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    The New Talent Show Striking Fear Into China’s Biggest Pop Stars

    “Singer 2024” promises to shine a harsh spotlight on China’s stars by forcing them to perform live without autotune. During the first episode, the tension was palpable.

    The TV talent show “Singer 2024” has sparked something of a crisis of confidence in China’s pop music industry, after some of the country’s biggest stars were outshone by a pair of unknown foreign performers in the competition’s opening episode.

    The new series of “Singer,” broadcast on Hunan Television, has generated huge interest by forcing stars to perform live — a rare challenge in China, where shows routinely touch up performances in post-production.

    Straplines for the show promise viewers that they’ll only hear “real singing, no autotune.” Producers told domestic media that many stars had declined to take part in the show, unwilling to expose themselves to such an unforgiving contest.

    And the nerves were palpable when the opening episode aired on Friday, with even A-lister Na Ying appearing visibly tense on stage.

    The 56-year-old has been a massive star in China since the 1990s, performed at the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and famously served as a judge on the hit talent show “The Voice of China.” But the singer admitted that she was so nervous about performing on “Singer” that she had struggled to sleep in the run-up to the show.

    Na was seen trembling as she began to sing her hit single “Mo,” beads of sweat forming on her brow. She grew in confidence during the song and finished strongly, but it was only enough to claim third place in the contest.

    In each episode of “Singer,” a rotating cast of seven performers sing live in front of a studio audience, before the audience and 500 selected viewers vote for the winner.

    Na wasn’t the only star to struggle; the other four Chinese singers also gave nervy, strained performances. By contrast, the two invited foreign performers — US power vocalist Chanté Moore and emerging Moroccan-Canadian artist Faouzia — appeared relaxed and confident, and eventually took first and second place.

    Chinese viewers appeared shocked by what they had seen. The hashtag “Na Ying is nervous” quickly began trending on the microblogging platform Weibo, as did several other hashtags related to the episode.

    Many commenters said they were surprised to see Na looking so “flustered,” though she also received lots of praise for mastering her nerves as the performance went on. “Her vocals remain as impressive as ever, with her emotional expression onstage standing out. Despite a slight tremble in the first chorus, her performance was well-received,” one user wrote on Weibo.

    “Na Ying appeared visibly tense, as if on the verge of vomiting out of nervousness, much like I felt during my thesis defense. Although she managed to hold herself together, the first half of her performance was not up to par, gradually improving only in the latter part,” another user posted.

    After the show, Na addressed her onstage nerves in interviews with domestic media. She stressed that performers should embrace feeling nervous, as it shows respect for their craft. Asked to judge her own performance, she gave herself a 90 out of 100, adding that there was definitely room for improvement.

    Beyond Na’s appearance, the episode has also generated heated discussion about whether China’s music industry lacks talented performers. The fact that two relatively unknown foreign stars effortlessly bested their five Chinese opponents did not go unnoticed.

    The state-run media outlet Guangming Daily commented that the show’s live format “truly tears off the veil of the domestic entertainment industry.”

    “When it comes to vocals, there are no shortcuts, fewer technological enhancements, and less reliance on editing. If you suck, practice more. Don’t let technology devour creativity. Only true talent can live up to the audience’s expectations,” it said.

    Since the episode aired, several Chinese singers have taken to social media to offer to appear in forthcoming episodes of “Singer” — and restore faith in China’s pop scene. “I am a Chinese singer, I am ready for battle,” said folk star Han Hong.

    According to the show’s production team, they are currently investigating which stars’ schedules would allow them to appear on the contest.

    Wang Sisi, a 38-year-old who is a devoted “Singer” fan, said she had noticed a significant gap in performing ability between the Chinese and foreign stars in the new series. She said the difference previously wasn’t so obvious, perhaps due to work done in post-production.

    For Wang, the Chinese singers all looked to be putting in “a lot of effort,” while the foreign stars appeared more at ease on stage. In her view, China’s stars need to work harder on their live vocals: Using nerves as an excuse is unacceptable, she said.

    “If they have excellent technical ability, they can eliminate the feeling of nervousness,” said Wang.

    (Header image: Na Ying (left) and Chanté Moore at “Singer 2024.” From Weibo)