The politicization (or lack of it) in Chinese Rock today…

Responses to Andy Best's great article on the political apathy characterizing today's Chinese rock

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UPDATE: Andy Best has written a long and erudite post over at his excellent blog, talking about what politics really is and why this article (and many others) fail to appreciate the realities of life, pure and simple. You can read Andy’s full rant n’ roll HERE.  What Andy points out is that our world (or at least the vast majority of it) is pretty messed up – he refers to absolute poverty levels, and to the ongoing war in Congo, which is all very well and good, but when referencing music, takes the whole “politics” argument too absolutely.  We think Alice Liu’s article can be summed up as the following (and shouldn’t be limited to China, but is, because that is her area of expertise): musicians are influencers (particularly those who are young and extremely talented), and wouldn’t it be nice if they used their influence better (in the vast majority of cases), which we think is a perfectly fair point.  In China, this is particularly obvious, because this current crop of musicians can be compared very easily to their immediate predecessors.

A very interesting article in the Asia Times about the realities of rock music in China’s new middle classes. The thrust of the article is that emerging stars of the “underground” rock scene in China are now comfortably ensconsed as responsible citizens with jobs and a detachment from a political system that doesn’t really affect them on a day to day basis. For us, this could be an indicator of why we feel there is a relative lull in the Chinese alt-music industry, an apathy even, that is reflected from the bands to the fans.  Chinese kids aren’t engaging with the very real issues facing them, but because they are not being immediately suppressed and because they can play shows and release albums with relative impunity, they feel no need to talk about societies ills.  Saddest for us is the apparent disrespect that individuals like Shouwang have for their forebears and their struggles:

“We’re not into the politics and don’t care that much about the older generation: for them it was like religion. I don’t really listen to their music, including Cui Jian. As new bands come, the old ones demise.”

On the other hand, this apathy is not restricted to just Chinese youth.  Generation Y everywhere is famously a-political.  Our planet has undergone an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity, and young people the world over are more obsessed with money and fashion than with governments and society. Anyway, read for yourself HERE and let us know what you think.

  • LouisLeiYu

    As new bands come, the old ones demise? I’m sorry but since when has classic bands ever go away? ever? The latest “trendy fashion” indie band Calling Cuijian “demised” and implying that they are the “evolved” version? that’s rich.

    and it’s not like you didn’t rip off your music from CLASSIC bands like Sonic Youth either (All of the sudden Sonic Youth doesn’t demise now?) , no Carsick cars, you’re totally original, a true voice of this generation.

    “my body shakes, my teeth are fake, I touch her legs, she’s feeling good…. cocaine, cocaine”, oh yes, these are lyrics that truely reflected the voice of this generation, well done Carsick cars, well done, my balls are clapping for you, bravo! Carsick cars, BRAVO!!

    (And you rarely, if never see successful indie bands in the US/UK mouthing off like that, why not? because they realize how ridiculous that sounds…)


    Cuijian had rich use of symbolisms in his lyrics, and word-plays, and the use of poetry. his lyric is full of symbols (eggs lay by a red flag…) that somehow (almost magically) spoke to and was understood by the youth of the 90’s, if that’s not sincerity and accessibility, I don’t know what is.

    In the 90’s when everything was so uptight, Cuijian was the first one that sang “let me go crazy on these hills” and the first one that made kids feel that maybe it is ok to loosen up a little bit. Again, sincerity

    And to me, sincere music is good music, it has nothing to do with the time, you’ve got to make music about things you care about, things you feel passionate about, things that you are fighting for. Sincere music is also timeless music, because it will always speak to kids of all generations.

  • Pete

    On the multiple problems of the Asia Times piece, Andy wrote:

    “I have to stop there, the problem is with the writers of these articles and their lack of awareness. Through a set of dodgy premises they then extrapolate out to an article full of nonsense.”

    Amen. Couldn’t agree with you more. Foreign journos always try to sneak in the political angle, even when it’s not necessitated.

    To me, here’s the most incredulous quote:

    “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.”

