Time is Joseeh Punmanlon’s Answer

My favorite song by Joseeh Punmanlon (Pang Mailang) is “Slick Madonna” (Yuan hua de maidangna).

It begins with what sounds like the ending to a song: a vocal crescendo where Joseeh Punmanlon repeatedly sings,

Oh! Madonna!
The Madonna (who I like)…

Typically, the ending of a song is characterized by delirious repetition that gradually weakens in volume until disappearing into a reluctant silence. “Slick Madonna” is unusual for beginning with such an “ending,” as though already lost in time.

This marks the only instance when Joseeh Punmanlon starts off a song with such a delirious tone. It is almost minimalism (of course it is the cheap kind, as Punmanlon is incapable of being  “complicated”). But that is beside the point. Punmanlon’s trancelike state is key here: it is characterized by a neurosis that brings pleasure without much expense, one that calms Joseeh Punmanlon’s quaking mind.

Almost all music features some form of repetition. Those who are musically untrained are also capable of repetition: the act of repetition goes down a predetermined, linear path which, under further scrutiny, can in fact be seen as a small dash that keeps reappearing and vibrating. Repetition is a slice of time that calls for a continuous return; it simultaneously expands, prospers, or bifurcates. A conventional sense of temporality follows a certain order in that it stretches into the future. However, the trancelike state goes through stages of its own experientiality, from afloatness to disassociation, and ultimately to being directionless.

Leg tapping, for example, is a form of repetition. A lunatic banging his head against the wall can also be considered as a form of repetition. Repetition is a form of delinquency enforced on the body. Some may say that bodily repetition is a breakthrough, albeit a dysfunctional kind of breakthrough.

Rather than examining an exception (“Slick Madonna”), let’s scrutinize Joseeh Punmanlon through a more conventional lens. In the song “My Skateboard Shoes” (Wo de huaban xie), Punmanlon had no intention of singing a nursery rhyme (as his critics might think), but was in fact striving to create a joyous, spontaneous atmosphere––only possible when sung by a carefree individual. Although he tries his best to seamlessly blend one syllable with the next, he fails and merely drags each syllable on. Each lyric scratches Punmanlon’s vocal cord, like a pair of skateboard shoes squeaking on the ground:

Friction! Friction!
The devil-like steps!

If an angel’s steps are light, and a hero’s steps are robust, then a devil’s steps are like a car with a stuck handbrake, gliding down the road while shooting smoke into the air. It is filled with friction:

In ooone night… why am I uuunhappy…
with no suuuch thing…I search and seaaarch…
I cannot heeelp myself…
sometimes, it allll seems so faaar away…

Repetition against friction can no longer be visualized as the repetition of a linear dash. It is, rather, a repetition of grain: each grain features a different range and wavelength, perturbing one another. If we enlarge a few samples and examine their texture, we see a field of noise with no set path or meaning. The sense of temporality collapses into chaos, energy released without meaning. Watching Punmanlon’s stage performance, we see that his limbs and gaze shift from one place to another with no predetermined order. Within an invisible place of the body, friction creates a silent noise. Rather than call Punmanlon’s performance mechanical, let’s just say it’s a mechanical flaw or a systemic disorder caused by a convulsion of temporality.

Punmanlon is a farmer from Hanzhong, Shaanxi province. His accent is considered odd in our current world of pop music. He pronounces the word “very” as heng instead of hen; he pronounces “yes” as si instead of shi. Punmanlon’s voice is dry, extremely flimsy and lacking tonality. His muttering becomes a subaltern form of language, associated with self-mumbling or a trancelike state, while his high pitch transcends language. Like a worn-out suona, a Chinese double-reeded horn, Punmanlon’s voice can cause discomfort or chills, or provoke other visceral reactions. It is true that Punmanlon is screaming, rather than singing, a quarter of the time. As a “noise machine,” Joseeh Punmanlon doesn’t stir up human emotions. He stirs up the subconscious.

That being said, Punmanlon does want to be a star. He wants to transform into someone else. He shows more zest for life than most people do. But he feels that he must first become someone else so he can form relations with this world through this additional layer of agency. Punmanlon does not believe in the intense relationships he previously formed with this world––friction!

