She's no plain Jane

By Han Bingbin and Qin Zhongwei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-22 11:27
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She's no plain Jane 

She's no plain Jane 

Jane Zhang Liangying belts out sizzlers like Beyonce and charms the older folks with Teresa Teng evergreens. Han Bingbin and Qin Zhongwei unravel the story of the enigmatic super diva-to-be.

The Wukesong Arena is known as the home of the stars. Originally built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it has seen some of the most luminous names in international music come and go including Avril Lavigne, Beyonce, the Backstreet Boys, and R&B heartthrob Usher. This weekend, it serves as the backdrop for China's own rising star, Jane Zhang Liangying. Zhang is the first Chinese chanteuse to be crowned best female singer four years running on the local music charts. She was the first Chinese performer to show off her talents on the Oprah Winfrey Show and she was the first Chinese singer invited to walk the red carpet at the Grammy's. With such accomplishment already behind her, singing at Wukesong will be just one more milestone in her meteoric rise.

The concert this weekend is the Beijing stop of her ambitious 2010 I Believe world tour, which would have whirled through major cities such as Shanghai, Chengdu and Tianjin before a rousing finale in Sydney, Australia.

Zhang is the latest refreshing sparkle in the jaded eyes of both music fans and industry investors, at a time when the scene is mostly dominated by prettily packaged boy bands and girl groups that are more eye candy than real talent.

She surprises naysayers with persistent success, an album at a time.

Four best-selling compilations and two run-away singles later, Zhang has already chalked up an impressive list of collaborators including celebrity pianist Lang Lang, musicians and singers David Foster, Andrea Bocelli and Andy Lau and composers and musicians Tan Dun and Kitaro. It is a resume few of her elders in the industry can boast of, or even dream about.

It all started humbly enough, with the Super Girl competition in 2005, one of the nation's most-watched singing competitions, and an attempt by Hunan Television to identify talent from the grassroots.

Zhang, diva-to-be, won third place in a final that was reportedly watched by 400 million people.

It was a memorable beginning that became, for her, a stepping-stone to a phenomenal career that is still just beginning.

Within six years, Zhang has already left behind her previous life singing in Chengdu bars to becoming the next big thing.

It was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Soon after, many more would follow in her footsteps in talent competitions, but the ruthlessly short memories of fans and followers dimmed the ambitions of these young hopefuls. Eventually the appeal of the talent contests faded along with the television ratings.

Fortunately, Zhang remains one of the few diamonds in the rough uncovered in these contests who is polishing up to be a real gem. She knows the first steps are the hardest and that to follow her dreams, she has a long journey ahead.

"It offered a good opportunity, but to be a real singer with the power and wit to control the stage and the whole atmosphere of the concert, you need more than a good voice. There is still so much to learn," she says.

It seems that every decade or so, a singing phoenix rises from nowhere and reigns the Chinese pop charts undisputed. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was Teresa Teng who ruled the music industry with her demure sweetness in both looks and voice. Faye Wong, edgier in attitude and appeal, usurped her in the 1990s.

Many believe that Zhang has the charisma and talent of both Teng and Wong, but also has a versatility that is all her own. She is a facilitator, a chameleon, as well as the proverbial phoenix.

Her voice is clean and clear, with the ability to warble in the best Chinese folk-style but it is also expressive and almost stage-like in its changes of tone and key.

Her performance of Painted Heart - the title track of the 2009 box office hit Painted Skin - showed off her folk techniques as well as her vocal range. It is this mastery that appeals to a mature audience, who appreciates the effort she invests in a song.

It is an attitude she has displayed since her contest days, when her frequent selections from Teng's repertoire made both judges and fans sit up. It was a clever move, especially in an age when homogeneous pop seemed to rule the airwaves and charts.

It was also a conscious move.

Zhang did not draw her first musical inspirations from classical folk. When she was working the pub and club circuit in Chengdu, her repertoire was mostly English cover versions and she became adept at picking songs to win her audiences over.

Her versatility has come to the fore in the years after the contest and she often summons up an enormous voice from within a petite frame, tempting comparison with her idol, Mariah Carey.

Yet, she says, she really likes jazz and rock, inclinations that are slowly appearing in her current albums such as the free-form melody and jazzy core of I Don't Wanna Pray in her latest album "Believe In Jane".

But there is still some distance between what the public wants and what Zhang wants and this song falls by the wayside in favor of more upbeat, conventional hits in the same compilation.

"Hopefully, I can contribute more of my own thoughts to the making of future albums," she says with more than a hint of wistfulness

It is a measure of the singer's maturity and patience that she is prepared to wait for what she really wants to do. She knows full well, for now, that her immediate task is to cement her popularity.

One of the hardest lessons for Zhang was to reconcile the sexuality in her voice with her image on stage. Over the years, she has argued with designers over stage costumes that she thought were too sexy - although even this resistance has faded recently.

For her world tour, Zhang is ready to present a revamped wardrobe and revamped choreography, a signal that she is ready to shed her old image and move on.

"Sexiness is just a performance on stage, it has no real relation to my inner self," she says.

For her followers, it is a harder reconciliation. Many remember Zhang in a pink qipao (traditional Chinese dress) demurely singing the love songs of the 1980s. Now they see her in sophisticated costumes making even more sophisticated dance moves. Which is the real Jane?

Zhang has a ready reply, possibly crafted after much heart-searching.

"Many years from now, what you will remember of me are ultimately the songs. My plan for now is just simply to sing my best," she says.

She may be right. Already she has proven that a super diva in the making needs talent, courage and most of all, the brains to plot a successful career and an enduring place in the music industry.