    That statement shows a complete ignorance of the lives of musicians currently active here in Beijing. I’ve interviewed hundreds of local musicians over the past two years (and have had countless more informal conversations with my buddies in bands) and no one with whom I’ve spoke has ever gave me any indication that people felt that way.

    And have you ever thought, Louis Lei Yu, that all bands are influenced by those who have come before them?

    Nothing is original: including Sonic Youth. (I bet loads of folks in the early-1980s put SY through the ringer for sounding too much like the Velvet Underground, Branca or whoever else.)

    I’d use the word “influenced by” as opposed to “ripping off.”

    And in regards to CC, my Chinese buds look up to them not necessarily for their lyrics, but for their wild, cathartic performances that inspire them t pick up instruments and form bands.

  • LouisLeiYu

    Hi, my comment above was mainly to state how ridiculous is to say “As new bands come, the old ones demise…” and I gave reason why Cuijian is still relevent today.

    Obviously every band was influenced by every band, there hasn’t anything new since the Beatles, my comment above didn’t really show that I didn’t understand such a thing, either was it the point of the comment.

    Finally, that statement “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” ….. I kind of agree, and I’m Chinese, so you get your one (and I can show you examples that that is true)

  • Pete

    Point taken. Thanks for responding.

    With all due respect, the first half of your post above is a bit inflammatory and dripping with sarcasm: it seems like you have a bone to pick with Carsick Cars. Teasing out intent by the written word alone is, of course, difficult. But go back and re-read your post above and imagine how one could come to that conclusion.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that Cui Jian isn’t relevant today. I interpreted Shouwang’s quote as saying “new bands are rising to fill in for the old guard.”

    I’m interested in how your last point is true. Seriously. Let’s meet for a beer sometime and discuss those examples.

  • PR

    Comments on Alice Liu’s article.

    “It was previously frowned up by leaders and most of the older generation as rotten Western art – good only as a means for youth to vent rebellious sentiments.”

    The article’s thesis would be better served with quotes and citations from actual sources, rather than the author’s speculation. This is the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: arranging the target to match the bullet holes.

    “Rock in China is still an ‘underground’ movement, and no rock is allowed in officially sanctioned performances.”

    Anyone who’s lived in Beijing during a holiday week knows that the MIDI and Modern Sky rock festivals are quite sanctioned.

    “Still, China’s rock bands and their fans – cynical as they purport to be – have become increasingly indifferent to politics.”

    1) Do Chinese rock bands and their fans purport to be cynical? 2) Why is political indifference inherently wrong? 3) I don’t see Beyonce or the Jonas Brothers writing peace or political actions songs with the same tenacity of John Lennon or Buffalo Springfield. 4) Why doesn’t the author write an article about them and their obligation to change the American political system?

    “But there are no songs about bloody rebellions, and the gnashing teeth and rolling eyes feel more like stage effects than any display of genuine life-or-death discontent.”

    If the author would like to see more songs about bloody rebellions, she should start her own band.

    “Most rock musicians making music now in the capital are living very different lifestyle to their predecessors, with many holding down day jobs, and possibly experimenting with drugs, alcohol or veganism. Beijing today is not the same as Beijing 20 years ago, when rockers like He Yong and Dou Wei… would burn cars or themselves in frustration or due to mental illness.”

    So… life is better for these responsible citizens with day jobs who don’t feel the need to burn themselves… and this is bad thing?

    “With growing discontent over social injustice, young people everywhere in China know they should be rebelling.”

    The author makes this claim on her own, without any sources or citations from young people anywhere in China.

    “But the tensions that young urbanites face are simply not great enough to provoke them into that role.”

    The author is trying to have it both ways. “The kids want to rebel.” “The kids aren’t pressured enough to rebel.” Well, which one is it? Most Chinese youth don’t want to rebel. They know their political system isn’t perfect (which one is?), but almost without exception, the general attitude is, “Sure, there are problems. But without the communist party, we wouldn’t be in as good of an international position as we are today.”

    “[I]t is this kind of introspection that is at the heart of his music, rather than intense political angst of the sort that can affect the fate of a nation.”