Time eventually answers,” he has said.

In fact, time has already given him the answer. Time is the answer. Time doesn’t answer in any linguistic form; rather, the responses come from internal human errors—which, through the cracks of a “perfect” mechanism, enable those who are forgetful about time to retrieve the answers via their own bodily experiences.

Those who sing off-pitch or with dry vocal cords have a chance to fall out of perfection. Noises often enter our sensorium without being first converted into meaning. In other words, those who are imperfect have a better chance of getting an answer (from time) than those who seek perfection. We can even say that those who seek perfection can’t help but occasionally catch themselves in a strange reverie: they might tap their feet unknowingly, or betray a sense of fatigue and naivety on their seemingly restful faces.

Joseeh Punmanlon is precisely someone who has fallen out of perfection. I’m not saying that Joseeh Punmanlon is good. Why must he be good? Why can’t we live a life of no value and die valueless?

There is a stubborn sense of time embodied by Joseeh Punmanlon. It is neither a modern industrial time, nor the organic intervals of time found within our heartbeats. It is the tension between the former and the latter. Joseeh Punmanlon spared no expense to record his singing, match his beat and tune his pitch. He also invested greatly in additional instruments, such as strings, bass guitar, electronic beats, distorted guitar, and so on. His voice has even been fine-tuned (such as in “Where Will I End Up Staying?” [Wo jiang tingliu zai nali?]) to be more vigorous, so that it can match industry standards in time and space. This idealized time and space are significant in their own way and thus nameable. In the case of Joseeh Punmanlon, however, these refinements and embellishments in fact are juxtaposed with intensity, bareness, and deficiency, as well as with that which remains unnamable in life. These juxtapositions become paradoxes, and such paradoxes are precisely the liberating cracks.

Joseeh Punmanlon is highly superstitious about technology; this includes things like software, or the division of labor. Of course, Punmanlon also believes in wearing sunglasses and masks (if one considers the role of a performer as a form of technology). One of his own favorite songs is “The Cruising Motorcycle Taxi Driver” (Modi dabiaoke), which has several different versions. What these versions have in common is the fact that the human voice has been transformed and fragmented. The voice continually changes and clashes againsts the electronic beats, achieving the humanly impossible through autonomous acceleration. This technique reminds me of the rise of immersive art and facial recognition technology. Technology is often a form of idealism that serves as a projection of what the body cannot achieve on its own.

Joseeh Punmanlon’s “failure” can be considered a technological failure. This is not to say that software today is not good enough or fast enough to fix human error. It is only a matter of time before technology will be able to repair everything in one click—what else do we need artificial intelligence for? However, technology will always contain flaws and anticipate failure. The human body works just the same. We have to reorient ourselves and view flaws as a part of nature, failure as a part of human anatomy.

Here is the intriguing thing: technology supposedly serves aesthetics. Yet, in the case of Punmanlon, technology fails to help him comply with aesthetic standards.

To be more general, aesthetics has come to negate nature. The historical formation of aesthetics as an ideology can be traced back to Plato. And since the mid-18th century, theorists have retrospectively ascribed aesthetics upon all artistic acts. Religion, kings, and artists occupied dominant roles in shaking up the proletarian class through all kinds of formalism. And in the past half-century, global capitalism has spread to even a rural village in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province.

Since the 20th century, theorists began to incorporate imperfections into their own aesthetic category as they sought to profit from and tax the darkness of humanity that they themselves were responsible for excavating. Rodin once said that the world is in no shortage of beauty; what the world lacks are eyes capable of discovering beauty. Following this logic, all things are then ascribed with values. Artists who could not have succeeded by their own means went on to the countryside to harvest “a connection to soil (local customs),” and were ironically praised for their egalitarianism. Of course, many have said that Joseeh Punmanlon’s live performances are “car crashes.” This is not unlike J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, wherein the author writes that every perfect car has the potential to be in a car crash; it is only a matter of time before a seemingly invisible reality manifests itself. This era also marks a time when “aestheticians” harvest such “crashes” on a regular basis: people swiping on their phones, observing the beauty of the “car crash.” However, a “car crash” could happen to anyone. Rather than an act of soiling, a “car crash” (flaw) is in fact an act of spoiling.

