Cool Jay

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Chou kicks back on that leather sofa today, wearing an off-white wool cap pulled low over his brooding, brown eyes, and a black velour tracksuit. He went from being studio geek to pop star overnight, almost too quickly, and he carries the emotional and psychological vestments of that fame and success uneasily. He's all straight answers, monosyllabic responses, yes ma'ams and no ma'ams. Grunts. Nods. Evasive eye rolls. Where is the smoldering sexuality and boy-misses-girl pathos, the mannish lad who gives his soul ballads depth and feeling?

Then he begins talking about the music, and you remember, yes, the music. Take that away and you're left with this slab of a boy who looks like he wants to climb back over that sofa and hunker down in his old, creative lair. My music, he explains, my music should be like magic. It should have variety. It should be ephemeral, changing, evolving. He goes off on musical theory and Chopin and how the cello is different from the violin and Chinese five-tone versus Western 12-tone melodies. "It's my magic," he says again, shaking his head, looking at you all earnest and sincere as if he needs you to understand.

And then he opens up, revealing his yearning to find a girlfriend, his own shyness that has him growing his hair long over his eyes so he isn't distracted by his fans' staring.

Finally, he leans in close: "Let me tell you about diao."

Diao is a Taiwanese slang usually translated as "cool" or "outrageous." It literally means "penis."

"It's my personal philosophy," he explains, "but it has nothing to do with religion. It means that whatever you do, you don't try to follow others. Go your own way, you know?"

He sits back, shakes his hair out of his eyes and nods. This is serious. This is deep. This is the metaphysical mechanism that he feels explains his pop stardom, as opposed to his musical talent. "It's like, the ability to shock. The way I think of shocking people is to do things that people don't expect in my music, in my performances. Like during my first Taipei show last year, I was performing Long Quan (Dragon Fist) [Chou's favorite tune from his Eight Dimensions CD] and I took off on a harness and flew out over the audience. That was diao."

Diao is an internal process, a mystical path that makes extreme demands and forces stringent measures. It requires, mysteriously, that Chou forgo wearing underwear, a lifestyle choice that is endlessly vexing to his mother. "He used to wear underwear as a child," she sighs. "Maybe it is something he started since working with Jacky Wu." Chou himself will not elaborate. The diao that can be spoken of, apparently, is not the eternal diao.

The diao, of course, has made him wealthy, a millionaire, but he insists all that is a distraction. His mother manages his huge income. His managers run his business and take care of his lucrative endorsements. Though Alfa Music has given him a tony, Taipei bachelor pad, Chou prefers living at home with mom in his childhood bedroom with its single mattress, gray sheets and royal blue walls. Ignore, for a moment, the complimentary Pepsi fridge with Chou's likeness molded on the door and the dozens of music trophies and awards, and it's a typical boy's room. And his home, despite his parents' divorce when he was 14, was, he insists, a happy place. But then where, if he had a contented childhood and then a quick apprenticeship as contract songwriter, did the sadness and pathos that could inform a precocious, soulful R. and B. singer come from? How could a happy kid write lyrics about a drunken father who beats his wife and child as he does on Ba Wo Hui Lai Le (Dad, I Have Come Back), a jilted lover on the brink of suicide as on Shi Jie Mo Ri (End of the World)? "I hear stories and I use them," he shrugs. "I make them up. I go to see a movie or look at the elements of a music video."

Chou is a sponge when it comes to music, absorbing styles and trends and then seamlessly incorporating them into his Oriental-flavored R. and B. "He mixes Western instruments with Chinese instruments, like the di (Chinese flute) and the three-string sanxian," explains Chou's friend and fellow musician Rex Jan. "He's also adopted Chinese five-tone melodies as opposed to Western ones."

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