Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Olympic smothering of rock in China begins

Are the Olympics killing rock in China? Is Bjork?

Rock music — that is, pretty much anything tougher than the Spice Girls or a Jackie Chan ballad — has had a hard time taking root in China, ever since Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” became an anthem of alienation and dissent at Tiananmen in 1989. As I learned, rock culture as we know it is an exotic and largely inconsequential fringe in China, although for those who go all the way with it, it does still signify real nonconformism and, therefore, protest.

For a decade or so now China’s rock culture has been growing significantly, with help from the Internet — which has exposed urban, educated youth to a new universe of pop culture — and from the general loosening of restrictions that tends to happen in a greedy, market-driven society. But those restrictions are starting to tighten again, thanks to two hot topics now roiling China: Tibet and the Olympics.

Last week word spread, first through Chinese cultural blogs and then to the Guardian and Idolator, that the Midi Festival, the oldest and most important pop/rock event in Beijing, was being postponed this year due to Olympics-related security concerns. The festival, which showcases the best of Chinese rock and imports some Western groups, usually coincides with the national holiday over the first few days of May — i.e. this weekend — and is in Haidian Park, near many universities. The Olympics will not start until August, and the audience for Midi is Chinese kids and local expats, not tourists. So what sort of security risk could this festival pose?

An ideological risk, of course. Bjork angered the Chinese brass last month when she whispered (loudly) “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of her song “Declare Independence” in concert in Shanghai, basically forcing the Party’s hand. (Video here.) Tibet is one of a handful of strictly forbidden topics in public conversation, along with Tiananmen and whatever place the army most recently killed unarmed protesters. As an isolated event, Bjork’s comments may or may not have blown over. But in the context of the Olympics and the Tibet crisis, the government knows they cannot risk another spectacle that would embarrass them and, worse, cause people to think. Answer? Pull the plug.

Was Bjork brave or stupid? On one hand she should be applauded for having the balls to raise the issue and not sweep her liberal activism under the rug once the chance to vacation at the Great Wall came up, as Sonic Youth did. But by essentially saying, “Hey kids, let’s give the army an excuse to come in here and crack all of our skulls open,” she may have endangered the larger cause of cultural exchange. Saying “Tibet!” into a microphone in China is like an American exposing himself on national television: it’s foolishly, self-defeatingly outrageous. You can be sure the government will now work extra hard to keep out foreign musicians.

Sources in the Chinese music industry tell me that people there are expecting the worst over the Olympics. You can imagine the scenarios: protesting foreigners, soldiers going too far, people getting hurt, reporters digging up some very ugly stuff. Chinese politics is not moving as fast as the economy, and the government is learning the hard way what Marx taught about how economic realities stir up class conflict and determine the course of history.

I was recently asked by another writer working on a piece about rock in China whether I thought Tibet would have any effect on the music scene. The question baffled me at first, but it seems frighteningly clear now. The rock culture of China has been coasting because there have not been reasons for the government to pay it any mind. (Coasting in a lot of ways, including artistically.) Now it has a reason. And attention from the Communist Party is not the kind of attention you want.

Maybe this will all bring out some great, politically charged music; maybe Beijing 2008 will be the central theater of political rock ’n’ roll, the way London was in 1977. Or maybe all the kids who until now have been willing to hide oblique social commentary in their songs through censor-dodging wordplay will just say screw it and get a tech job.

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