Some people might be disappointed that Joseeh Punmanlon does not qualify as an outsider artist, as such artists often enjoy their outsider status.

In contrast, Joseeh Punmanlon wants to be someone else, but is simply incapable of achieving this.

Instead, the simultaneous sense of aspiration and incompetence found within each one of us bursts out from Punmanlon. He also enables our own desires for flaws to burst out. Those who adore Joseeh Punmanlon are moved by the few remaining freedoms found within him, a freedom of not being aestheticized.

We do not need to equate Joseeh Punmanlon to Daniel Johnston (who was mentally ill), Jean-Marie Massou (who lived in a cave), Dominik Steiger (who was homeless), or a member of The Shaggs (who were considered outsider music band in 1960s), nor do we need to compare Punmanlon to Joseph Beuys (who enjoyed mimicking the wolf cry). Why must everyone be equated with someone else, even for the sake of aesthetic comparison? After all, what we crave is not necessarily “good taste,” but a creative life. As long as Joseeh Punmanlon continues to sing without a care in the world, we are presented with one more pathway to a world full of creativity. As someone who has benefited from such pathways, I thank Joseeh Punmanlon for his stubbornness.

Time eventually answers…” So Joseeh Punmanlon sings. He also once murmured, “She once flirted / Wanting to bring me to a basement where she would unbutton my shirt.” This marked the only instance when Joseeh Punmanlon used his songs to inspire physical intimacy towards others. However, he denied the actuality of the intimacy. He said, “I won’t risk it and I won’t smoke.” He pushed the desire from the tip of his fingers and towards the future.

I want it.
I will.

While time’s arrow points towards the future, Punmanlon stays where he is and lashes out at the insurmountable gap.

I can’t help but to scream, to scream!

Once desire is tied to certain goals, it drags us away from the present moment. What Joseeh Punmanlon embraces is the immediate present, where he sings, hums, and screams. This is the only version of life that he participates in—not “dreams.” To be more precise, singing only addresses current issues at hand, and not a version of life or set of issues that belong to a different time and space. All we have access to is the current friction generated by Punmanlon’s vocal cords.

Dreams are what Deleuze would call “transitive.” Dreams no longer flow freely, but are subject to human control. Time has had the answers all along, but all we see are morals.

Is the case of Joseeh Punmanlon an ethical issue? Or a political issue? Are we supposed to tear up for his hardship? Or are we supposed to be “encouraged” by his move to a psychiatric hospital and use it as an opportunity to discuss biopolitics?

If we don’t begin with the most basic questions, then the rest are bullshit.

The simplest questions are: Is Joseeh Punmanlon a good singer? How many times have you listened to him? Do you happen to enjoy his clumsy choreography? If so, do you also appreciate all the individual voices of the masses, innumerable as the grains of sand in the River Ganges?1“恒河沙数”, a Buddhism set phrase, meaning: as numerous as grains of sand in the River Ganges, see link.

I’m asking because discrimination made possible by aesthetics is safeguarded by moral codes. This is why we have gone out of our way to conceal our own true “good” tastes. Viewed in this light, a “flaw” within a song in fact reflects a flaw of our own.

Translated from the Chinese by Felix Ho Yuen Chan.

Yan Jun is a musician and poet based in Beijing (
He creates experimental music that does not involve complicated techniques. He sometimes performs for audiences in their homes using plastic bags as instrument. He is the founder of Sub Jam (

Felix Ho Yuen Chan is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializing in modern and contemporary art in East Asia. 

Joseeh Punmanlon's “My Skateboard Shoes” (Wo de huaban xie) on YouTube, link.

Joseeh Punmanlon has been the subject of numerous “kichiku” (鬼畜, a type of meme with auto-tune remix-themed content) videos. Found on Bilibili, this one is made by BLIZZARDst.

Joseeh Punmanlon has been the subject of numerous “kichiku” (鬼畜, a type of meme with auto-tune remix-themed content) videos. Found on Bilibili, this one is made by 男孩臭臭.

Published: 2021.07.01