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    Greater China
     Oct 14, 2009
China's rockers too pampered for politics
By Alice Liu

BEIJING - As China becomes more open, government and society have become more tolerant towards rock music. 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.

Rock in China is still an "underground" movement, and no rock is allowed in officially sanctioned performances. Still, China's rock bands and their fans - cynical as they purport to be - have become increasingly indifferent to politics.

The genre first became popular in China in the late 1980s, with some rock songs banned by authorities for political reasons. This

occurs less now, reflecting subtle shifts in China's political and social environment.

The underground nature of rock music in Beijing can still be sensed amid the amplifiers and distortion pedals at the city's high-class club Yugong Yishan (named after the ancient Chinese fable, "The Foolish Man Moves a Mountain"). 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. The club is housed in the former home of Manchurian General Duan Rui, in an historical part of the city that traditionally housed scholars and military men. Indeed, the lavish surroundings make the rock music feel a little tame.

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 - signed to the Taiwanese Moyan rock label - would burn cars or themselves in frustration or due to mental illness.

Cui Jian, the first Chinese rock-star, famously performed a song called A Piece of Red Cloth with a strip of red fabric 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.

The rock movement has fragmented, with rock in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan a lot different from rock in smaller cities. 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.

For example, the song Guang Chang (Square) by the popular band Carsick Cars, is based on singer-songwriter and lead guitarist Zhang Shouwang's experience one morning at Tiananmen Square. On his blog, Shouwang wrote about a dawn trip by him and a friend to the square, where they milled around for a while. The police noticed them, saw them as suspicious-looking characters and placed them in the back of a police van, from where Shouwang looked miserably at the square in the rising morning light. The result was one of the most popular songs on their debut album, in which he sings: "This is a square without hope." However, it 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.

Carsick Cars is an indie-rock trio formed in March 2005. It is one of the most prolific and established acts on the Beijing indie-rock scene. Michael Pettis, finance professor at Peking University and founder of one of Beijing's most influential record labels, Maybe Mars, helped influence a young Shouwang by playing him the 1960s band Velvet Underground. "After I listened to the Velvet Underground I thought I must start a band," Shouwang said outside Yugong Yishan.

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. It's important to recognize Shouwang's point of view because, as Pettis said, "Shouwang will be one of the most famous Chinese musicians in the world in 20 years, and not just in China but everywhere." His cult-like status has inspired many meta-bands to spring up, all of which have a similar sense of drawing inspiration from surroundings rather than from rebellion.

PK14 is an outfit that has been performing for over 12 years, they sound a little like US southern rock band Kings of Leon. Their lead singer, Yang Haisong, is an English-Chinese translator by day and three out of the band's four members have day jobs. "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.

Haisong describes his relationship with the government with relative detachment. "We haven't been suppressed by the government, and we don't really understand what they are doing. And because it has not yet happened, I'm not really scared," he 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. As new bands come, the old ones demise."

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

One of the things that Shouwang reacts against is Internet censorship. 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.

Alice Liu works at a popular translation website in Beijing and is also a freelance writer.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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