Mind your diction... oh, never mind

Mind your diction... oh, never mind
Mandopop newcomer Bonnie Loo.

Mandopop newcomer Bonnie Loo is singing up a storm on the dance track YOLO. She is getting into the groove and moving to the beat when suddenly, your ear catches something off. Instead of tian hua luan zhui (an idiomatic expression which means extravagant embellishments), she sings tian hua luan zui, which sounds as though heavenly flowers are getting drunk with abandon.

It was noticeable enough that a radio station deejay commented on it recently, wondering if it might have been due to the recording process.

When it comes to Chinese-language idioms especially, just one slightly mispronounced word can shift the meaning entirely or turn the phrase into gobbledygook.

In the bigger scheme of things though, this was no biggie. The album went on to top CD-Rama's regional releases chart.

Old-timers such as Fong Fei-fei would be envious.

Proper pronunciation used to be a requirement of the job for Mandopop singers. And they would be criticised when they were off. But fast forward to today and hardly anyone bats an eyelid. Some singers such as Bai An even wear that cloak of imperfection with pride and chalk it up to personal style.

Fong, the late Queen of Hats who was rarely sighted without glamorous headgear of some sort, is considered a legend in the Mandopop world for her sensitive interpretations and precise vocal inflections. But when she started out in the early 1970s, she struggled with diction.

She was born in southern Taiwan where the Minnan dialect was more prevalent and that influenced her pronunciation of Mandarin.

An entire section in her Chinese Wikipedia entry is devoted to dissecting an early track of hers, Zhu Ni Xing Fu (Wishing You Happiness). Among the sins listed: She sings Zu instead of Zhu and Xin instead of Xing.

This was something to overcome and be corrected, not celebrated.

But over the years, listeners began to get less hung-up on exact enunciation.

Partly, this was due to Hong Kong's musical pre-eminence in the 1980s with stars such as Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui lighting up the pop firmament. They were Cantopop stars first and foremost but also ventured into making music for the growing Mandarin market.

With varying levels of Cantonese-accented Mandarin, singers such as Alan Tam and Jacky Cheung crossed over and less-than-perfect diction became more common.

In the opening line of Between Dreaming And Waking (1988), Tam sings "Zou zai ban meng ban xing de zhi jian", or "walking the line between dreaming and waking". But if you look at the lyrics, the word is meant to be "jiu" ("just" for emphasis) and not "zou". One might say that in this case, familiarity breeds acceptance.

Singers from Singapore, including Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua and JJ Lin, played a part as well with their not-quite-standard accent.

Home-grown lyricist Xiaohan once told Life! that one factor that helped these singers stand out is their Westernised background.

She said: "The Western influence in their music sets them apart in terms of their writing and diction. Sun's diction is very un-Taiwan but it makes her very different." On her breakthrough hit Cloudy Sky, Sun actually sings zong (always) as zhong. No one seemed to care as the ballad was a mega hit and she won the prestigious Golden Melody Award for Best New Artist in 2001.

The rise of the singer-songwriter over the last two decades has further blurred the line between imperfect diction and personal style.

The singer-songwriter ethos is very much about the celebration of the individual and individuality. In this context, imperfect diction can be seen as a unique interpretation, even as an inimitable personal style which sets one apart rather than a fault to be eradicated.

Perhaps with dedicated singers, audiences demand more since that is the one thing that they do. But since singer-songwriters juggle more than one ball, they get to enjoy a little more leeway.

Taiwan's Mandopop king Jay Chou might have mumbled his way through his debut album Jay (2000) but he also packed the record with fresh and exciting music ideas, offering a delectable mix of groovy pop, smooth rap and tongue- twisting R&B.

Despite some criticisms, Chou has been vindicated by the enormous success he has enjoyed.

By the time Taiwanese singer-songwriter Bai An released her debut album The Catcher In The Rye (2012), she was embracing her distinctive, as opposed to wrong, enunciation as a part of her identity.

Like Chou, she also delivered a compelling album and an immediately recognisable singing style only seemed to complement it perfectly. On the ballad What Brings Me To You, she sings about not disappearing into a sea of humanity. That seems unlikely to happen when she sings "chun zhai" instead of "cun zai" (exist) and "zhi ji" instead of "zi ji" (myself).

But before any aspiring singer decides to mangle words in the name of individuality, here is something to think about: Have something to say in the first place and then you can decide how you want to say it.

bchan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 9, 2014.
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