A Crash Course in Chinese Music

    The overarching purpose of Obama’s recent trip to China seems obvious. Who hasn’t had the experience of going to their banker or landlord and politely explaining that they understand they’re a little short on the month’s rent, but, y’know, totally good for it? Obama and China’s president Hu Jintao probably shared a few beers and chatted diplomatically about North Korea and global warming, but at the end of the day Obama had to feel like he was hanging out with his loan officer and trying to ignore the trillion-dollar elephant in the room.

    Still, if Obama is trying to cozy up and kowtow, it is probably best to at least pretend he and Hu have some areas of commonality. Complimenting Hu’s kids or discussing his excellent taste in footwear are probably safe tactics, but maybe the next time Obama picks up the red phone to call China, he should just talk music. After all, although our great-great-grandchildren may be indebted up to their necks to the Chinese, the final worth of a society can be judged only by its popular culture, and if we are abiding by those standards, well, we should feel relatively secure in the continued superiority of the American way.

    The short story about Chinese pop music is that it is bad. Really bad. Unbelievably, ear-splittingly, and completely unironically bad.

    Although the most popular domestic music in China remains judged mainly by its compatibility with the karaoke machine, the question remains: Is Chinese music worth any attention? Is it completely beyond redemption? Well, Mr. President, here’s your crash course.

    Exhibit 1: Faye Wong
    The closest mainstream Chinese pop music ever came to embracing something remotely outside the saccharine pop melody occurred a decade ago, when Faye Wong — the best-selling Chinese female artist, who goes by the modest nickname “Queen of All Under Heaven” — imported Cocteau Twins songs and sang them in Chinese.

    Whenever a foreigner in China hears something suspiciously but not quite entirely like the Cranberries over the radio, Faye Wong is the now-middle-aged lady to thank. She has legions of devoted followers, an occasional film career highlighted by appearances in some of Wong Kar-Wai’s best movies, and enough cash and cache to do whatever she wants to in the Chinese music industry.


    This does not mean she is infallible or immune to the treacherous appeal of pure pop. Worse yet, her phonetic take on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” completely sucks all the cocaine-riddled air out of the original. At least her panda/Japanese ’80s-night get-up would fit right into Studio 54. She also has the good taste to pick a truly great song to mess up. And she really does mess it up — just wait for the trumpets, if you can stand it.

    Exhibit 2: Beijing Punk
    Just as punk in the West arose as a reaction against the excesses of progressive rock and AOR, better economic conditions caused a level of anti-establishment sentiment to seethe through the disaffected among the Chinese youth at the turn of the century, manifesting in a burgeoning punk movement. A lot of attention and ink has been spent on the possibility that Beijing punk rock represents a serious ideological rebellion against the government, but consider the following: If the Chinese government has the resources to repress Falun Gong and limit Google searches, how inconsiderable must they consider Beijing punk if it continues to exist despite international attention and publicity? If you are betting on a revolution, pick another horse.


    Beijing punk references the necessary holy trinity — the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones, especially in the case of the now-defunct Joyside — but has also come to encompass more diverse aspects of Western punk. Brain Failure, one of the more successful bands of the period, actually got a song onto the Burnout Paradise videogame soundtrack. P.K. 14, which has been around for more than a decade, sometimes sounds like what would happen if David Byrne decided to join the Pixies, and then decided to get political. Apparently, this merits a special mention in TIME magazine. Hang on the Box is another spawn of the Beijing punk scene, this time in the form of an all-girl group that writes simple, albeit catchy, pop punk in English.


    Exhibit 3: “No Beijing”

    Punk remains an everpresent aesthetic for a certain subset of the youth in Beijing, but evolution is repeating itself. Beijing punk has evolved into a real alternative “scene” called “No Beijing,” which remains centered on D-22, a bar that invites frequent and perhaps overstated comparisons to CBGB’s.


    The biggest group in “No Beijing” is Carsick Cars, who sound a lot like Daydream-era Sonic Youth, toured with Sonic Youth, and even have a song that comes off like their own version of “Teenage Riot” — “Zhong Nan Hai”Hedgehog comes from a similar noise-pop background, veering from the Velvet Underground into Jesus and Mary Chain distortion. Another member of the “No Beijing” movement, Snapline, caught the attention of ex-Public Image Ltd. member Martin Atkins when he was visiting China. Unsurprisingly, Snapline sounds a lot like PiL.


    But these bands were big in 2007. While Carsick Cars released a new album and toured in NYC this year —



    — the ostensible “newest exports” from Beijing are still at least two years old. This is not to say that something big isn’t just around the corner, just that Beijing is nowhere near the new Manchester. It’s not even the new Soweto.


    The tendency toward emulation rather than innovation does not mean that the scene is completely devoid of creativity; rather, it still needs time to mature. And if the bands in Beijing continue to choose to emulate, they could be a lot worse than Re-TROS, which might just be the B-52’s of the “No Beijing” movement. Better yet, if they have the humor and self-awareness to cover Gang of Four, they might just be onto something big.


    While examining the Chinese music scene, if Obama still finds himself at a loss for words that extend across cultures, he just might find an unexpected assist on monetary advice from the Wu-Tang Clan. Even Hu can understand that C.R.E.A.M. is universal. [Image courtesy of D-22.cn]