A Tone-Deaf Ode to Rock and Roll
On Monday night, the Beijing Worker’s Stadium came alive with the sound of distorted guitars and rasped wails. This was “Music Power Rock China 30,” or — in more nuanced terms — a concert held to mark three decades of Chinese rock music.
Organizers — a bureaucratic rock and roll association whose establishment has rattled hardline fans — had hoped that the event would help bring Chinese rock back to its glory days of the 1980s, but the concert has left fans more worried than ever about the status of the genre.
Thirty years ago to the day, China’s “godfather of rock,” Cui Jian, sang the song “Nothing to My Name” on the very same stage. That performance is generally considered the starting point of Chinese rock, which developed rapidly in the late 1980s and reached a peak of creativity and popularity in the early 1990s.
The concert was organized by the Beijing Association of Rock and Roll, founded in March this year with the backing of the Beijing Literature and Art Association. Such associations around the country are governmental bodies charged with carrying out the Communist Party’s literary and artistic principles and policies, ensuring the “correct” political direction of all cultural undertakings.
For some, the Beijing Association of Rock and Roll is a sign that attempts are being made to bring rock music is into the official cultural system, in a way that it is at odds with the untamed spirit of rock music. In one photograph depicting the association’s first conference, somber attendees sit before a red and white banner — a staple of Chinese officialdom — bearing the words “Looking Back and Ahead: A Symposium on 30 Years of Chinese Rock.”
At Monday’s concert, several lesser-known musicians sang classic rock songs including “Nothing to My Name.” For many, their performances were a disappointing reminder that the genre has seen better days. The whole event had exposed the “awkward side of rock and roll,” said critic Er Di, the nom de plume of a popular music blogger with over 3.4 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo.
The performances were interspersed with talking head videos of figures from the arts industry and governmental departments expressing their wishes for the future of Chinese rock music. One applauded recent attempts to “systemize and improve the industry,” while another called on everybody to “give Chinese rock a true and mainstream voice full of positive energy.”
According to one social media user commenting under Er Di’s frank review of the concert, during the event a man in the front row tried to stand up and cheer, only to be promptly pushed back into his seat by a security guard. He was the only person who stood up during the entire evening, the user noted.
In light of skepticism targeted at the project, officials have insisted that the involvement of the government in the project does not necessarily make it a political endeavor. “The party has given people a platform,” the association’s founder and director Shi Zihe said to Sixth Tone. “How can they say that rock and roll is no longer rock and roll? How can they say that rock and roll now aligns itself with the party?”
“With the association, rock artists can write for the people, rock for the people, and roll for the people,” said Gang Jie, vice secretary of the Beijing Literature and Art Association’s party committee, at a press conference preceding the concert. “The spring of Chinese rock is finally coming!”
Yet for many music fans, Monday’s concert showed that the association, with its associations with the establishment, will struggle to bring about a renaissance in rock. Chinese rock enjoyed its heyday decades ago, from 1986 to the mid-1990s, when it had become a heavily politicized soundtrack of a generation that had grown frustrated with the system. The young generation turned to rock music as a symbol of Western social ideals like individuality and freedom.
Shi believes that any attempts to equate rock music with political rebellion are misguided, however. “[Other countries] use music to criticize wars, drugs, or violence, but they will not use it to denounce their own country,” Shi said. “Have you heard of music that denounces the government? That does not defend the country or the ruling party? I bet you haven’t.”
Shi said the association will try to promote the “healthy development” of Chinese rock and will “direct critical spirit in the correct direction.”
The offer to help seems generally to have fallen on deaf ears. “Rock and roll doesn’t need your direction!” wrote one Weibo user. “It doesn’t need your management!”
Additional reporting from Wang Lianzhang.
(Header image: Rock musicians perform on stage during the ‘Music Power Rock China 30’ concert in Beijing, May 9, 2016. Courtesy of Beijing Zishi Hanqiao Culture Media Co. Ltd.)