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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Really Rockin' In China

A tremendous understatement: China is changing rapidly. As it become more open, the Chinese government and society have begun to be more tolerate of rock music, which was previously frowned upon by leaders of the older generations as bad Western art. Viewed more as a form of music used by young people to vent frustrations, rock is still "underground" (not allowed in officially sanctioned performances) to most, but it gaining more popular acceptance. Both Chinese rock bands and their fans are becoming increasingly indifference to politics.                                                                                                                         

Rock music didn't really arrive in China until the 1980s when it was introduced by foreign students.The Wham! concert at Beijing’s People’s Stadium in 1985 was the first ever gig by a Western pop group in China. The show lost money but its showed the world China was opening up. After that Beatles tapes began circulating and Chinese artists began performing their own songs.

In 1986, a groundbreaking concert was held at the Beijing Workers Stadium with mostly Chinese rock musicians. By many, the late 80s is still regarded as the best period of Chinese rock n' roll. Then, artists had something to say and rebellious energy. The rock scene was described as “fresh.” ("Rock Music Tunes Into Real Life," China Daily, October 8 2010)
According to Alice Liu, Cui Jian was the first Chinese rock-star. He was famous for performing a song called "A Piece of Red Cloth" across his eyes to symbolize not wanting to see what was going on in China. His music was banned for a decade because of his sympathies for the students that died at the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. ("China's Rockers Too Pampered for Politics," Asia Times, October 14 2009)

Cui Jian, also known as the "Godfather of Chinese rock", first picked up the guitar after listening to a Beatles album in 1985. One year later, he was a household name. Though controversial at times, Cuis is widely credited by many music fans over the age of 40 with helping to launch the nation's rock craze. As far as international acclaim, Cui Jian played with the Rolling Stones in 2003, at the age of 42.

Now the Shanghai Conservatory offers classes in rock n' roll singing. Rock music in China thrives mostly in the clubs in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. Up until the mid 1990s, rock concerts were often banned or heavily policed, but these days, they draw less attention unless they have some sort of political connection.

The rock music scene in generally is pretty wide open and exists largely beyond the control of the government. Government authorities generally make no effort to monitor or censor it, but they do keep it off major radio and television stations.Why bother when the music does not pose a threat?

In 1994, Chinese Rock Power blew away music fans at the Hong Kong Arena. The star-studded concert, which featured He Yong, Dou Wei and Zhang Chu, the three giants of Moyan Records, is seen as a milestone in China's rock history.

Yet, the music industry has faded in one important way. As the country gradually shifted from a planned economy to a market economy, allowing greater cross-border trade, the music industry underwent a period of rapid commercialization. Music flooded in from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well from the West, in the 1990s soon put homegrown stars in the shade. ("Rock Music Tunes Into Real Life," China Daily, October 8 2010)

This problem was compounded by the spread of dakou (cut-out) compact discs, which were seized at customs but usually resold on the black market. Dakou was the major and often the only source of foreign rock and pop music in China for a long time. Until the introduction of the Internet in the early 1990s, the CDs were the No 1 choice for youngsters looking to keep tabs on the movers and shakers in global music. (Neil Gough, "Zombie Discs," Time, January 20 2003)


Music Festivals

So, music festivals are the rock bands major mode of delivery.  Zhang Fan, organizer of Midi Music Festival, the oldest and boldest agglomeration of rock, funk, punk and electronica, said, “The government used to see rock fans as something akin to a devastating flood or an invasion of savage beasts,” said Mr. Zhang, a handful of whose events have been canceled by skittish bureaucrats since he pioneered the Chinese music festival in 2000. “Now we’re all part of the nation’s quest for a harmonious society.” (Andrew Jacobs, "Pierced Fans, Stiff Cadres and Hip Rock," The New York Times, October 23 2010)

The Midi Music Festival, a four-day free-for-all of Budweiser, crowd-surfing and camping, was sponsored by the local Communist Party, which spent $2.1 million to turn cornfields into festival grounds, pay the growling punk bands and clean up the litter left by 80,000 attendees. The city provided an army of white-gloved police officers, earplugs in place, who courteously endured bands while fans slung mud at one another. Performers like Miserable Faith and AK47 took musical potshots at the country's leaders, tattooed college students sold antigovernment T-shirts and an unruly crowd of heavy metal fans giddily torched a Japanese flag that had been emblazoned with expletives. Yes, this all happened in Zhenjiang, China.(Andrew Jacobs, "Pierced Fans, Stiff Cadres and Hip Rock," The New York Times, October 23 2010)

The more permissive atmosphere for indie music is a contrast to heightened Internet censorship and the crackdown on vocal advocates of political change. Skeptics say the government is simply trying to co-opt youth culture, but others view the spread of festivals as an encouraging sign that rock, punk and heavy metal might finally have a stage free from the financial and political shackles that have constrained them. 

Jacobs continues, "The shift in official sentiment — and among state-backed companies paying to have their logos splashed across the stage — has led to an explosion of festivals across China. In 2008, there were five multiday concerts, nearly all in Beijing. This year there have already been more than 60, from the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the southern highlands of Yunnan Province."("Pierced Fans, Stiff Cadres and Hip Rock," The New York Times, October 23 2010)

All of the festivals have been staged with the help of local governments that have come to realize that pierced rockers flailing around a mosh pit are not necessarily interested in upending single-party rule.More importantly, the governments have decided, for now at least, that music festivals can deliver something that even the most seasoned propagandists cannot spin out of thin air: coolness. 

Even if the authorities still insist on approving lineups in advance, rejections are infrequent, organizers say, partly because more musicians perform in English, which can challenge all but the most learned censors.
“The government is happy for young bands to sing in English because that way the fans won’t know what they’re saying,” said Yang Haisong, the lead singer of a post-punk band called P.K.14 and a producer. 

Lyrics of Chinese Rock

The lyrics of the songs?  Three decades ago, and the conversation will usually turn to ideals and spirituality. However, young songwriters now appear more concerned with the practicalities of modern life.
"Our music mostly is about our perplexities," said Xu Yuanzhuo, a 22-year-old student at Beijing's Communication University of China who promotes concerts on campus. 

Min Yan, lead singer of Last Chance of Youth, a popular band in Beijing's underground music scene, disagrees. He argued that modern songwriters do not want to have the responsibility of speaking for an entire generation and instead prefer to concentrate on being entertaining. The 29-year-old stressed his incompetence in "speaking for all", a feeling sociologists say is common among the so-called post-1980s generation, a term often used to describe Chinese people raised in single-child families in the 1990s. ("Rock Music Tunes Into Real Life," China Daily, October 8 2010)

Alice Liu said, "With growing discontent over social injustice, young people everywhere in China know they should be rebelling. But the tensions that young urbanites face are simply not great enough to provoke them into that role. So what can they do? They often try to write songs that hint at discontent with China's political system, but they don't delve deep enough into real problems facing Chinese society."

Liu reported there is reference to politics, but only as a knee-jerk reaction to daily stresses rather than an overbearing need to change the system. ("China's Rockers Too Pampered for Politics," Asia Times, October 14 2009.

Still, China’s independent music scene is in its adolescence, with quality and originality in short supply. Many festivals showcase the same acts, some of which might be charitably described as musically challenged. (Andrew Jacobs, "Pierced Fans, Stiff Cadres and Hip Rock," The New York Times, October 23 2010)

For a while, Chinese rock music is centered in Beijing and Shanghai and has limited influence over Chinese society. But then, I can remember when the first McDonald's hit. There may not be a lot to look back on now, but the future is bright. 

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