Shanghaiist call out fake punks

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shanghaiist twoYou see, it's really easy to write a title or post that is sensational. 

So, when it comes to diversity alt-media site Shanghaiist had all but died an un-PC slasher movie death. But recently they've got a new editor, Elaine Chow, who is writing about local music. 

Before we go on, I'm blogging this article by Elaine Modern Chinese rockers staying far away from politics. And, Elaine herself is blogging this piece from AFP Chinese rockers enjoy revival - without the politics. As always, read the originals before taking my word for things.

The main thrust of the articles is that Chinese rock and punk bands are not overtly political and the implication is that they are therefor missing something. This is one of the big two double standards in scene reporting. The first one is that Chinese bands are better if they are more Chinese, whatever that means. This one is that Chinese punk bands should all be complaining about the government. 

I'd love to give some commentary on the AFP article but I can't really detect any sort of real through point to it. The only interesting thing is that Elaine Chow throws in the line:

So much for actually being punk, eh?

Of course, it's a complete myth that all punk and rock bands in 'The West' are political - that is, singing overtly about about activism and government policy. For every Propagandhi (my faves) there's a Ramones. And how political are the Rolling Stones? What do these writers think political actually means anyway? 

The Subs sing about resisting authority and songs like Ha from We Haven't Entered The 21st Century talk about failed development policy and environmental damage. The music scene in Shanghai is full of bands whose lifestyles, visual styles and music are completely unacceptable by the Xinhua standard for national TV and distribution. The problem here is the AFP source article which is just writing to fulfill a common shallow type or double standard that crops up all the time. Not to mention writing up a commentary basically writing off all Chinese rock and punk bands as being shallow.

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From Wikipedia (but I knew this before I went there to look it up):

> Punk rock is a rock music genre that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the
> United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Rooted in garage rock and
> other forms of what is now known as protopunk music, punk rock bands eschewed
> the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. They created fast,
> hard-edged music, typically with short songs, stripped-down instrumentation,
> and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.

While I agree that Chinese bands have some unfair expectations thrust upon them, this is one that does have a base in fact, and is notable in a country with a history of suppressing free speech.


It doesn't have any basis and it's horribly confused.

The AFP article starts with Carsick Cars, who have absolutely nothing to do with 'punk', especially the type associated with being anti-establishment. Then it throws in some unconnected quotes from two non-Chinese nationals to insinuate that Chinese 'rock' wholly stays away from politics or doesn't care about it. It's simply picking at bits and bobs and using them to project their greater judgments on 'China'. It's lazy and it's littered with double standards.

'Rock' bands that are overtly political - that is, challenge government policy openly in their lyrics - are the minority in all countries. And Punk itself is now a diverse genre. One is just as likely to find political lyrics in folk or rock as punk. And what category do we put Rage Against The Machine in? Over half of Chinese rock bands play styles that have no association with 'politics' at all in 'the West', where do they come in? What about modern rock in 'The West'? The Grammys were hardly full of protest songs against the military industrial complex, American poverty or advocating single payer health care etc.

The articles are lazy, judgmental and superior.

For me, music is cyclical and moves in step with political/ economic conditions. When people feel sated and happy (the 90's and 00's in the West), then the music becomes bland and non-confrontational. When people feel margionalised and disaffected, they turn to music that is angry and anti-establishment. Witness what is happening to music in the West at the moment.

In China, the good times have been rolling pretty much since Tiananmen. It's no wonder that most of the bands out there don't feel they need to rail against anything. It's going to be interesting what happens over the next few years...

Good comment Archie.

Exactly, we see similar trends in both scenes, with only a minority of bands being permanently engaged in politics (also of varying takes).

I also think it's important to remember that many bands in the China rock/indie scene are in genres which have very little connection to political activism at any time. Which is why Car Sick Cars was a bad choice to start that original article.

It just highlighted the generalizations that people throw at China.

And I hope people realize that I'm being very neutral here. I personally prefer artists that throw out challenging political commentary and think we (as in all people/countries) do need more of it right now.

However, you can't write lazy articles calling out entire music scenes/ethnic groups for not doing so. I personally hope to inspire but don't demand. That's authoritarian.

I think Archie makes a good point here.

Really hard to generalize on something as big as the post-80s generation in China, but in general, I agree with Shen Lihui's statement that kids are "just not that interested in politics."

Andy- I love Propagandhi too!

Political statements in Chinese rock music is a widely discussed issue, also in academical circles. And without making too much advertisement I'd like to point out the started translation of Andreas Steen book "The long march of rock'n'roll" in which he dives into exactly that topic with rock of the 80s/90s:

One interesting point for me is the general use of the idea of music in China since the start of the century, which might help to explain the sometimes quoted "missing" of a statement: Throughout the civil war struggles and afterwards cultural revolution music was always less than the enjoyment of music and always just the container of a message. The established function of music without a message only slightly came through over the years.

And one statement on the side: 'we' always talk about 'the Chinese bands', 'the West', etc. generalizing without factual basis. Without figures (numbers) there wont be any jugdement possible, only personal opinions. My idea would be to make a simple chart. Write down the names of bands that are making political statements, then those that dont. Make it in both China and The West and then you have a first starter for a factual conversation :). Otherwise its mainly guessing in the fog.

Hey, nice post. Just a few thoughts...

The emergence of punk in the UK was a lot more political than it was in the US in NYC and So Cal, as a lot of histories of punk note. The argument is pretty much that economic conditions in the late 70s were shittier in the UK and kids making the music were there more aware of the impact of deteriorating economic and political conditions on their society than kids in the US, where punk was more of a lifestyle choice--so skate punk emerges from So Cal suburbs and art punk and horror punk and other less-political forms emerge in NYC.

I think there's plenty wrong with that narrative (it's not like Black Flag or the DKs or Minutemen weren't political or that the Damned are some kind of political radicals), but it does hold true in a lot of ways. It also shows that an artform or musical trend may transfer in a lot of ways from one cultural context to another, but there's a lot that's lost (or gained) in the transfer.

So with China, I'm thinking:

Punk in China has accompanied broadly improving economic conditions as lifestyle consumerism has become an arena of relative freedom even as political activism and organizing is stymied by the gov.

That could change a lot... if the economy goes to hell, as seems pretty likely, a lot of that general youthful resistance to mainstream culture and China's materialistic excess might just turn political. Lots of unemployed disaffected youth hanging around depressing housing projects? Sounds like the UK in the 70s. There's a network in place, there are people with voices and an audience... the conditions for it being more overtly political might might not have ripened, but might yet.

Also, hell, it's China, so the entire cultural framework of how politics works is different than in the West. I don't know enough about it all, but agree it's a bit lame to say to a Chinese punk (or indie rock... Carsick Cars are hardly BJHC) "hey, you're not like the Clash or Crass or Green Day or..." whatever band somebody has in mind that's "political."

Hi David

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

My favourite California 3rd gen punk band are Operation Ivy who were very political. The life style choice skate punk came a while after that. About the same time that the mainstream industries jumped all over skate clothing too and Vans et al became widely popular.

Also, I have to say that while you and Archie pick up on a certain trend ... I personally don't subscribe to the life=economics theory, in the same way.

Punk bands I like, take Propagandhi, came out of a stable background but philosophically disagree with corporate policies in the developed world, militarism, animal cruelty etc - regardless of their own communities level of affluence or freedom.

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