The Chinese Invasion: a look at the Chinese music scene

by Steve Ricciutti Rating: Release Date:

Rock and roll traditionally has roots that bridge North America with Europe, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. When I think about visiting England some day, one of my bucket list things is to explore the London that begot the Sex Pistols and The Clash, or Dartford Station whereupon Mick and Keith had their world-altering reunion. New York City means the Bowery or Greenwich Village, and Los Angeles means the Whiskey A Go-Go or Laurel Canyon. But, what about Asia? China? Beijing?

Rock and roll is not likely to be on anyone’s top twenty things they think about when it comes to China, if they can even come up with twenty items they know about that culture. Despite being a nation that has been around longer than just about any other, and that has invented more vital contributions to human progress than you can imagine, rock and roll music isn’t a consideration. Perhaps it’s time to adjust that opinion.

Last year, we at Soundblab had the rare opportunity to listen to some music from China, specifically Muggle, a math-rock artist on the Beijing-based label 1724 Records. Since then, I have had the pleasure of corresponding with a man who goes by the name “Road,” and who is the head of the eleven year-old 1724 Records label. It’s a self-identified “micro-label,” focusing mostly on bands that are similar to Muggle, e.g. post-rock, math-rock, and ambient music.

The correspondence made me curious about the music scene in Beijing and how the country’s strict laws regarding entertainment affected the freedom of expression for artists. Additionally, I wondered how successful rock music is in China, especially in comparison to pop, which is notoriously successful throughout Asia. Many of China’s pop stars are utilitarian in that they are also often cast in blockbuster movies in order to capitalize on their popularity. If you think it’s hard to imagine Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber as actors, just sub in Beyonce and Justin Timberlake.

As you might imagine, the government in China is a force in determining what is and what isn’t getting exposure. Strict codes of morality and the realities of governmental control reach into every corner of the entertainment industry, making it difficult for artists walking the line of bureaucratic taboos to get an audience, let alone maintain their existence. As Road explained, songwriters have the freedom to write about emotions, but not politics. Complicating matters is the global reality of funding, i.e., without a label or a venue in which to perform, many acts crash and burn without ever getting off the ground.

Still, Road informs me that there is some encouraging change afoot, particularly amongst the younger generation who have grown tired of the manufactured pop pabulum and are seeking bigger thrills. Even with Internet restrictions, outside influences do slip under the radar, and kids are getting turned on to things that might otherwise be inaccessible or even forbidden. Road explains that music venues/clubs often have short life spans because of the aforementioned restrictions, as well as the presence of corruption that runs through the bureaucratic web overseeing operations. But the spirit of rock and roll struggles onward. With an eclectic mix of techno, shoe gaze, dream-pop, post-punk, math-rock, ambient, and straight-up punk, a host of musical formulas are being employed by bands across China, even if it's unlikely to hear much, if any, protest in their lyrics. 

In the end, there are signs of hope, ones that go back to the late ‘80s, when young college students united under an anthem by philharmonic musician turned rock performer Cui Jian titled, “Nothing to my Name,” and occupied Tiananmen Square. It’s hard to fathom that governmental whitewashing has caused today’s generation of Chinese youth to be stunningly unaware of what happened there in that summer of 1989. On the other hand, don’t think we in the west are so far removed from such oppression or generational amnesia, either. And, unlike in China, ours comes willing, not due to governmental suppression or historical revisionism.

Like so much that has happened in China over the last few decades, however, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that China’s stealth, incremental western transformation might one day lead to increased freedom of expression. It would be fascinating to hear the unfiltered voices from China letting the world know what’s happening in this long mysterious nation. In much the same way as we are introduced to things we know little about in our own countries via rap and other genres, the potential to shock as well as educate the world about China simmers just beneath the surface, waiting to boil over. While we wait for that, there’s still plenty of music out there from China, if you care to search for it. You can hear some of Road’s artists here: https://1724.bandcamp.com

Overall Rating (0)

0 out of 5 stars