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In the 1980’s, the political and economic cultures of America and China were growing more similar with each passing day. In fact, the two nations had been progressing along paradoxically similar trajectories for the previous two decades. For instance, beginning in 1967, Chinese President Mao Zedong implemented his Cultural Revolution program, which was a campaign, intended to purify China’s artistic productions and change them into political vehicles. It was a clash between traditional Chinese artistic expression and modern artistic repression. Ironically, at that same exact time, the United States was struggling through its own traditional-modern clash: the youthful, hippie culture against the traditionally conservative parents of the day.1 Two decades later, neither country had changed much, except for one main thing— conservatism had become the status quo amongst the majority of American youth, whereas it was still despised by many Chinese youth. At the time, America had already begun its transition from the disco-crazed 1970’s into the Members-Only youth elitism.2 “Like the 1960’s, [the 1980’s] was an era of frantic change, characterized by political and economic decentralization [for the U.S.].”3 From 1981 to 1989 (“the Reagan Years”), this conservatism became “the dominant creed in American political and cultural life.”4 Concurrently, China was under the control of Deng Xiaoping, Zedong’s successor, and it was undergoing a similar “de-collectivization of the countryside [and] industrial reforms aimed at decentralizing government controls in the industrial sector.”5 For the first time,
America’s involvement in the controversial Vietnam War was splintering the nation, and America’s youths (who were being drafted into the war) began rebelling like never before. 2 Members-Only was a brand of preppy outerwear that conservative youths enjoyed wearing throughout the 1980’s. 3 Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. www.wikipedia.com. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid. A measure of Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms and Openness (Gaige Kaifang) policies.
3 China was allowing foreign investment to enter certain Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) without government restraints. Thus, the 1980’s began on a politically conservative yet economically liberal note for both countries.6 Spending was encouraged, but liberalism was forbidden. This dawning of conservative capitalism in America and China, however, was accompanied by the publicity births of two female cultural counter-agents: Madonna in the U.S. and Anita Mui in China. Both women pushed the envelope when it came to lyrics, costumes, and performance, but each was also a subtle reflection of her own youth culture—Madonna emerged as a punk agent who was trying to alter American cultural status quos from entirely outside the conservative establishment, while Anita Mui rebelled for democracy by keeping one foot inside the traditional Chinese culture. Despite similarly rebellious concert styles, Mui possessed an underlying traditional female sexual identity that Madonna did not, and this enabled her to relate better to her culturally adjusting Chinese audience. Madonna was against everything her conservative culture stood for at the time. Instead of preppy, she was pop punk. In place of the traditionally pure female, she stood flaunting her ironic lack of virginity. In lieu of a good singing voice, she possessed a knack for controversy and spectacle. She was sexually liberal and completely outside the American social norms of the day. Antithetically, Anita Mui confronted Chinese 1980’s culture in a manner that placed her outside acceptability for the most conservative Chinese, but within the realm of acceptability for the majority. Her rebellious costumes and lyrics aside, she continued to possess an inherently feminine quality about her. She desperately longed to be a mother, even retiring in 1991 in order to facilitate a possible marriage; however, it never panned
A popular 1980’s movie, “Wall Street,” even carried the tagline, “Greed is good.”
4 out, and Mui soon returned to her first love—the stage. Thus, where Madonna’s songs and fashions completely bucked the system and were usually confrontational in nature, Mui’s lyrics tended to possess a mournful, loving element that linked her to the Yellow music of the early 1900’s. Madonna’s most famous song was a satirical take on her lack of virginity; Mui’s notable song was about a woman always wanting love but never finding it. One can see the difference in degree of scandal. But while Madonna’s radical celebrity image was situated in an America that had just experienced two decades of rebellious youth culture, Mui’s image had to find a niche within the tightly controlled People’s Republic. While Mui and Madonna shared a similar modus operandi when it came to image, it was the subtle differences in costume, lyrics, and overall message that allowed Mui to thrive in a Chinese culture where Madonna would have failed. Madonna’s image as the over-sexed anti-virgin who would eat a man alive before submitting to the traditional wife role was similar to Anita Mui’s “Bad Girl” image; however, Madonna continued to play that controversial, anti-wife role throughout her career, while Anita Mui always relished the idea of marriage and motherhood and was not afraid to sing about it. The lyrics to Madonna’s hit, “Express Yourself,” convey a lot about her intended gender role: “You deserve the best in life / so if the time isn’t right then move on / Second best is never enough / you’ll do much better baby on your own.” As Karyn and Donald Rybacki of Northern Michigan University (Madonna’s home state!) wrote in their essay, Cultural Approaches to the Rhetorical Analysis of Selected Music Videos, “Madonna’s attempted embodiment of female power and the message that attempt sends to her fans can be best understood through a Marxist interpretation of ‘Material Girl.’” In that song, Madonna “has created a female persona that dominates
5 rather than is dominated by the male hierarchy,” according to the Rybacki’s. The music video consists of images in which the Material Girl herself rejects men as sexual playthings, to be used solely for her amusement. In direct contrast to this style of female empowerment, Anita Mui’s songs reflect her personal quest for a soul mate. In “This Lifetime,” Anita cries, “In a life full of changes, I’m waiting for a love silently. / Having passed so many turns, so much disappointed feelings / I don’t wanna say goodbye, I’m still hoping for a love legend. / I won’t give it up, I’m not afraid to keep running after it a strong windy night.” In fact, Mui was so dedicated to running after her real life love (Peter, a Canadian student) that she gave up her first love (the stage) for a brief period in 1991. As usually happened with Mui, this love did not pan out, and she was once again left with only the stage to dry her tears. Perhaps “Fate” (Yuen Fun), her duet with good friend, Leslie Cheung, was based on this real life experience with long distance romance. After all, the song was about two lovers fated to stay together, yet “separated by quite a distance.” As one can tell, Mui longed for the traditional wife/mother role so much that she was willing to sacrifice anything for it. And ironically, it was rumored that she might have indeed sacrificed her own life for it, when she forwent initial cervical cancer treatment in hopes of preserving her future fertility.7 While “Madonna deliberately [set] out to oppose neo-conservative images of gender and sexuality from the 1980’s,” Anita Mui focused more on her country’s need for democracy than feminism. While the United States had experienced a widespread feminist movement throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, thereby paving the way for Madonna’s ironic brand of sexualized feminist songs, China had been so embroiled in the battle between democratic capitalism and controlled
Wikipedia Encyclopedia Online. “It was widely believed she forwent early treatment because she wanted to preserve the possibility to conceive…She was 40 and single.”
