[1 March 2007]
The problem with being involved in something, whether it’s running a political campaign or playing in bands and organizing shows in a given city, is that nobody seems able to see things your way, despite how obvious it is that your way is the right one. I’ve spent the past few Foreign Devil-less months wondering what all the fuss was about, in the wake of the visits of a string of major rock/pop acts to China.
There were a lot of people excited about the fact that the Rolling Stones were to play a show in Shanghai, and a steady stream of reports, starting in advance of last April’s show and continuing through the past few months, extolling the new round of “opening up” of China’s concert scene, with names such as James Brown (Feb ‘06, Shanghai), Black Eyed Peas (July ‘06, Shanghai, Beijing), Eric Clapton (Jan ‘07, Shanghai), and Roger Waters (Feb ‘07, Shanghai). I’ll admit it’s something of a big deal when artists who are actually somewhat relevant are coming through China to play shows. Usually, it’s the not-quite hot, the recently-hot, the hot-overseas type of artist (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Robin Gibb, Deep Purple, etc). I was asked by USA Today to comment on what kind of effect the Rolling Stones’ gig would have on the rock scene. I couldn’t think of any.
But too much of the coverage made the following connection: Big names are playing concerts in China, ergo China is opening up to the world, ergo more big names will come, down it will trickle, and pretty soon, Beijing and Shanghai—and Guangzhou and Chengdu, and all of the other 11 cities with more than two million people—will be like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Seoul, in that when artists arrange Asian tours they will penetrate into China. Oh, and then the whole end-of-communist-dictatorship-or-whatever-that’s-in-charge-there thing.
But something’s missing. Aside from the obvious problems with equating Rolling Stones shows in 2007 with a coming democratic revolution (more on that later), the question remains whether or not these big names coming through are actually going to make a difference to anyone here remotely interested in, making, or producing rock music—the kind of music from whence originally sprang groups like the Stones and Pink Floyd.
Sure, 20 (or even ten) years ago if you would have said to Sir Mick, Slow Hand, the Godfather, and Waters (whatever his nickname might be) that they’d one day be playing a show inside the Great Wall, they likely would have looked back into their careers and quite possibly found someone they thought was more damaged by drugs than you, so to actually play a show in China is a pretty huge thing for these guys.
But why are bands coming to China in the first place? Two reasons, really: 1.5 billion potential fans, and a notch in the bedpost. I expect that you caught the sarcasm in my tone upon the mention “1.5 billion potential fans”; without belabouring a point that seems to me to need no belabouring, I’ll say simply that anyone who thinks that there is something that all 1.5 billion pairs of ears will agree on probably hasn’t even seen Kung Pao chicken on a menu, let alone thought at all about what this thing called China is. Ok, goes the counter-offer, not 1.5 billion pairs of ears, but the ears of at least a chunk of the 515-million-odd urban residents then. Consider this: The Stones barely got 8,000 of Shanghai’s 17 million residents to the stadium, and most weren’t local. James Brown, who arguably appeals to a wider range of music listener, played a 1500-seat theatre to an audience barely sprinkled with locals (in preparation for the show, organizers were met with laughter and mockery from venue management; it was only when the foreign community filled the theatre—not when the venue folk, say, did an internet search—that they realized maybe this kind of thing might work). While there is a situation in which rock artists such as these can come to China and play, who do they wind up playing for?
Just ask Sir Mick: “I’m pleased,” he said (to an almost entirely foreign media gathering) when asked about the Chinese authorities’ demand to cut five songs from the Stones’ set list, “that the Ministry of Culture is protecting the morals of the expat bankers and their girlfriends.” Aside from the fact that tickets were priced far out of even city-dwellers’ range, the fact is that most urban Chinese wouldn’t likely to be able to name a Rolling Stones song, let alone a band member. The music fans that know the Stones, in most cases, either couldn’t afford to go, and in many cases, would rather not see a bunch of 60-somethings shake their thang. The “historic event”, according to the promoter, was “a cultural and symbolic milestone for China.” The Chinese fan who told the IHT his thoughts on seeing an expat waving a Chinese flag might have a different interpretation of the event’s “cultural significance”.
