic problems.

Most Mandarin songs are more about love and separation. That's why girls are more likely to favor Mandarin songs, while boys favor Taiwanese songs. The "realities" constructed by the Taiwanese lyrics are not conceptually important to these girls. Traditionally, women tend to be housewives (even though it is not necessary), so women are not responsible for the economic problems of the family. Thus, they are less oriented to the social world outside, and less likely to like Taiwanese songs. On the contrary, boys tend to like Taiwanese music, for traditionally they are forced to take on the role of family breadwinner. Therefore, they are more aware of (or internalize) the hardships of being a worker for their whole life.

According to the girls, if the song is sung by a "good" singer, even if they do not particularly like the song, they will not actively dislike it. However, if a good song is sung by a bad singer, the song is considered bad. The definition of a good or bad song depends on the singers' dress styles and the songs they sing. In Taiwan, a singer's style (including his/her style of dress and the songs) has the defining power of a genre, for the singers are packaged by the industry to target a particular segment of the audience.

As a result, the girls' definition of a good singer is influenced by market stratification. A good singer should sing songs that express the girls' personal feelings, which are mostly about love and separation. Singers who do not sing songs that express their personal feelings, such as Chow Lun and the Three Little Tigers team, fall out of the genre, for they sing "childish" songs targeted at elementary or junior high school students. Singers targeted at college students are excluded from the girls' preferred genre, too. For example, Chi Yu, Tsai Chin, and Chen Su-Hua are very popular among college students, however, the girls express their apathy toward these singers. B commented:

"Yeah, some of their songs are good, but I don't listen to them. They don't release albums very often."

The components of "good" lyrics have been discussed in the previous section. In addition to the type of songs s/he sings, a good singer should bear a certain personal style. Since the girls identify with the songs sung by female singers, they also identify with the singers' style of dress. For example, U expressed her identification with the singer's style of dress by imitating how the singer dresses herself:

"I like E Len-Jean's style (see picture D). She is young, lively, and outgoing. She looks very modern. I imitate her style."

Female singers who do not meet the girls' taste in style are excluded from the genre. For example, Pan Mei-Chen sings love songs, but she does not dress in a feminine way. Most of the girls express their dislike for her. B commented:

"Pan's songs are OK, her songs are sad, and she has a good voice, but I don't like her. She dresses like a neuter. That gives me a strange feeling."


Music plays different roles in the girls' lives. It functions to get rid of boredom. It provides pleasure, a tool for socialization, and a means of personal expression. Appropriating music in their lives, from the girls' viewpoint, means empowerment. Using loud music in the dorm to upset the supervisor undermines the supervisor's authority. The girls show their dissatisfaction and boredom with school by listening to walkman in class and singing during the break time.

Music also functions as a source of pleasure. The girls imagine the male singers as boyfriends who can satisfy their need and desire to be loved and taken care of. The girls identify with female singers who express the girls' personal feelings and their need for love. Dancing wildly in the dark is a way of releasing pent-up emotions accumulated from school, family and workplace. Singing is also a way to meet and socialize with boys. The act of meeting boys gives the girls a chance to experience the pleasure of fulfilling their fantasies.

The girls' use of music inherently produces values counter to the dominant authority. Counter values involve a process of inversion whereby the original socioeconomic limitations and devaluations of a subordinate group are addressed through certain cultural forms, and then are transformed by the group into something of value to the group. (Radway, 1991) Music is used to produce counter values in the sense that it is used explicitly to undermine authority and implicitly to fulfill the girls' fantasies. The fantasies express the girls' dissatisfaction with the impossibility of getting tenderness and permanent love from men in real life.

However, it is inherently dangerous for the girls to articulate frustration through cultural consumption and reappropriate the meaning of consumption to their own advantage. Through cultural consumption, the girls

"also act on cultural assumptions and corollaries not consciously available to them precisely because those givens constitute the very foundation of their social selves, the very possibility of their social action" (Radway, 1991, p. 210).

For example, going to KTV with boys is a way of getting pleasure, and having the boys pay for them eliminates the girls' financial problems. However, the fact of the boys' paying the bill for the girls perpetuates the traditional sexual division of labor, which works to confine women in the domestic sphere. This custom indicates a way in which the girls internalize and thus perpetuate their own oppression by men.

