Five Colors Rock Taiwan

Despite the suffocating grey of Taipei pollution and the blinding neon of signs indicating that betel nuts are for sale, Taiwan is all about blue and green, or more specifically, pro-unification (with China) blue, and pro-independence green, a color scheme that predictably yields a myriad of metaphors about the grass and the sky.

Luo Wen-jia, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Taipei County magisterial candidate in last year’s 3-in-1 elections, took a different chromatic approach during his December 2005 election campaign, expanding his color spectrum to five colors in his series of five outdoor concerts, each featuring an impressive lineup of alternative and ‘underground’ acts. The events were called Revolution 2005 (also known as Five Color Rock).

The red event was themed around Che Guevara and revolutionary spirit; the blue event was John Lennon, freedom and peace; white was Mother Teresa and dedication to humanity; orange was Albert Einstein and creativity; and green was late DPP legislator Lu Hsiu-yi and courage in manifesting one’s ideals through practice. At each concert, people lounged around on the ground and kids — many of the younger ones still dressed in school uniforms — crowded to the front with camera phones as musicians with perfected anime hair did their thing on stage. Cloth strips in the designated color were handed out and worn as head- or armbands, and though I kept them as souvenirs, the sight of people wearing them made me, unsettlingly, think of the fanatical students of China’s Cultural Revolution, marching through the streets with flaming eyes.

According to Luo, the point of Revolution 2005 was to “reawaken the spirit of a populace overcome by government and market failures, and to resonate with youth through the critical and revolutionary voices of rock”, as reported by the Epoch Times. The more world-weary of us knew that this was ultimately about securing the youth vote in the election campaign by marketing himself to that demographic, but in the excitement about all the great musicians performing for free, it didn’t really seem to matter. Luo is also one of those people who has an especially sincere face and disposition, so it did occur to me that he might genuinely be concerned with increasing public interest and public involvement in politics. In the end, however, Luo lost the election race, but that probably didn’t have anything to do with Revolution 2005, anyhow.

The events turned out to be fairly apolitical with nary an election speech nor an exposition of a political platform in sight. At the red concert, a screen displaying a video montage of Che flashed behind the musicians and red banners declaring that ‘revolution is courage’ hung to their sides as they performed, but very little was said about local politics of the day. There was talk of freedom, courage and revolution in a general sense, but not much about the forms that these should take. Whatever Luo’s intentions, the event was not about Che as a political figure but Che as a symbol and icon — not politics, but ideals.

At the press conference promoting Revolution 2005, Luo attributed the ‘spirit of a populace overcome by government and market failures’ to the various scandals that had hit Taiwan in the few months preceding, including ones related to the construction of the Kaohsiung MRT (Mass Rail Transit) and insider trading. What he didn’t mention was that Taiwan politics is always rife with scandal and that the all-encompassing blue-green divide has turned Taiwan politics into an ongoing World Wrestling Entertainment match. Legislators brawling during sessions using cell phones and picket signs as weapons, legislators snatching written proposals from other legislators and swallowing them as a method of filibustering, and legislators constantly hurling party rhetoric at one another are now the norm. These political figures share the TV airspace and the newspaper pages with innumerable items of celebrity news and gossip, which provide a welcome alternative to the mess that is local politics.

Luo mentioned that Taiwan’s youth have been avoiding the polling stations en masse, and given that they’ve simultaneously been raised in this hyper-consumerist society obsessed with entertainment and celebrity, it’s no surprise that in the little free time they have outside of school or work, they choose to indulge in a culture of glamour and amusement rather than be concerned with the political scene that is offered them. Luo is right in that they have distanced themselves from politics, but it is a political apathy beyond mere skepticism or cynicism.

In a country where the independent or alternative music scene doesn’t claim to have as large a following as it does in the so-called Western world, Revolution 2005 was seen, unsurprisingly, as a fairly non-orthodox campaign tactic by the local media, though this is still not to say that it received a great deal of coverage or incited much commentary. Whether its intentions were entirely pure and whether it was a success in generating youth interest in politics is hard to say, however as a political event that appealed to ideals rather than celebrity associations or specific political and economic issues, it at least made a rare and serious attempt to address the problem.

Revolution 2005 gave politics a partial makeover. It reminded us of what politics is really about in the end — achieving ideals like freedom and peace — and why politics is important as a result. This is something people growing up in the West take for granted, partially because these ideals are now a fundamental part of our pop history and culture — most apparent in the protest rock of the ’60s and ’70s — and continue to manifest themselves in popular culture in various way.

Taiwan pop, however, is still in its nascent stages and many of the most popular artists today have simply imported Western pop forms without really understanding how they were significant contextually, which is perhaps why Taiwan’s brand of mainstream R&B strikes Westerners as especially schmaltzy, its alternative rock as hackneyed, and its hip-hop as a little bit silly. Though hardly applicable to all Taiwanese pop artists, this is something that is very apparent in mainstream MTV pop music culture. Between the corruption, bureaucracy, and dogmatism of local politics and the utter pervasiveness of a pop culture largely devoid of political or social content, it is easy for Taiwan’s youth to get caught up in total political apathy.

Revolution 2005 was certainly intended as a promotion of a particular political candidate and his party, but this was hardly apparent in how the event proceeded, and more importantly, it emphasized the importance of politics in an idealistic sense and it did so in the native language of Taiwan’s youth, which is the language of glorified media icons — Che and John Lennon, for instance — and pop.

Politics is surely not so simple, of course, that it can be grounded entirely upon ideals. After all, there is a good reason why Taiwan’s politics are as messy as they are, and it is the same reason why we couldn’t possibly allow hippies to run the world: peace, love and faith are far too vague and general to act as guiding principles in policy-making. Amidst the legislative chaos and the hyperconsumerism, however, we sometimes need reminders about why politics is important at all.

Rock/punk band LTK Commune graced the stage at the ‘red’ show in an (as always) entertaining performance that reflected their usual penchant for wanton destruction, sexual vulgarity, and general rock histrionics. The program involved a red sumo-style g-string, bare-ass-slapping and an enactment of ecstatic male-on-male intercourse. LTK Commune are widely known to be politically pro-independence and display many distinctly Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) qualities in their music. Aside from a few politically-inclined jokes between songs, however, their focus at Revolution 2005 was still on doing what they do best: playing music.

Here’s the thing: politics doesn’t need to take itself so seriously that it becomes red in the face every time someone suggests something outside of the party line. Sometimes it’s good enough to remind us of why we should care about it at all in the first place.