Chinese What?!

From the beginning, I’ve had a secret fear of writing on this blog. The truth of the matter is that my taste in music isn’t particularly cool. For my show, I’ll spend hours rooting around the Good Will vinyl stacks for borscht-belt comedy or dixieland jazz. And I’ll never get sick of 1960’s folk music, Joan Baez and the like, the stuff my mom puts on in the car. This, quite frankly, makes looking through all of these old posts about contemporary-indie, lo-fi, post-punk whatever a little intimidating.

So I’ll talk about something I do know. I spent the spring of last year enrolled in an intensive, totally-immersive Chinese language program in Beijing, where I was introduced to the joys and miseries of Chinese Rock & Roll. It’s totally this fringe phenomenon which could easily be construed as out of place in a post-Maoist/totalitarian/quasi-collectivist state. Kind of a big deal in the ‘80s, though, ‘til students used it as a rallying cry in the Tiananmen protests and Deng Xiaoping decided that there was no room in China for rocking out and declared martial law. It still exists, of course, but I’d imagine being a rock musician in China is somewhat like being a yodeler over here — there’s just not much of a market.

So what’s cool in China? What’s fills the void? Hip-Hop, for one. While I can’t claim to have broken into it myself, at least some artists have made waves in the international press. Check it out. It’s very cool stuff.

But even if I didn’t get much of a taste of Chinese Hip-Hop, I didn’t completely miss the boat. One night this summer a few friends and I picked up a lead from an expat magazine about a small rock show at a bar called D-22 in Wudaokou, the closest thing you can get to college-bar district in Beijing. The band was called the Carsick Cars, and they were advertised as having opened for Sonic Youth on some European tour, which is pretty much the best you can get as indie musicians in a non-indie world. So we decided to go.

As it turns out, D-22 was located right behind a small contingent of old migrant workers selling puppies out of baskets on the street. And, from what I remember, lots of noodle stalls and cigarette shops and a MacDonalds. Just this tiny bar, smack in the middle of the chaos, full of billowing cigarette smoke and ancient posters of Chinese rock stars. Chaos within chaos.
Once my eyes adapted to the smoke and the Cars started their set, I was immediately taken by two things. One was the shameless, fuzzy three-chord mediocrity of their songs. Like one of those genre films that ascribes to its conventions so seamlessly that it leaves no room for artistic pluck. Or maybe it’s just my lack of appreciation for the genre. Judge for yourself.

Nevertheless, the other was that it still worked. There was an energy in that room that you can only find in the best of American shows, though the music was reminiscent of the worst… something genuinely exciting about its sheer existence. They’ve got this song called “Zhong Nan Hai” (the Chinese version of the white house), which basically goes “Zhong Nan Hai, Zhong Nan Hai!” for about three minutes. By the second, they had everybody jumping around and singing. Like, “The White House! The White House!” It was totally ridiculous, but got me feeling like a kid who was handed a can of soda, after being deprived of soda for a long while. It being flat was totally irrelevant.

Well that’s just the power of music, right? The reason people still listen to college radio, or move to Brooklyn, or pick up the guitar? Of course it is, but it’s also why I like going to China — because it forces me to recontextualize my surroundings, to see them in a different light. You don’t get the WVKR top 30 in Beijing, you get the Carsick Cars… and that’s extraordinary. And the fact that that’s extraordinary is extraordinary in itself, which is, the way I see it, what life is all about.

So now, when people hand me their contemporary-indie, lo-fi, post-punk whatever, I’ll be a little more apt to appreciate it for what it is… even if, at the end of the day, it won’t help me out too much with the blog.

One Response to “Chinese What?!”

  1. Tim Young Says:

    Hey, thanks. i really thought Carsick Cars were cool.
    I could definitely see that thick smoky scene in old Beijing.
    You were lucky to get to be there. Nice.
    Thanks again.

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