Here I could add that there are more folks in Beijing that would have heard of and might be fans of the Stones than in Shanghai, though the audience would likely still have been expat-heavy due to necessarily high ticket prices. But from a financial perspective, a Shanghai show was the smarter move: In Shanghai, as long as the moneyed and self-important class believes that their presence at an event is essential to the perception that they are moneyed and important, they will attend, and they know that in order to attend, they must buy a ticket. In Beijing, the only way for the moneyed and self-important to be convinced that their presence at an event is essential to being perceived as wealthy and important is for them to be given a free ticket—that is, if I’m not given a free ticket, the event can’t possibly be worthy of my presence. But screw the moneyed and self-important: If shows like those featuring the likes of the Stones are to really make a difference, they ought to reach out to the people that actually care about the music, the kind of people who understand and appreciate what the Stones did for/to pop music. There are more of these people in Beijing. But I digress, since one shouldn’t really fault a concert promoter for choosing the more economically viable city over the city that would appreciate the concert more.
But when a band has visions of performing in China, it is generally accompanied by the promise of performing for fans that look different from the fans they perform for back home. And in most cases, bands from away do perform for largely local audiences; after all, there are only so many artists in the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, James Brown, and Roger Waters category: Bands that are Big, bands that are barely known in China, but bands whose costs necessitate ticket prices out of the range of most Chinese fans and appeal to a wide swath of expats. Add Deep Purple to the list; they came to Beijing back in 2004, and they were the only major rock act to visit China and have a local opening act: Mr China Rock, Cui Jian. Arguably it was Cui’s opening set—his first major appearance in years—that drew most of the crowd (Cui did appear on stage with the Stones for long enough to nearly butcher “Wild Horses”, but it was a hastily-arranged appearance. He was supposed to have opened for the Stones on the first attempt at getting them to China in 2003 but SARS meant that he had to wait for Deep Purple to get back on a large stage).
But there’s more to the decision to come to China than just to fill seats. Bands big or small are coming to China to say that they have come to China. The stories back home are worth the airfare, and then some. It started with Wham! back before George and Andy hit it big. Their then-manager Simon Napier-Bell said as much in his book about his time as their manager, I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch: The coverage Wham! could get by being the first pop group to play communist China would help them break into the US market. It continues to this day: “After almost thirty years of trying,” wrote the IHT, “the world’s most famous rock band finally made it to the world’s most populous country.” There’s the payoff: The Stones aren’t exactly hard up for material for their press kit, but a gig in China seems a much easier way to get some column inches than, say, getting a couple million people to a South American beach to watch a show, or, for that matter, falling out of a tree. But even the Rolling Stones need press coverage. And seeing as how they’ve already done everything else there is to do in rock ‘n’ roll, there’s not a whole lot that they could possibly do that would be new. Ditto Messrs Clapton, Brown, and Waters.
Why the story back home is so appealing is because the understood subtext involves the idea of rock music signalling the coming of an enormous political change. Did the Scorpions help bring down the Berlin Wall and the Cold War? Did Pink Floyd? Maybe. But not even Mick Jagger and co. are the Scorpions, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. And the Berlin Wall is a much different structure from the Great Wall of China. In short, the Mick, Keith, Charlie, et al are not going to bring liberté, fraternité, and égalité to a country that has been wrestling with the transition from centrally-controlled economics to a wild-west free-for-all capitalism for much of the past 30 years.
And besides, forget the Stones, because if the revolution has a soundtrack, it will not be a Jagger/Richards composition. It might well be a tune crafted by Sonic Youth or NOFX, two bands well known and loved throughout Beijing’s rock scene, and, as of right now, scheduled to perform in April—though it remains to be seen whether a) they actually come (concert announcements are notoriously messy ‘round these parts) or b) if ticket prices can walk that fine line between reality and breaking the locals’ bank accounts.
More likely, it’ll be composed by a band like Lacrimosa, a Swiss goth-metal act—synth-driven, classical-tinged music made by a gang wearing tight leather, bright makeup, and angst-ridden expressions—who performed to a packed club of over 1000 (local) kids singing along, RMB180-800 (US$23-100) ticket stubs in their pockets. The irritation I felt from the music plus the sight of all those fans knowing the German lyrics made it one of the more bizarre moments in my gig-going career. The revolution’s soundtrack might not be great, but the kids are listening to something beyond commercialized pop. And they could care less about gettin’ no satisfaction.