Making protest music has never been a lucrative occupation in a small market like Taiwan. So when members of Golden Melody Award-winning band Labor Exchange (交工樂隊) parted ways three years ago, it was no surprise that singer Chen Guan-yu (陳冠宇) said he was through with the genre. "Our music is very different," the Hakka lyricist said when introducing his new project, the Hohak Band (好客樂隊). While Labor Exchange merged music with political messages, his new group would make "happy, easygoing music that shouldn't be taken too seriously."
Fortunately for music fans his former band mate, Lin Sheng-xiang (林生祥), whose second solo album Planting Trees (種樹) was released last week by Trees Music & Art (大大樹音樂圖像), still has plenty of protest left in him. Lin's 2004 release Getting Dark (臨暗), a brooding look at globalization through the eyes of an urban laborer, won him another Golden Melody Award and was considered by some critics to be the best Chinese-language album of that year. It sold 5,000 copies, a modest number, but when combined with frequent performance gigs it was enough to allow Lin to continue working as a full-time musician.
"Sheng-xiang is really quite an exception," said Kuo Li-hsin (郭力昕), a lecturer on popular culture at National Chengchi University's School of Communications. "He is probably the only musician in Taiwan who can make a living singing exclusively about so-called social issues."
Taiwan has seen its share of protests recently, but the days when a musician could command a large following as a protest singer are long gone. The repression under the KMT dictatorship, which in the late 1980s gave musicians like Chu Yue-hsin (朱約信), better known as Joy Topper (豬頭皮), a clear theme to target in their songs, has given way to a general sense of discontent under Taiwan's democratically elected government. Musicians still sing about social issues, but they lack a clear target to protest against. Even critically acclaimed groups like the Betel Nuts Brothers must supplement their income with day jobs.
"For many of those artists, their emotional attachment was always towards the Democratic Progressive Party. Most people who longed for political justice had that kind of tendency, including myself." Kuo said. "When the DPP was still the opposition party the songs they wrote mostly (criticized) the KMT regime or some absurd social or political phenomenon. But then I guess after Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) got elected they couldn't find much to protest about. Their voices diminished then."
Lin leaned toward the DPP early in his career, as did his longstanding collaborator, poet Zhong Yong-feng (鍾永豐). Zhong, a classically trained musician who has been writing Lin's Hakka lyrics since the latter's days as the front man for Labor Exchange, now works for the DPP-led government of Chiayi County as its director of cultural affairs.
Both, however, seem to be of the view that no one in government can be trusted to protect members of the public. In track seven of Planting Trees, officials are likened to "shiny river eels, slippery and wriggling away." "When globalization comes," the song continues, "There's nothing much they can do."
"To do your best as an artist, you have to stay true to your base," Lin, 35, said in an interview last week. "I come from a farming and working-class background, so I have a better grip on this kind of music, not only the music but also its content. Farmers and laborers lead hard lives. I understand this because my parents are farmers. The power in my music comes from this tension."