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When Good Isn't Enough

Jon Campbell

When a national music scene is mediocre at best, what exactly constitutes 'good'? Campbell trounces his fortified preconceptions about Beijing rock bands to find out.

There are good bands in Beijing. There are good bands in Beijing. There are good bands in Beijing! There are good bands in Beijing?

Six words that are at once an innocent statement, an unsteady proclamation, a defiant exclamation, and a nervous question I have found myself whispering, confirming, insisting, and asking at various points over my Beijing time. They say that repetition creates truth, but as I chant this mantra over and over, I find myself never quite able to settle on the correct tone.

Here's what happens: I see a band performing on a local stage. They sound good. I dig it for a while. Then the mantra eventually takes on a rising tone (we'd call that "second tone" in Chinese) and a question mark slides itself in at the tail end. Because, I think, yeah, this band is good. Good for Beijing. The competition isn't exactly fierce; bands abound, so the decent ones stick out. Which is a pretty glass-half-empty way of looking at things, but sometimes, Beijing is a glass-half-empty kind of place.

Here I'm falling victim to the constantly invoked excuses for the state of affairs: Chinese rock only began in the mid-'80s; Chinese musicians and audiences have only had 15 years to cram in 50 years of rock development; nobody can afford to buy quality instruments or gear (those that can afford the gear haven't been properly trained to use it), hence, sound quality is low to cruddy . . . the list goes on. But realistically, these excuses are garbage and completely irrelevant to my mantra. This is 2005, after all. With internet access, the insanely developed CD, DVD, and even instrument pirate market (a model for other industries throughout the country, corporations take note), and culture's general disregard for borders, we are not talking — anymore — about a problem of time.

Of course, musicians/fans/etc. don't just appear out of the blue, but it's been a good couple decades of Deng Xiaoping-inspired development and the teens and 20-somethings who make up the local scene have had a few years — and the benefit of parents with a large, growing amount of money — to get their playing/listening/etc. skills up to snuff. Plus, I always wonder, how is a 14 year-old Chinese kid discovering rock music any different from a 14-year-old American kid? Both are in the same basic position: slowly weaning themselves from the pop music that they have come to discover is the musical equivalent of crack cocaine.

Sure, the American is surrounded by more alternatives for which he doesn't have to search too hard, but how many of us a) revelled in that search, the payoff being directly proportional to the depths we dug and b) were able to easily access the music that moved us the most? Meanwhile, for up-and-coming Chinese rock fans, the crate-digging that we might best compare to dedicated DJs and certifiable collectors is not only the sole way of looking for music, but the searching — and the perpetual out-indie-credding of peers — is what defines cool. And discovering rock music is nothing if not cool for the Chinese Kid. Just like it is for the 14-year-old American. In fact, if it weren't for the linguistic differences, their sneers directed at those around them still stuck on pop (or on bands that have already been "discovered") would sound identical.

So forget the not-enough-time argument. It skirts the real issue, at least the issue on my mind this month. As everywhere, bad bands outnumber good ones. The thing about Beijing, though, is that there are a limited number of venues at which to see bands and a limited number of shows (a few nights a week are generally all we get with any regularity, certainly in terms of regular quality), so one finds oneself running into the bad bands that, in a varied and larger scene, one could (and, presumably, would) avoid.

So back to my mantra. And its addendum: "They're good — good for Beijing." The question to which I am inevitably led is: Would these bands that I consider good be considered good elsewhere, as well? Isn't good music simply good music?

Or, I worry, have my standards dropped? Not because I don't have faith in the ability of a Chinese band to rise to the level of a good band anywhere else. No, the problem is the amount of sub-par music I hear regularly. I worry that it's like what they say about smoking weed: smoke enough of it, and it takes more each time to get you to an equally high place. Too much bad music, I worry, brings down my idea of good music. I worry that this is true because others around me often qualify their ideas of a really good local band: "Yeah, these guys are good, and not just for Beijing."

So back, once again, to Subs, the garage-punk band I brought to Norway and Finland a couple months ago. They were invited to Norway by a guy who knows music: the man in charge of booking the Øya Festival. And though I had long liked the band a lot, I was still a bit worried that they might not go over so well outside of the country. I was wrong. In fact, I almost wonder if my whole perception was turned upside down. I had people constantly telling me how the band exuded this energy that no band in the West has had for decades. Forty-something punks who have since gotten haircuts, jobs, married, etc. were taken back to their heyday. The theory I heard was that since Chinese music hasn't been polluted by the commercialism that has plagued music in the West, it is more raw, more energetic, and more real.

I suppose you could put it that way: There is certainly no commercialism at the local rock level in Beijing. If there was, there would be fewer dirt-poor rockers in this town. And certainly there was a level of exoticism about the way Europeans experienced the Subs: ghey were Chinese and they were punks, and that comes with a whole lot of baggage attached, most of which, I might add, is based on incorrect information. And then there is the simple shock of the idea that there might be such a thing as a Chinese rock band — good or bad.

A test: China. What are you thinking of right now? Is it at all related to music? Cover stories on the Rise of the Dragon, headlines about human rights, trade wars, images from the 1960s, the 1500s, chop-socky flicks, the fact that the only regular glimpse of Chinese culture that is seen outside of China is either Shaolin kung-fu warriors or traditional acrobats. It all adds up to the impossibility to conceive of Chinese rock. Which is fair enough.

An admission: I was, last summer, introduced to someone that lived for many years in Jakarta and, I was told, was into the local music scene. Before I could stop myself, I asked about what sort of traditional music it was that she was into. Rock music, she answered. Inexplicably, I continued: They use any traditional instruments? I read with similar interest, and surprise, a recent PopMatters feature on Malaysian rock fans (Adrian Yap, Postcool Music Nation, 27 September 2005). Most of the West doesn't conceive of the East (save Japan, who has already had many decades of jazz, rock, pop, and more, both locally produced, but also, as a regular stop on any band's tour) as being home to rock — including someone like me, who not only lives in the East, but follows rock here.

Which is partly why, I think, the audiences in Norway and Finland seemed to be coddling the band, supportive not in the way a hometown crowd cheers for one of its own, but more like a mom watching her child's first recital. At least, initially. And that's when that little pang of fear crept in. Damn it, I found myself thinking, they're only good for Beijing.

But quickly, the room of parents turned into a room of rock fans genuinely moved by good music. And I was redeemed; they're not just good for Beijing, they're just good. And they're not the only ones.

There are good bands in Beijing.

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