With more than 70 million followers on Weibo, Jackson Yee is one of C-pop’s biggest stars, and considered ideal to crack the Western market. Others believe C-pop stars are all about the packaging and don’t have the musical ability to compete with Western stars.
At the United Nations Economic and Social Council Youth Forum in New York last month, a young Chinese man gave an impassioned speech about the concerns of young people. He asked policymakers to consider the real needs of the next generation and provide them with the skills needed to change the world. The young man calling for youth empowerment was neither an activist nor a member of a high-profile concern group. He was Jackson Yee, 18, currently one of the biggest pop stars in China.
“Young people should not just be job seekers but also job creators,” said Yee, who was representing China at the forum and gave his speech in English. “We stand ready to make sure we play our part. Let’s all come together. Let’s go.”
Yee’s appearance at the forum came just six months after K-pop supergroup BTS appeared at the United Nations for the launch of Generation Unlimited, where group leader RM also called for youth empowerment.
One of the three members of Chinese boy band TFBoys, Yee is a singer, dancer, musician and actor. The 18-year-old represents a new generation of Chinese pop idols who are not only talented behind the microphone and on stage, but also speak up on behalf of young people.
Chinese media reports have described Yee as the most valuable star in China – together the TFBoys are said to be worth US$4 billion – and he has amassed more than 70 million followers on Chinese social media network Weibo, more than the population of the UK. After years of operating in the shadow of K-pop, C-pop is ready to take on the West, some industry insiders believe. And Yee is seen as one of China’s best candidates for achieving crossover international success, a dream that has yet to be realised.
“The success of K-pop has turned more Western eyes to Asia, looking for the next big thing from the region,” says Jonathan Serbin, head of Asia for Billboard. “Jackson is definitely multi-talented. He sings and dances extremely well. He also made the effort early in his career to sing in English and work with top international producers, which has helped him reach a wider audience.”
Serbin – who is also CEO of B2 Music, a Hong Kong-based label that has done A&R and production work for Yee in the West – adds that being tech-savvy is one advantage that Yee has over idols from previous generations.
“He’s been able to harness the power of digital media to achieve wider exposure. The technology just wasn’t available to idols from past generations,” he says. And Yee is aware of this advantage, pointing out the importance of using social media to reach youngsters during his speech at the United Nations Youth Forum.
Born on November 28, 2000, Yee is a native of Hunan province and has an unusual four-character Chinese name, Yi Yangqianxi. He started out as a child performer in 2005 and was discovered by Chinese entertainment company TF Entertainment while taking part in the Hunan reality TV show Up Young in 2012. The next year Yee made his debut as the youngest member of TFBoys, who have grown into one of the most successful pop groups China has ever seen, earning fans all across Asia. Overall, the group have more than 200 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
The TFBoys have released five albums since their debut in 2013, while Yee has released a string of solo singles. His first solo EP came out in November last year.
“Jackson seems approachable and instantly likeable – he comes across as clean-cut and somewhat innocent. It’s easy for fans in China and around the world to root for his success. Jackson is different from K-pop stars – he’s not as slick and untouchable. He’s more human. I think fans across the world can connect with him pretty easily,” Serbin says.
Unlike his C-pop predecessors, Yee’s music contains a heavy Western influence which sits well with his hip-hop-influenced choreography, providing a stark contrast to the melodic love songs that has driven the success of Canto-pop and Mando-pop. He is also releasing English-language songs, starting with Nothing to Lose and Unpredictable in 2017. However, some Chinese music critics believe the success of Yee and the TFBoys is due to the “fan economy”, rather than the quality of their music.
与他的中国流行音乐前辈不同，易烊千玺的音乐包含了强烈的西方影响，与他受嘻哈影响的编舞很好地契合在一起，与粤语流行音乐和华语乐坛成功的旋律情歌形成鲜明对比。他从2017年开始便发发行了Nothing to Lose和Unpredictable这些英文歌曲。然而，一些中国音乐评论家认为，易烊千玺和TFBoys的成功是由于“粉丝经济”，而不是他们的音乐质量。
“The entire music industry has become an entertainment industry driven by profits from fans,” says John Fei, a veteran music critic based in Shanghai. “Idols dominate 70 to 80 per cent of the industry. There are fewer real music fans these days – they just follow idols.
“Do they like their music? Not necessarily. These fans, especially teenage girls, are always looking for ‘little fresh meat’, the cute, good-looking guys. They like the personality, not the music. And following idols helps them socialise with like-minded fans.”
And Li Dalong, director of Shanghai live music venue Mao Livehouse, says the internet may have helped boost the popularity of young idols, but it hasn’t helped youngsters develop an appreciation for music.“The post-2000 generation has grown up with cultural products made in China, while my generation grew up with music from the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The internet is flooded with entertainment products and so much is made available to young people before they can learn to distinguish quality material from commercial rubbish,” Li says.
Like Yee, other young Chinese pop stars such as Kris Wu and Hong Kong-born Jackson Wang, a member of K-pop group GOT7, are attempting to make a name for themselves in the West by releasing English-language songs. But Fei says Asian musicians still struggle to find equal footing with Western stars on the global stage.
“There could be a one-off phenomenon, but it is almost impossible to challenge the domination of the West in the music industry,” Fei says.“The Chinese stars are being packaged as idols – it’s not about their music. Even if they are talented musicians, today it’s all about the packaging and profits, and the music is only a by-product created to satisfy the needs of the market. So we can expect to see a lot more idols produced by China’s pop industry."
“As an idol, you have to give the fans what they need. And Jackson Yee is successful in that regard,” said Fei.