By indulging in fantasies about themselves as the actors of sad love stories or identifying with the lyrics about abandonment, the girls are preparing themselves to be in a subordinate position in their future relationships. The girls see themselves as providers of love who have to take responsibility for maintaining relationships. Since the lyrics emphasize the importance of love as the sole source of meaning in the girls' lives, the work of maintaining a relationship becomes the "only" job the girls see as important in their lives. Thus, when the girls are abandoned, which the songs see as normal, the songs tell them that they have to beg the men to come back and put themselves in a subordinate position. Emotional attachment to lyrics which consider men the source of life's meaning blinds the girls from seeing other alternatives for defining their lives. Also, blaming love's failure on fate and blaming women for mistakes made in previous lives (thus, having to return "the debt" to men in this life) can make it seem like women cannot escape relationships, even if they are being treated unfairly, if their lives are predestined.

As a result of my study, I find that the girls' consumption of popular music has contradictory effects. On the one hand, their consumption is an act of empowerment. On the other hand, consumption becomes a way of perpetuating women's inequality. I face a theoretical and ethical dilemma in making a definite conclusion. Postmodernist feminists argue for placing value on women's differences, on femininity, and on women's experiences. Women's experiences have been strategically relegated to soap opera culture or gossip culture, those areas traditionally considered low culture by men. Validating women's experiences means recognizing men's domination and making women's experience visible.

However, it should be noted that women's experiences are structured by patriarchal power and those experiences carry histories of oppression. If I, as a feminist, value women's differences and thus women's experiences but do not question the patriarchal power hidden behind women's oppression, I am actually perpetuating patriarchal domination. However, questioning patriarchal power, in a way, means taking an academic stand and analyzing how patriarchal power operates to sustain itself through its everyday life inculcation. If I do so, and judge the girls' consumption as a perpetuation of patriarchal power, I am constructing a division between "them" and "us." "Us" becomes high academia; "them," the girls who internalize their oppression by men.

To me, the best solution is to provide two perspectives. My main purpose is to see how the girls understand their consumption of music as a way to empower their lives, and how they deal with their everyday frustration through such consumption. However, at the same time I also try to analyze how, as historical beings, we are unable to escape the social relations that bind us and make us into social beings. If I am taking a stand, in one way or other, and criticize the girls' consumption as perpetuating subordination, my main purpose is to insert critical thinking into the girls' consumption, to raise the girls' consciousness and let them understand their oppression. The use of music by the teenage girls to get pleasure or to get rid of boredom embodies a valid, if limited, protest. Recognizing this protest, and recognizing women's oppression, we might be able to develop strategies and work together to call for social changes. In Radway's words,

"By developing strategies for making that dissatisfaction and its causes consciously available to romance readers (or the teenage girls) and by learning how to encourage that protest in such a way that it will be delivered in the arena of actual social relations rather than acted out in the imagination, we might join hands with women who are, after all, our sisters and together imagine a world whose subsequent creation would lead to the need for a new fantasy together" (Radway, 1991, p. 220).

As a final word, doing feminist ethnography is a political act. It aims to raise the consciousness of the oppressed, to let them realize their oppression, and finally, to encourage them to take action to free themselves from their oppression. By interviewing the girls, I made an effort to insert some feminist ideas into our talk. However, I restrained myself so as to avoid too much interruption, too much imposition of my own ideas upon the interviewing process, for fear that I might compromise the "objectivity" of the study. I hope to reconcile these contradictions between feminism and ethnography by sharing the final results with the girls. Since the girls do not read English, I will need to translate this work into Chinese. I would like to share the findings of this study with our sisters so that they might understand the predicament they are in and overcome their oppression.


Barthes, Roland (1975). The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Chang, Hsia-Hong (1991). "Men and Women: Love Songs, Popular Culture and Sexual Subversion." Unitas: A Literary Monthly. Vol. 82, August 1991, pp. 85-89. Taipei, Taiwan.

Chodorow, Nancy (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and The Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press.

Chung, Hong-Chih (1990). City Observation: New Language. New Touch, and New Culture, Taipei: Wan-Liu Publishing company, pp. 103-105.

Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Music. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Hebdige, Dick (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London and New York: Metheun

Radway, A. Janice (1991). Reading The Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC Press.