NOAH ADAMS, host:
In China, after the earthquake last week, Chinese pop stars performed to raise money for the victims. One of them is a young woman from Chengdu, and she has a story that may sound very American, or at least very "American Idol." Three years ago, she became a star over night by winning a singing contest called "Super Girl."
NPR's Anthony Kuhn has her story as she finds her way in China's pop music industry.
(Soundbite of cheering)
ANTHONY KUHN: It's probably and inevitable result of China's market reforms. You allow private enterprise, and the first thing you know, you've got legions of screaming Chinese teenyboppers.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. CHRIS LEE (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)
KUHN: It all began with the show "Super Girl." The sponsors formally named it the "Mongolian Cow Yogurt Super Girl Contest." In July 2005, some 400 million Chinese TV viewers tuned in to watch Lee with her androgynous looks and a spiky hairdo. Fans picked Lee, who was then 21, over thousands of other contestants, and they voted by cell phone text messages. At her record company in Beijing, Lee gets her makeup on before a concert. It's just hours after the earthquake. Lee says she reached her parents by phone in Chengdu, and they're okay. She talks about making sense of her instant stardom.
Ms. Lee: (Through translator) I feel I didn't go into with a clear head. I just thought I was participating in a singing contest. Each part of the contest followed in quick succession. There was no time to think about it. Finally, I realized a lot had changed, but I couldn't go back to my original life. It was all sort of dizzying.
ADAMS: Some parents and propaganda officials did not appreciate "Super Girl's" slightly rebellious tone, and perhaps even its democratic selection process. In 2006, the State Administration of radio, film and television set tough but vague rules for similar shows, banning what it called weirdness, vulgarity or low taste. Lee's look is now more conservative. On her latest album, called "Youth of China," she wears a Chinese-style shirt, and her hair points down, not up.
Ms. LEE: (Through translator) Actually, this is not a major direction for me. This is my third album. My first two tried for a live sound and more danceable material. I think that's the fixed image most fans have of me. So, this is just an experiment. It's a 2008 and it's my blessing for the Beijing Olympics.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. LEE: (Speaking in foreign language).
KUHN: Lee has been a stylistic chameleon, dabbling in styles from Latin to rock to R&B. Last year, Lee recorded a Brit-pop-style tune called "Green," to support the environmental group Greenpeace.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
KUHN: In one song on "Youth of China," Lee runs down the hall and into her classroom. Present, she tells the teacher. Late again, he scolds, and you flunked your test. Go stand outside. The class laughs.
The song is called "Poor Student." Lee says it's about being a very ordinary kid who dreams of standing out.
(Soundbite of song, "Poor Student")
Ms. LEE: (Through translator): It was during my first year on college, I entered the music conservatory, but because I'd never studied music before, I lagged far behind my classmates. I wanted to get good. But I felt very helpless, and I didn't know what to do or whom to talk to.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm Your XX")
Ms. LEE: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language).
KUHN: Another song in the new album is called "I'm Your XX." She explains what that means.
Ms. LEE: (Through translator): Many interviewers ask me, what is your image in the eyes of your fans? Have you thought about why they like you?
I don't know how to answer. I'm different to each of my fans. They like me for different reasons. "I'm Your XX" just allows my fans to fill in the blanks for themselves.
KUHN: Lee's search for a musical persona is her way of expressing her individuality. She sees this search as a trademark of her generation, which was born in the 1980s.
Ms. LEE: (Through translator): We're a generation of only children. Most of us have no brothers or sisters. So our individuality is very evident. We have lots of confidence, but also a lot of uneasiness. The confidence is because we're independent, extroverted and self-centered. I can't put my finger on what the uneasiness comes from, but I often feel it.
KUHN: Whatever Chinese may think of her, Lee is now a household name in China. The "Super Girl" phenomenon is essentially over, and it advancing her career depends on building her musical skills. Right now, she says, she is learning to play the drums.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Chengdu.
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