Q&A with Taiwanese writer Paris Shih

August 18, 2021

The student life is full of papers. However, my junior year English teacher proposed the publication of a 2000-2500 word argumentative paper as an alternative, and I set out to find the perfect topic to research about. I knew I wanted to write about something related to my identity, as a female Taiwanese-American student, and I ultimately settled on Mandopop. Not only have I listened to Mandopop my whole life, but there is lots of previous research available as supporting evidence. As it turns out, some researchers focusing on Women and Gender Studies have researched Jolin Tsai rather thoroughly, especially due to her outspoken stances on LGBTQ+ rights in Taiwan. She’s had an extensive career, dating back to 1999, and with the great amount of respect people in the Chinese speaking world have for her, it’s no surprise that she’s been covered in research. You can read my paper here.

In March, I had the pleasure of speaking with Paris Shih, a Taiwanese writer and cultural critic based in New York, as part of my research. His work has largely focused on Jolin Tsai’s influence on gay men through her music.

What inspired you to get into the fields of feminist and queer studies?

It was actually when I was studying at William & Mary from 2009 to 2010. I met this professor named Laurie Wolf, and her class was my entry point into feminist and queer studies. We studied Judith Butler and Gayle Rubin, like a lot of important feminist and queer scholars — I was so inspired. After I left William & Mary, we remained friends. She is a Virgo and I am a Virgo. Jolin Tsai is a Virgo. Jiang Hui is a Virgo. It’s like all the divas are Virgos!

However, I was exposed to queer culture way before that. That was one of the arguments I made in my article. Before Jolin Tsai started to address gay rights in 2014, she was already an underground gay icon. When I looked back, I realized many gay people were dancing to her music like me. Jolin Tsai didn’t know that until very late. Play (2014) was the major album where she started to put a lot of gay and queer elements into her music.

However, I would argue that her gayest album is actually Dancing Diva (2006). It was released when I was in high school. When that album came out, it was phenomenal. Every shop was playing her songs. Everyone was covering her music. Everybody was doing yoga because of her. And it was not just in Taiwan — it was in the entire Chinese speaking world. It was just a sensation.

Did listening to a lot of Jolin’s music build your identity?

Yes, but in a kind of unconscious way. I listened to her music because it was really pleasurable, and I just enjoyed dancing to her songs. Recently, I wrote an article where I talked about not just Jolin Tsai, but also S.H.E., Yuki Hsu, and Coco Lee. I called it “Divafication” because I see diva worship as a process. It’s not just like, “Oh, you are gay, so you listen to it.” It’s more like a kind of mutually subjective or constitutive relationship between you and the diva. They are becoming gayer, and we are becoming more and more like the diva. It’s like we are shaping each other.

In queer studies, there is this concept called “female female impersonator.” While a female impersonator is a man who performs a female role, a female female impersonator is a woman who performs femininity like a drag queen. The idea that female femininity could be learned from drag queens or gay men is an important argument in queer studies. Interestingly, Jolin Tsai once said, “I didn’t know how to act like a girl until I met a lot of gay men.” She learned femininity from gay men, and gay men learned femininity from divas, so there were layers and layers of identity formation. I would describe it as a mutually subjective or constitutive relationship between gay men and divas.

Is it like feeding on top of each other? We’re often told that we learn by imitation, and as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery.

One of the most important arguments in queer theory is that gay identity itself is a construct. It’s very different from the idea that “you are born gay; be who you are.” Queer theory deconstructs it, and argues that our identity is always in the process of reformation and reconstitution. The diva came before my gay identity. Without the diva, I would not have become gay. People usually say, “You listen to divas because you are gay.” But for me, it’s the opposite — I would not have acquired an identity without the diva.

When we talk about divas, we often talk about camp. Camp is the idea that you exaggerate a certain kind of gender characteristic through mannerism or performance. There is a long history of camp being part of gay culture. I also wrote about camp and Jolin Tsai, but she did not become campy until Play. She used to be so serious and hardworking that she came to embody the “earth-made” talent — that was her star image. After Play, she started becoming really campy, as you can see in the title track’s music video and some of her recent works.

My parents often spoke about how Jolin was very famous for being hardworking. Even if celebrities seem, somehow, “better” than we are, she seems very human in that respect.

