Created on Wednesday, 05 June 2013 19:32
Back in the 1980s, when I was working in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) while trying to learn Cantonese from my Chinese friends, there was a pop song by Hong Kong singer Sam Hui that caught my attention.
Titled "Money, Money, Money", the humorous, yet oddly reflective, Cantonese lyrics went something like this:
What makes you happy? Money!
What makes you crazy? Money!
With money, I wouldn't care even if I were crippled
Always want more money
Everything goes wrong with money
As a bonus, the chorus included snippets in a sort of pidgin English - "No money, no talk. No money, no talk". And it was sung with an infectious rhythm that was hard to ignore.
The first of the Cantopop superstars, Sam Hui wrote his songs using Cantonese lyrics that included subtle meanings that were hard for a gwai loh (foreign devil) living in Malaysia to understand fully. But the general sympathy with the Hong Kong working classes expressed in the songs was clear enough. Struggling to make ends meet in Malaysia, I could also identify with them to some extent.
For Hong Kongers, of course, Sam Hui's songs went much further than that. Full of earthy colloquialisms, they helped define a sort of local Hong Kong identity at a time when millions in the territory were unsure of what the impending handover of the British colony to Beijing in 1997 would bring.
Sam Hui was a successful and very talented singer and lyricist. But was he really that much better than some of the great performers of classical music? Cynics often point to the inverse ratio that seems to exist between a singer's popularity and his musical education and general expertise. Some of the most successful jazz and rock 'n' roll singers never learned to read music.
Among those for whom a deeper knowledge of music is an essential part of the creative process, dance band leaders have also done pretty well historically. Examples include Johann Strauss (the Waltz King) and Benny Goodman (the King of Swing).
Classically trained musicians, by contrast, don't get anywhere near as rich. Piano players, however, seem to do reasonably well. A brief list would include Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin.
But whatever you do, history suggests it would probably be wise not to aspire to be a composer. Tchaikovsky's life would have been very different without the support of a rich admirer, Mme von Meck. She gave him an annual grant. The royalties from the sale of Bartok's recordings of his piano music were so bad a sympathetic friend falsified the accounts to make them appear more decent. At one point, Scriabin was so short of cash he could not even raise enough money for a postage stamp. Mozart died a pauper. And Beethoven, possibly the greatest of them all, suffered almost constantly from money problems, even though his music was highly regarded during his lifetime.
Composers of serious music generally do somewhat better these days, of course, but only because they are able to win government-sponsored competitions or attach themselves to prominent tertiary institutions or well-financed orchestras.
Compare this middling success with the riches amassed by contemporary pop singers, and it hardly seems fair.
Yet I must confess an admiration for singers such as Sam Hui. Like Bob Dylan in the US, Sam wrote songs with carefully crafted lyrics that had a serious social message. That set him apart from the general run of pop singers, and gave meaning to his subsequent commercial success.