On paper Wu Bai (伍佰) looks like a typical superstar in the Mandarin-speaking music world: He has released nearly 20 studio albums, many of which were best sellers; he easily fills stadiums in Taiwan, China, Singapore and Malaysia; and he’s dabbled in acting and endorses a handful of commercial products.
Yet the 40-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist is unique among his peers. With a new album released last month, Wu Bai has dodged the creative malaise that seems to afflict many long-established Mando-pop artists. He enjoys a broad appeal, earned partly because of his originality — he writes all of his songs, and is considered a pioneer in modern Taiwanese music for putting Hoklo lyrics to rock grooves. Stylistically he’s a musical chameleon. From album to album, he shifts from hard-edged blues rock to nostalgic-sounding Taiwanese folk, from Chinese ballads to electronica.
I met Wu Bai at an upscale Italian restaurant in Taipei near the office of his management company, Moonlight Music (月光音樂). He was instantly recognizable from a distance as he sat in a corner booth, puffing on a cigarette. His gruff baritone voice makes him sound brusque at first, but he is friendly and enthusiastic when discussing his music. Occasionally, a goofy charm breaks through his famously cool demeanor.
Why does he often change musical styles?
“Because I am never satisfied,” he says with a laugh. “When I do something, I’m interested in it … When I do something it’s got to have value to me, and it’s got to have meaning. When I search for a new [feel for an album], I try to do something that I think is good, and good for Chinese records.”
SPACE IS THE PLACE
Spacebomb, recorded with China Blue, his band of nearly 20 years, is about a group of human space travelers in the year 2406 and was inspired by Robert Charles Wilson’s science fiction novel Spin.
For Wu Bai, the novel opened his mind, but not to the world of science fiction as much as new creative possibilities.
“I had many things I wanted to say” about “societal problems,” including unemployment and Taiwan’s television media, which had been boiling in his mind since finishing his previous album two years ago. “But when you want to say something, you need a point of view, you want an attitude ... What I wanted to say was quite serious. How could I take this serious thing, sing it and make it entertaining?”
By taking the characters of his songs into outer space, he says they could look back at the chaos and confusion of their home planet with clarity and a “sense of humor.” The first song, also titled Spacebomb, is a rock number with a futuristic feel, full of playful computer synthesizer sounds and guitars that sound like laser guns.
The distance of outer space also gave Wu Bai a new way to vent his views on the current state of Taiwanese society. As the album progresses the space travelers reflect on the shortcomings of their world, including fashion crazes in Fashion Dog (時尚狗) or the melodramatic TV media in News Show (新聞秀). “I could be more direct without making it embarrassing or awkward,” he says.
ENTERTAINER OR ANGRY SOCIAL CRITIC?
Wu Bai sees himself first and foremost as a popular entertainer, one that just happens to write what’s on his mind. “I always put into my songs what I think of as society’s shortcomings, my dissatisfaction with them. But I don’t think [listeners] really care so much about these things.”