You touched upon something really important. Richard Dyer wrote an article called “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” which has been cited like a million times. In the article, he talks about why Judy Garland became a gay icon in the 1950s. He argues that Garland was someone who embodied both “ordinariness” and “extraordinariness.” While stars were supposed to be extraordinary, Garland had this other side of her. She went through suicide attempts, divorces, and career crises. Because of that, she accidentally became a gay icon. She used to be famous for portraying the all-American girl. Then gay men realized that it was just a facade and that she had gone through struggles like them. Richard Dyer used “homology” to describe the process, which means that gay men saw something from Garland that was structurally similar to their experience. Even though Garland was not gay, a gay man was able to identify himself with her. These are Dyer’s arguments.

In some ways, Jolin Tsai is more like Garland than Madonna. During her Myself tour, there was this famous moment where she admitted she almost lost faith in herself because of the criticism. She started out as a teen idol, and a lot of people hated on her. In terms of career path, she resembled Britney Spears, because they both started out as teen icons. In 2007, when she got the Best Mandarin Female Singer statuette at the Golden Melody Awards, people criticized her because they thought A-Mei and Sandy Lam deserved it more, who were considered the ultimate divas in terms of vocal quality. I think she was really hurt by that, and this dialectic between a diva and an underdog is what shaped her, and what made her unique from other gay icons in Taiwan.

A lot of editors wrote to me and asked if I could write an article for Ugly Beauty (2018), because it is explicitly gay themed, especially “Womxnly.” I was like, “I don’t want to write about something that is so obvious!” Instead, I would argue that she has been a gay icon since the 2000s. It’s not just these two songs. People focus on them so much that they ignore her entire career. Like I said, while Dancing Diva does not seem to be gay themed, it actually created a gay culture. Gay men practiced yoga and danced to the songs. Some of them even dressed up like her, which could be seen as a kind of drag culture. So there was a rich history of queerness out there.

”We’re All Different, Yet the Same” is about gay marriage and love between women, but if we are being honest, most of Jolin Tsai’s fans are gay men — especially feminine gay men like me. She certainly has lesbian fans, but they are not her main audience. On the other hand, S.H.E. has a significant lesbian fanbase, because Ella is understood as a “butch” and Hebe a “femme” by the lesbian community. It’s interesting to see how the queer community appropriates star images on their own terms. In cultural studies, we call this “audience theory or “reception theory.” The idea is that you could appropriate cultural products and make them your own. For example, a music video might not contain gay elements, but as a gay person, you could appropriate and queer it. “Queer” becomes a verb here.

Do you think those songs are broadcast more to a straight audience, or the more conservative parts of Taiwan, so that’s why they want you to write about it?

I feel that those two songs are used as a promotion in a way. It’s not underground; it’s very out there. A lot of straight people could be like, “Jolin Tsai supports gay marriage!” But there are also disagreements among gay communities. Some queer scholars critique gay marriage because they think gay people are being mainstreamed or incorporated into normativity. They want to stay outside of marriage. So there are conflicts within the queer community as well.

In queer studies, there is this idea called “queer reading” or “gay reading”: if you are a gay person, you would approach cultural products in a queer way. Both “Womxnly” and “We’re All Different, Yet the Same” are easy to sell, so you are right about how it is easy for the mostly straight audience to understand that Jolin Tsai supports gay rights. But for gay people who have been there throughout the years, we are just like, “We love Dancing Diva; we love dancing!” Importantly, both disco and EDM are a huge part of gay culture as well.

Do you think that it is better for Jolin to continue more explicit support for LGBTQ+ rights or more attention should be brought to her less obviously gay themed songs?

Maybe both? I feel like once she started to realize she has this gay following, it is impossible for her to undo that. Ugly Beauty is a very good album, and there are many interesting things in it. I am not against her putting explicitly gay elements in her album, but I am against reading that as the only thing. For example, in the music video of “Womxnly”, Jolin and her dancers are dancing in a deserted factory. The first time I watched it, it immediately reminded me of myself in high school, dancing and practicing her songs at a corner where nobody could find me. I read the deserted factory as a queer space. There are many queer images and symbols in Ugly Beauty. It would be amazing if people could pay more attention to them, instead of just focusing on an explicit message.

Another thing I would point out is that Jolin became very campy after Play, and camp remains controversial in the queer community. Some gay people do not like the idea of camp, while others embrace it. I think it is important to acknowledge these differences and conflicts within the queer community and avoid seeing it as unified or monolithic. So in some ways, the uses of camp complicate her performances. If she continues to perform campily, it would be a very interesting development.

I’m absolutely elated that I was able to find Paris’ articles after my endless digging on Google for scholarly articles on Jolin Tsai. Who else would I be able to talk to for a whole hour on Jolin from a scholarly perspective?

Thank you so much, Paris, for letting me talk to you and giving me so much inspiration for my work!

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