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Stuck on repeat: china’s weird western soundtracks

We pick out a selection of unlikely tunes you cannot escape in Chinese shopping malls, and probe the reasons behind their popularity

07·29·2012

China’s iPods often seem to be stuck in the past and on repeat.

No matter where you are—in the mall, at the cafe, in the hair salon or in the elevator—you’re bound to hear an unrecognizable tune. That is, until you hear it played again. And again.

Instead of featuring local hits, it seems that modernization has led store owners in parts of China to entertain customers with Western music, and much of the time, it’s not the songs you’d expect. If you’re not hearing Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, then you’re subjected to John Denver or One-T. Sometimes, these unlikely and, at times, outdated hits are the result of musicians just trying their luck on an international level and hitting the jackpot. Another source of offbeat music could be the first wave of incoming shipments of unwanted CDs, or dakou (打口), from Western labels in the early ’90s. But that’s just speculation. No one can really know what it is about a song or album that catches the mainstream ear.

But one thing is for certain: China won’t stop listening to them.

“When I worked at a diner in Shanghai, they used to play the Jason Mraz album, “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” over and over and OVER, and it made me want to punch myself repeatedly,” our editor Liz Tung, says. “I asked my coworkers if it bothered them to listen to the same thing on repeat, and my friend Rain was like, “No why? It sounds nice.”

Here are 10 songs that we’ve heard a million times, and until now, couldn’t figure out why. See if you recognize any of these beats, and leave your own in the comment section below!

1. “Zombie” by The Cranberries, 1994

The Irish rock band caught China’s attention after Wang Fei, a Beijing pop-singer recorded a Cantonese version of their song “Dreams” in the mid-’90s. Their second-wave of popularity came in 2005, when the winner of Super Girl, a televised Chinese singing contest, performed “Zombie” in the final round.

2. “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, 1997

A hit spurred by the Titanic movie craze in 1998 (and again with the 3D version in 2012), this song goes on and on and on in KTVs and shopping malls.

3. “Jambalaya” by The Carpenters, 1973

Originally penned and sung by American country music star Hank Williams, “Jambalaya” made it all the way to Japan by the mid-1970s thanks to a sped-up redo by The Carpenters. It seems as though Japan’s ongoing American cowboy craze rubbed off on China because this unlikely tune made an appearance in English textbooks more than two decades ago.

4. “Hotel California” by the Eagles, 1976

While Hotel Californias seem to be prevalent around the West Coast, one particular Jiazhou Luguan is said to have been founded in Mexico in 1950 by a Chinese immigrant. While this is a pretty thin connection, the tune somehow made its way to the far reaches of China and leaves our editors wailing “Why, god, why?”

5. “Going Home” by Kenny G, 1989

Kenny G and his Guinness World Record sax note just won’t go away. He has toured China multiple times since 2002 and has gone as far as to record the classic Chinese song “Jasmine Flower” for his devoted followers. Maybe this is why “Going Home” is still played almost everywhere when it’s time to close…or maybe shop owners are trying to send G a message? Keep your fingers crossed!

6. “God Is a Girl” by Groove Coverage, 2002

This German trance group managed to reach number one in China’s charts, and attracted 1.5 million legal (*gasp*) downloads. Shopping malls still play the original, but Chinese versions exist out there too. As their lead singer Melanie Munch would say, “Do you believe it?”

7. “Lonely” Nana, 1997

The Ghanaian born rapper’s ’90s German dance hit was number one in the charts for a few weeks, but there’s no telling how it migrated east so that it could burrow into the minds of Chinese and lodge their like a particularly tenacious tick. A tourist most likely abandoned his Booya Music single in a hostel, and it fell into the wrong hands.

8. “Take Me to Your Heart” by Michael Learns to Rock, 2003

Instead of the West coming to the East, this Danish soft rock band decided to do it the other way around. “Take Me to Your Heart” is an adaptation of Hong Kong singer/songwriter Jacky Cheung’s hit song “Goodbye Kiss” (吻别), and China can’t stop listening to the English version.

9. “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & the Papas, 1965

One of America’s most popular tunes conquered China and its KTVs following the release of Hong Kong film “Chungking Express” in 1994. Says our web director about the song, “I lived in California, and it’s all a lie people, most of the coast is covered in the marine layer clouds, even in the summer, and the traffic is hell.”

10. “The Magic Key” by One-T + Cool-T, 2003

No one seems to know how on earth this hip hop hit on European radio from a French animated group in the early 2000’s became “all the rage” on Beijing’s streets more than seven years later.

The newest 10 English songs  list  that ring in your ears in China can be found here.

Photo by kattebelletje on Flickr

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