Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ben Sisario Interview

Before I left for China last December, New York Times writer Ben Sisario published two fascinating and perceptive articles about the nascent China rock scene which were crucial reads before visiting myself. Bumping into him during SXSW, I asked for more of his insight into Chinese rock and he provided the response below.

"I found myself perplexed and disappointed by what I saw as a widespread aesthetic of mimicry among Chinese rock bands of all stripes. Beijing, a city of 17 million, is like a provincial college town when it comes to its rock scene: there are four or five venues, which week after week play host to the same dozen or so decent but unexceptional bands, each recreating the sound of a different brand-name alt-rocker. There's (at least) one that sounds like Sonic Youth circa "Goo"; another is a ringer for Gang of Four; another sounds a bit too much like Sigur Ros and Radiohead; the girl-punks could very well be lip-synching some 1992 riot grrrl act from Olympia were the lyrics not in Mandarin. And those are the progressive, creative bands. Metal, the most popular and established form of rock in China, is stuck in a Queensryche-meets-Faith No More time warp familiar to any Westerner who flipped on Headbanger's Ball in 1990.

"Part of the reason for this is simply the novelty of rock in China and the difficulty it's had establishing roots. Tiananmen quashed its early momentum, and throughout the '90s other factors like the scarcity of imported records and the lack of a basic music infrastructure (venues, instruments, studios) kept it in a retarded state. Many people I spoke to said the Internet changed everything starting in the late '90s and early '00s: suddenly kids could hear EVERYTHING instead of just the miscellaneous cutouts that made their way across the Pacific. If the Internet was a big deal in the West, imagine the effect it had on a formerly closed Communist nation. Chinese people will never say "rebellion" or "revolution" in public, but in their society rock music is still alien and dangerous (literally), and choosing to play in a band and live a rock 'n' roll lifestyle is a significant act of nonconformism.

"The absence of new ideas in Chinese rock is partly due to a lack of confidence among the musicians: they haven't fully figured out what it means to play rock music in their culture, what Chinese rock should sound like. All their musical heroes are Westerners, and they're still making their way through that influence. It's like England in the early '60s: everybody's still playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, still learning a foreign musical language. (One thing I suspect but never investigated was the problem of Japan, which has an extensive and mature rock culture but is hated by the Chinese, who like many other Asian societies have never forgiven Japan for its wartime atrocities. Purely personal theory.)

"Westerners also bear some responsibility for the arrested development of Chinese rock. There is a large expat community in Beijing -- and also in Shanghai and elsewhere -- that has supplied the scene with many of its club owners, booking agents, artist managers, record label honchos, journalists and assorted hypemongers. These people provide guidance, pay for recording sessions, book tours, and have a hand in most other aspects of a band's development and marketing, such as it is. They didn't create the sound of Chinese rock, but they're helping to keep it static.

"One of the most interesting things I was told while in China was that the idea of imitation has a much different cultural connotation there. In the West the idea of one artist copying another is usually seen as creative deficiency, if not fraud. But in Eastern societies, imitation can be an important part of the educational process, where a student learns by emulating a master. I don't know enough about Chinese culture in general to know how valid this theory is in explaining the sound of Chinese rock, but it's an interesting one. And many of musicians I asked about this said that they did not see what they were doing as outright copying. They saw it as absorption of an outside influence, and many pointed to their lyrics for signs of innovation: their meanings are lost on any Westerner who doesn't speak the language (like me), but whenever song lyrics were explained to me, I was impressed with their artistry and depth. The best bands even manage clever social commentary by employing complex wordplay to avoid the censors, such as Carsick Cars' song "Zhong Nan Hai," which puns on a brand of cigarette that is also the name of a Beijing neighborhood where party bosses live. Others get in oblique comments about Tiananmen and other unspeakable issues.

"Tibet is a fascinating question. I have no idea how it could affect Chinese rock. But I do think that much of China's politics are dictated by its economic situation, and as long as Chinese factories keep running and the money keeps rolling in, I don't think there'll be much change at all with the government or its laws. I also have little faith in Western consumers and businesses (and governments) to protest the Tibet crisis by boycotting Chinese goods or engaging in any other economic sacrifice on moral grounds. Out economies are so intertwined at this point that it may be impossible to do anything like this. But we're enabling the Chinese government to do whatever it wishes in Tibet. Unfortunately I think the Olympics will go off without a hitch and this will all be largely forgotten about, just like Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001, and all the others. Maybe it'll make for some good rock songs."