    The author should view the music for what it is, not what she thinks it ought to be.

    “But is there a political agenda at work? Shouwang’s status in Beijing highlights just how political the ‘alternative’ youth milieu in China is: not very.”

    Again… if life is getting better for these rockers, and they no longer feel the need to fight the same battles as their predecessors… this is a bad thing?

    “‘Our pressure has nothing to do with Cui Jian’s,’ Haisong said to me after performing at a packed concert. ‘The stars of the Moyan [rock label] and the [heavy metal band] Tang Dynasty really used politics as a weapon in that age. But it’s different now. Three out of the four of us have regular jobs, and after you’re used to it, it becomes comfortable,’ Haisong said.”

    “Shouwang is also clear about this: ‘We’re not into the politics and don’t care that much about the older generation: for them it was like religion. I don’t really listen to their music, including Cui Jian.'”

    The bands are providing such startling clear quotes to the author, and she still doesn’t get it?

    “The low level of politicization captures the inanity of China’s urban environment as fewer pressures are put on the urban, sophisticated and somewhat elite generation of kids.”

    Does the low level of politicization really “capture the inanity of China’s urban environment,” as the author suggests? Or does it reflect something else (e.g. the disappearance of the urge to protest).

    “There is reference to politics, but only as a knee-jerk reaction to daily stresses rather than an overbearing need to change the system.”

    The author assumes that the system needs to be changed, and that it’s the responsibility of rock musicians to make it happen.

    “On Carsick Cars’ second album, there is a instrumental song with the classic title of ‘The Firewall Killed My Cat.’ Without lyrics or any particular sentiment, the song may be beautiful, but it is hardly talkin’ about Shouwang’s generation.”


  • LouisLeiYu

    Let’s do it 🙂

  • M

    I agree with PR. This article was self-contradictory. Foreign reporters are always telling Chinese artists how they should act in order to be “real” Chinese. Crap! Chinese artists should do whatever they want, and if they do it well, then it is by definition good Chinese art. They have no obligation to make foreigners feel that they are experiencing “real” Chinese culture.

    For Western artists radical politics are fashionable and profitable. In China it can badly hurt them. Of course Chinese artists must be more careful, but when Shouwang sings about cocaine or about Zhongnanhai cigarettes it is far more radical then when trendy Western artists sing about anarchism, killing police, and assassinating leaders.

    If you want to know if Shouwang is talking about his generation, go to his shows and see the ecstatic reaction of hundreds of young Chinese. Or talk to young musicians who copy his style and his clothes and read everything about him. Many young musicans say he is their most important influence, not Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty. In the end it is the young Chinese who will decide whether he is talking primarily to his generation or to foreign journalists.

  • Pete

    Sounds spiffy, LLY.

  • Hi all and Radar peeps. Thanks for ‘updating’ in my rant.

    I still hold that the main problem is the writers of these pieces haven’t thought much about the world around them, what it means to be ‘political’ and what art is, was or can be. This is the root problem.

    If you go to the comments of my post there is an amazing mini-piece by Michael Pettis of Maybe Mars that is very enlightening.

    Also great to read the view points here.

  • admin

    Just wanted to update with some more thoughts (these same thoughts I have posted over at the kungfuology blog)

    I just want to weigh back in on the political issue. I don’t think I have cleared up exactly how I feel about it, but I spoke to Michael on the phone about it and clarified my thoughts. Essentially, the crux of the “bands aren’t political” article was reasonably sound (although political wasn’t exactly the right word). Problem being, the bands singled out were wrong. ShouWang and Yang Haisong are actually two of the most authentic players in this brave new world. They are articulate, intelligent songsmiths and are doing more than most to push music and audiences here in the right direction. On the other hand, a large number of the other “hot” bands at the moment should have been the focus of the article’s ire. Many of them have believed the hype and now act like they are rock and roll superstars without actually having earned their spurs. They could be doing so much more to blow this thing apart, to influence the next generation to love and be loved, but instead, well, we know the instead.

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