Teaching Chinese with awful pop music

Listening through my music library on shuffle is a dangerous thing, sometimes.

Perhaps also stemming from the same place from which springs my appreciation of cheaply carved and awkward looking Chinese woodblock prints, I have a perverse love of some bad pop music. Not all pop music, much of it I remain blissfully ignorant of, but every once in a while, something earnestly poppy and delightfully awful sticks with me. Music to put on a playlist for a bad day. I don’t love these songs “ironically,” whatever that’s supposed to mean anymore since the hipsterpocalypse happened, I love them because they’re charming, or weird, or seem to be the result of a series of incomprehensible decisions that came together into a glorious mess that one can only laugh about.[1]

Songs like this are scattered throughout my music library. When it’s on shuffle, I never know when one might break onto my consciousness like a plastic easter egg filled with glitter, leaving me singing snatches of (insipid or inspired?) lyrics to myself for the rest of the week.

Which brings me to this week’s earworm, Travel Separately (分開旅行) by Rene Liu, one I know I want to use when I teach Chinese someday. The singers enunciate and sing slowly enough, for the most part, that students could fill in the blanks on some carefully blanked out parts of the lyrics, and the video on Youtube comes from the KTV version, fortuitously includes the lyrics across the bottom.

Sing along if you like!

I added this song to my library of terrible pop in the summer of 2006, after a late night of watching Back Dorm Boys 後舍男生 videos with my brother and laughing hysterically, but quietly, so as not to wake our parents.[2]

It stuck in my head enough that I looked up the original music video, which was even worse (better!) than I could have dreamed of.

The song is about a woman traveling to Paris and her boyfriend traveling to Los Angeles. So why does the video feature Rene Liu in Mongolia, dancing happily with peasants, while Stanley Huang morosely wanders an empty highway along the coastline?

Better yet, it’s a cover of a song called Black, Black Heart by a Canadian artist David Usher, and the Chinese version has absolutely nothing to do with it except for the refrain. It’s such an odd premise for a song and then it ends with a (hilarious?) rap solo that finishes with the line “But haven’t you always said you wanted to go to Paris?”

I think it would be great to collect these earworm Mandopop songs and build short lesson plans around them. Even better if my students are enthusiastic and silly enough to make lip synching music videos!

I’m happy to take suggestions for more songs!

[1] This also might describe my life some days.
[2] Chinese viral video stars from the early days of Youtube. Made famous for lip synching Backstreet Boys and other pop songs in hilarious videos set in their dorm rooms.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Chinese with awful pop music

      • Yeah, Jay’s a mumbler, unfortunately. My mandarin is terrible, but maybe this song would work? It’s sung relatively slow. Also, it’s a sweet video–

  1. If there weren’t already English subtitles, I might use some of these for teaching Oral Translation next term at Chin-li University in Moatao. Should you know of audio-only tracks that I might insert into the mix of the class, audio that hasn’t already been mangled into some form of English, I’d be happy to hear. Pa

  2. I never realised that there was a Canadian original (frankly I can see why the Chinese version is bigger — it’s much better lyrically).

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