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Normal Rock Nation Status


“Die-hard Youth” read the characters on the red flag, which was tied to a stick that staked in the ground. Around it a gaggle of young Chinese lazed on the tatty grass. They pumped their necks like pigeons, holding rhythm that defied the mix of bands on the main stage: Britpop, emocore, death-metal…jazzy blues from South Korea. An ‘X’ on the flag crossed out the characters in the middle, “Compromise”. “With whom? On what?” I asked. A gaunt 20-year-old with hash-brown patty of frizz on his head got up and said: “No compromise, period.”

In point of fact, there were relatively few concessions to officialdom at the Midi Music Festival in Beijing earlier this month. The event, mounted by a home-grown private music academy of the same name, is known as both the coming-of-age party for the Indie music scene in China and as a sort of Jamesian locus of consciousness – not unlike Woodstock and Monterey were for classic rock and Lollapalooza for the alternative/grunge generation. Attendance has risen from around 1,000 a day in 2000 to 10,000 in 2005. The latest installment, as rock festivals go, was the biggest, best and most “normal” yet.

Yes, local culture nannies pre-screened many of the lyrics. The Midi’s web site was mysteriously blocked. Final approvals from district police came, as usual, just days before the show. And the bands, pressed to finish by 9 pm, actually ran ahead of schedule.

It’s become fashionable here to speak of China’s contemporary arts on a rugged journey from “underground” to “above”. This is an inchoate semantics used to frame, essentially, two measures of change: the extent to which political sensitivities have numbed as the market demand expands; and the degree to which artistic expression is sacrificed in the process. Why, for example, was the Beijing art zone known as 798, a converted factory-commune built with the East German in the Bauhaus style, saved from becoming a high-rise development? Because China’s artsy elite have a lot of pull and patronage among peers in commerce and state institutions; because they can sell paintings for six-figure sums at international auctions; and perhaps most of all, because they are tourist draw (busloads now arrive daily). Similarly, China’s most creative directors, once prone to exile themselves at foreign film festivals, are all about catering to the nearest theatres. And even rock in China has achieved a sort of “non-mainstream independence”, as its forefather and original sinner, the Cui Jian, told me last year.

But reality sets in when they penetrate the mainstream. The arbiters of the mainstream are the newspapers, television, radio, publishers and stages of the state. Culture-meisters still censor albums for political innuendo. They keep state radio and TV play to a minimum, demanding content be “bright” and “healthy”, not “ dark” and “gloomy”. Papers, while much more attentive than before, tend to conflate rock gods with pop idols, and cover rock bashes almost stiffly as Politburo sessions. The Midi was a blip on the Beijing press’s holiday calendar. The day rock is officially sanctioned, many Chinese musicians and critics assert, is the day it’s represented at the annual Chinese New Year’s gala on China Central Television.

The only real failings of the festival were musical. Many of the acts were weak. The diverse selection of young, old and foreign bands was a little too random. The sound was swallowed by cross-winds. But at least there were many options. At the experimental stage, laptops twittered like bird, and Wired-magazine types stood motionless, arms folded. Over at the metal stage, sponsored by guitar maker Gibson, fundamentalist head-bangers all wore black and raised their arms in praise of bands like Suffocation and Spring and Autumn. One afternoon, an amoeba of 17 drummers, led by the San Francisco Bay Area-based percussionist Jimmy Biala, stole the show without stepping foot on stage. And the police presence was whittled down to a bare minimum, thanks to the painless lobbying of Midi president Zhang Fan. “We can’t make the whole country free and equal,” he told me beforehand. “But we can make a music festival free and equal.”

There are lots of reasons to criticize this movement and that thinking. The chief knock? Pick one: Is it its stereotypical image as Western, anti-establishment: ideological taboos which have served to limit its opportunities since its formative days during the pro-democracy rumblings of the late 1980’s (as the Scorpions and U2 formed the soundtrack to the fall of the Berlin Wall)? Is it the purely commercial challenges, from music piracy to Cantonese and Mandarin pop – lip-synched opiates of the masses – which enjoyed a near-monopoly over the state’s stages and airwaves; and from piracy? Or is it the bands themselves, ever fumbling for the technical skills and “Chinese characteristics” that will finally hook the masses? The debate has rages on here. But, these criticism are interlinked. They amount to one heavy historical burden, a myth in the making – part struggle, part inspiration.

Take the case of SUBS. The Chinese proto-punk rockers, devotees of Fugazi, are currently reigning darlings of Beijing’s burgeoning club scene, and were among the highlights at the Midi. The band was playing somewhat hurt: front-woman Kang Mao, until recently, had a black eye, while guitarist Wu Hao is still smarting from a broken rib. This is all because late one night in March, the pair happened to witness a petty thief making off with a stranger’s purse. They took chase and caught him. Then they were jumped by two of his accomplices.

On-stage, similarly, SUBS hold little back. They toured Europe last fall and will do so again this summer. Their first EP, which was self-cut, is posted on iTunes. Yet SUBS have ruled out signing with record labels in China, fearing slipshod marketing, piracy, and most of all, censorship. “For example, I want to say, ‘Today is the fucking day’. I can only sing it that way. Because today is the fucking day,” Kang, who is 26, told me. For some time, SUBS foursome cohabited in a small flat. They have traded off taking day-jobs to make rent. Kang: “And you think this isn’t life underground?”

Last July 1, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of “anti-Fascist victory”, as the outcome of World War II is known here, an entertainment arm of the capital’s Communist Party propaganda department threw a concert of Revolutionary songs and invited China’s best-known rock veterans to sing them. For many, the so-called “Red & Rock” concert present the first chance they’d ever had a chance to perform at Worker’s Stadium. But it was odd display of state-managed rock and in the end, less than a third of the seats were sold.

Earlier that same day, SUBS were in the studio recording a demo. A sound engineer mentioned the anti-Fascist concert at night. “I said, ‘Anti-Fascist? We have a song that’s anti-Fascist,” recalled Kang, who squawks all her lyrics in English – the best way to avoid Chinese censorship, she says. “We should go play it.” The song, “Brother” is set to the rhythm of rattling machine gun fire and to events from the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre:

In 1989, I’m ten
A friend of mine is eleven
His brother is a college student…
His brother is disappeared…

Tell me truth
Tell me cause
Stop making them up
Come off it
Tell me truth! Tell the truth!

“At a big Anti-Fascist concert,” Kang asked me, not-jokingly, “why can’t we sing this kind of song?”

Sufficeth to say, SUBS were not considered for the July 1 bill. They, however, did sing “Brother” at Midi.

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