6 communism that feminism was not Anita Mui’s primary issue.8 Thus, while Mui was willing to openly call for democracy following the “government action” at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and even perform at a benefit concert for democracy, she felt no pressure to hide her desire for a traditional family. This traditional aspect helped Mui maintain her cultural icon status in the same country where her “Bad Girl” lyrics were briefly banned. Fans could connect and empathize with her feminine-rebel status in a way they likely would not have if Mui had been as wholly radical as Madonna. After reviewing the differences between Madonna’s concert style and Anita Mui’s “Anita Classic Moment Live” farewell concert, it is obvious that the two singers have an eerily similar style of costume and staging; however, upon deeper analysis and attention, the subtle differences between their costume motivations reveal the ideological difference between the two cultural icons. 13 years after Madonna donned a wedding dress for her 1985 “The Virgin Tour,” Anita Mui wore a wedding gown during the final act of her 2003 farewell concert. For Madonna, the purpose of wearing that wedding dress was to mock the institution of marriage and the woman’s role as the virginal, blushing bride. No stranger to sex herself, Madonna provocatively rolled across the floor while in the white dress. In sharp contrast to this presentation of the white wedding dress is Anita Mui’s meaning behind the veil. Despite her lifelong aspiration and longing to have her own white wedding, Mui was forced to symbolically marry the stage during her last “Anita Classic Moment Live” concert in 2003. She was practically on her death bed, but chose to finally fulfill both her fans’ desire for music and her own desire for marriage. Mui’s concert set was that of a large church, with stained glass windows looming above her. In her final walk up the aisle, Mui completed the marriage to her work. Antithetically,
Annalee Newitz, “Madonna’s Revenge,” Issue #9, November 1993.
7 Madonna’s MTV stage set was that of a humorously oversized wedding cake, which was designed to have stairs descending from either side for Madonna to use. With such a ridiculous representation of a wedding, Madonna was effectively disregarding the entire institution. Mui seemed to revere it. Although both women were rebellious when it came to neo-capitalist ideas—both wore over-the-top, elaborate, sparkly costumes with huge bustles and ornate head pieces during their concerts, displaying an affinity for material things—Mui anchored herself to Chinese tradition by maintaining a respect for marriage. Once again, this allowed her to rebel against China’s political and moral cultures without ignoring traditional sensibilities completely. On the other hand, Madonna displayed irreverence for anything slightly conservative or traditional. While this worked in 1980’s America, it would likely have been too drastic a measure for the already tense Chinese culture. In the end, the fact that Madonna is regarded as America’s bastard younger daughter who somehow made it “through the wilderness” of our culture shows how different her effect on American culture was when compared to Anita Mui’s image as the “beloved sister” of the Chinese nation.9 While Madonna is usually regarded as taking care of herself first and others second, Mui is remembered for her dedicated philanthropy. Anita’s identity as a service crusader stemmed from her involvement in many service projects—the 1:99 SARS relief benefit concert, the Hong Kong Performing Artistes Guild, charity proceeds from her personal photo book, and many more. Therefore, at every stage of her life, Anita Mui was behaving in a manner that was benefiting her Chinese cultural comrades while still rebelling against Chinese political and social status
“I’ve made it through the wilderness. / Somehow I’ve made it through. / Didn’t know how lost I was / til I found you.” Lyrics to Madonna’s song, “Like a Virgin.”
8 quos. Because of her ability to keep one foot in the traditional door (so to speak), Mui eventually became regarded as a ‘respected elder’ of the music business. This social consciousness, combined with her obvious affinity for the traditional female roles of wife and mother, helped lessen some of the friction that much of the Chinese conservative culture must have felt listening to her rebellious “Bad Girl” lyrics. While Madonna always took rebellion one step further than Anita Mui (e.g. while Mui longed for marriage and children, Madonna simply had a child out of wedlock), the Material Girl’s lack of any respect for conservatism would not have been tolerated within the aggravated 1980’s Chinese culture. There were so many economic and political changes occurring in China at the time that Anita Mui’s balance of female fury and feminine longing kept the entire nation listening to her own cultural revolution.
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