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China’s teen sensation

Motherland boys

How a patriotic teen trio is dominating the Chinese charts. Plus, Ed Sheeran’s pop takeover

How a patriotic teen trio is dominating the Chinese charts. Plus, Ed Sheeran’s pop takeover

June/July 2017

Divide and conquer
Cuddly British singer Ed Sheeran makes pop by numbers. It’s a winning formula: his first two albums (“+” and “x”) went platinum several times over. So has his latest, “÷”, which reached number one in Britain and 13 other countries. This isn’t music to everyone’s ears. Aficionados of the British charts complain that they have become more homogenised because of a new rule governing how they are compiled. In 2014 the charts, which previously only factored in sales, added streaming data to the mix.

This was good news for Sheeran. Shortly after “÷” was released, all 16 tracks moved into the top 20. Before the change, only six would have. The numbers reveal changing patterns of consumption: fans who stream music listen to the same songs over and over again. Sheeran should name his next album “£”.

Power pop
One of Nigeria’s most prolific popstars, Tekno is best known for his toe-tapping odes to attractive women. Whereas “Rara” is just as likely as his previous hits to get your hips shaking, it follows in the fine tradition of Fela Kuti by skewering the country’s sclerotic politics, decrying the “greedy man” who “packi our money…Take it to other nation”. But in a country where the incessant moan of generators accompanies regular blackouts, it is Tekno’s criticism of the national power company that has hit home for Nigerians. “Generator wan tear my ear,” he sings. Time, as one Twitter user wrote, to turn up the music and drown out the never-ending whine.

Homeboys
The most popular boy bands in China have always been imports from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. But mainland China has finally struck a hit with TFBoys (or The Fighting Boys), a trio in their teens. They are phenomenally popular, especially among older Chinese women, in part because of their wholesomeness: they don’t sing about girls but about doing homework (“I write down my goals in my diary one by one,” they croon in a video while bouncing on a sofa next to cuddly toys). But the band’s success also stems from the undercurrent of patriotism running through songs like “Women shi Gongchanzhuyi de Jiebanren” (“We Are the Successors of Communism”) – making them less mummy’s boys, more motherland boys.

The party gets political
Go to any traditional Venezuelan party and you are likely to hear a phrase or two of the music of Guaco, Venezuela’s “super band”, which has been going strong since 1964. Its sounds are a mix of folk, salsa, funk and pop; always upbeat and studiously apolitical. But its current hit, “Lágrimas No Mas” (No more tears), hints that the demise of Venezuela is sapping their optimism. The lyrics – ostensibly about the end of a love affair – capture the gloom of the nation: “I know that you are destroyed, wounded, maltreated.” But old habits die hard: although he acknowledges the bad times, the singer urges his lover to be happy.

The kindness of strangers
The Canadian musical “Come From Away” is not an easy sell: it tells the story of the thousands of airline passengers who were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland after American airspace was shut down on 9/11. But listen to the cast recording: the writers found just the right balance between capturing the horror of that day, with songs like “Darkness and Trees”, and celebrating the kindness of locals in “Blankets and Bedding”. The story of Newfoundlanders rallying to welcome an unexpected influx of outsiders has hit just the right note in Canada, which is revelling in the good publicity.

Borderline?
The latest mixtape from Mr Eazi, one of the fastest rising stars of west African music, brings together the energetic beats of Nigeria, where Eazi was born, and the smooth, relaxed rhythms of Ghana, where he lives. But Eazi is finding out that allegiance to two nations isn’t, well, easy. Nigerian fans accused him of betraying his heritage after he praised Ghana’s influence on Nigerian music. Ghanaian fans were ticked off by his album cover, on which he wears a suit made from “Ghana Must Go” bags – the striped holdalls which many of the 1m Ghanaians who were expelled from Nigeria in 1983 used to carry their belongings as they crossed the border. Eazi is unrepentant: “I feel like this bag now represents me: Mr Eazi, the Yoruba boy who went from Nigeria to Ghana.”

To listen to a selection of songs from these pages, search “spotify:user:1843mag” on Spotify

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