Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's Mandarin for "Your Band Sucks"?

Via the Daily Swarm, I see that NPR and CNN fashioned boderline-unethically-similar stories about the distending Chinese rock 'n' roll scene. Both articles focus almost exclusively on two bands - Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 - and the polestar of the Beijing live scene, D-22. Though two acts on a brief tour of the American east coast and a sole hotspot hardly recommend a monolithic music scene, that two giants of the narcissistic American mainstream media have decided it's attention-worthy suggests one of two things:
  1. It's a quirky, below-the-fold human interest piece that dovetails delightfully with coverage of Obama's pan-Asian jaunt.
  2. Rock music has reached critical mass in a nation with a full fifth of the world's population, so it's time we pricked up our ears.
"And why wouldn't it be?" the NPR piece smirks. "China has what seems like the fastest-growing everything else."

Anyone who's heard Carsick Cars' eponymous debut knows immediately why Sonic Youth asked them to open SY's inaugural Chinese tour: Carsick Cars sound like Goo or Dirty, SY at their most rockist & crowd-pleasing, minus any irony or subversion, plus a more pleading, earnest melodicism. Basically, like Death Cab covering "Teenage Riot". Or Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Meanwhile, I looked up P.K. 14 on YouTube - hey, if they can get out of Beijing to tour Chapel Hill & Brooklyn, I knew they wouldn't have been blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Judging by their music videos, while a snug double-bill with Carsick Cars, P.K. 14 are further from their tourmates' post-hardcore squall and closer to the lo-fi amateurism of mid-'90s indie-pop... Sebadoh, Hayden, et cetera ad nauseum.

Which is all well & good, but Mandarin lyrics don't provide the shock of the new as much as the tickle of novelty. An accent isn't enough to build a career on - just ask the Proclaimers, or Men At Work, or Gogol Bordello. Then again, if ever there was a time when western audiences were more willing to gulp back the festering leftovers of yesterday's sounds, I ain't lived through it. There may be hope for a "Mandorock" crossover yet.

There's something deeply disquieting about the very existence of Chinese rock. China - a country that has embraced the most pernicious facets of capitalism without loosening its authoritarian bridle - has incorporated an artform that's ostensibly about rebellion, freedom, and bucking convention into its sociocultural ethos. Not only does this testify to how toothless & co-opted rock music has become, but Chinese rock 'n' roll serves as a "soft power" Trojan horse for the CPC: shucks, they can't be that oppressive and despotic - look, they've got kids in leather jackets with CBGB's patches!

The commodification of rebellion is, obviously, the oldest trick in the book. But back when Columbia Records was courting hippies with corny "They can't bust our music!" sloganeering, regimes in the Eastern Bloc fought tooth & nail to keep the corruptive influence of rock's speaker-blowing hedonia off their doorstep. That the last such regime standing* is showboating its punk rock bands is a noxious con indeed.

My hope is that casual music fans, who could give a fuck about political pandering via sham cultural sycophancy, will be turned off by the second-rate mimicry & six-string minstrelsy of these bands. One of the musicians profiled in the CNN article, "a young Chinese rocker sporting lace-up leather pants and teased out long hair," calls himself Ricky Sixx, fer chrissakes! When will China stop selling the west shoddy, slapdash counterfeits of our own crap back to us?

Photo by Arion

(*) - I'm talking about Cold War-era state-corporatist regimes, now. There are undoubtedly worse rulers to live under these days than Hu Jintao.


Anonymous said...

I think you'll find, if you happened to actually come and visit China, that punk/rock music is frowned down upon and blocked at any available turn. It's not a government backed scheme to show to the world that it allows some rebellion. Sure bands like New Pants (who wants to perform at the concert of peace) may be used in this way, but P.K 14 and Car Sick Cars are not. Large punk concerts/festivals will suddenly have to be relocated at a moment's notice (midi festival 2008), bands sing in English to get past censors and x-factor style pop stars are promoted heavily instead. The music scene is particularly underground and performed in dingy smoking clubs that would be shut for health and safety reasons back in the UK. My everyday Chinese friends no nothing of these places or bands. Most rock/punk musicians are activists and anti-ccp in China. I agree that many bands are just western copy cats.
Why not check out SUBS or 优质大豆 for the more genuine article. SUBS rock. They are better live than on cd. Pet Conspiracy are tipped to be the band that crosses over, as they have 3 western band members (one being american chinese) and 2 chinese members. Personally I don't rate them, but I'm not into electro. Many westerners attend concerts as opposed to chinese, which would explain the western influence on music. Most people will be like, "hey hey check out this band they are great they sound like xx" so it's going to further the creation of western sounding bands - it's not really the fault of the chinese scene.

Anonymous said...

And Demerit are good too. The drummer is actually good. The first time I saw them I had sat through 5 bands all wanting to be joy division, then these guys came on and were good.
NB I don't wish to be an anonymous commenter, I can't sign in and comment using my actual blog as it's blocked here. Apologies.