Thoughts on Music in China Part One: DJ Sal

DJSal

[photo by Cecilia Chan]

Last month I wrote an article about Shanghai’s music scene for Vantage Shanghai, a luxury lifestyle magazine for luxurious people like yrs truly*. During my research, I interviewed some old-heads in the scene to discover why most pop music in China sucks and where the music scene may be headed. Due to space considerations, I wasn’t able to use any long-quotes; a shame because I got some really insightful answers.

*Speaking of luxury, I’m DJing on a boat this Saturday night from 8 – 11PM. More on that right here.

I’ve decided to share some of these interviews here, starting with my friend DJ Sal. Perhaps you’ve seen him on Shanghai’s International TV Channel, where he hosts CityBeat, on his scooter around town with his girl, or behind the decks at Dada for his Papasuda parties. He’s a global mystic who’s lived everywhere from Pakistan to Toronto and Brazil, and one of the realest dudes I’ve ever met.

Question:  What is the state of mainstream music in China? How would you describe it to someone who’s never visited China? How does it compare to other countries? *Why* is it like this? Please share your experiences and examples.

DJ Sal: Like many pretentious DJ’s before me, I was quick to criticize China for being over-saturated with redundant, clichéd pop. Songs about holding hands, ballads exclaiming the sorrows of lost love, and an army of adolescent boy-bands reign supreme on the airwaves, Internet, and television.

But unlike countries like the United States, Brazil, and much of Western Europe, who grew and expanded alongside their pop music since the 1940′s with icons like Elvis Presley and the sounds of the Jazz era, China (especially mainland China) began it’s exposure to popular music in the late 80′s to 90′s. That said, China’s pop scene came predominantly out of Hong Kong, so even though the sounds of Jackie Cheng and movie/music sensation Andy Lou were immensely popular in Hong Kong, they didn’t actually reach the mainland until the early nineties after China’s opening in 1982 solidified. While much of the West and South America (and many DJ’s) see their golden age of pop music set somewhere between the 60′s and 80′s, the golden age of Mainland Chinese pop remains the early nineties. Point being, it’s a very young scene. The stars of “mainland pop” like Leo Qing, Ai Jing, Teresa Teng, and Na Ying, who were all both singers and songwriters, steadily rose in popularity throughout the early nineties, then came to sudden halt, replaced by the idol-based pop groups we see today. But what happened, where did they go, and how did a uniquely Chinese form of pop music turn into a sound-of-the-month, lesser-produced version of cliché western pop?

In the mid-nineties Chinese mainstream music underwent a drastic change. With the initial opening of China came the world’s largest multinational corporations, including music monolith Sony BMG. They absorbed the local labels and dismantled much of the Chinese music industry infrastructure, in exchange for a far more western industrial chain. That meant drawing focus away from the older one-man-show acts like Leslie Cheng (who ended up committing suicide) and Teresa Teng (who also died of a heart attack in 1994), and focusing their attention on saturating the market with factory-line-produced cash-crop idols like Mayday, Top Combine, and Jungle Ex Child.

If you were a DJ in the mid nineties, you would’ve also felt a similar change in popular music in the west, from the gangster attitude of early nineties hip hop and the self-loathing sounds of grunge, music became more formulaic to fit into the changing industry structure. In the west, pop literally went from the Roots, Beck, and Sound Garden to Brittany Spears, the Back Street Boys, and N Sync. That’s not to say the early nineties didn’t have its fair share of boy bands and pop idols, but there was certainly a drastic shift in the way the music labels began to push and market music.

Importing the factory-line method of producing pop music to China meant pop stars were created piece by piece to maximize potential consumer appeal. Plus, with China’s opening up, advanced Idol culture flowed in en-mass from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, further pushing labels to emulate the market success of selling Idols as oppose to musicians. If you’ve ever lived in Asia Pacific you know that music is only a small part of being a pop Idol. So instead of writing and singing songs, much of China’s pop stars are instead scouted out through Internet competitions, reality television, and corporate events. Not having to write, compose, or produce their own music, suitable candidates are chosen primarily on looks, vocal range, compatibility, and obedience. The same can be said about Western pop music, but to a much lesser extent, and we feel it less because we’re able to turn to the vast array of musical options that have developed over the past 80 years. China’s young pop scene hasn’t has similar time to develop, and looks towards the West and Pacific Asia for strategies; Asia gave them Idol culture, and the west provided an efficient structure to produce that culture, it’s only natural that the music suffers.
But why is the content so redundant? Songs of love and break-ups seem to consume Chinese pop. Phrases along the lines of “Wo ai ni” and Wo ai ni de ai”, make up a large percentage of pop music in the country. Coming from the west, we sneer at the redundant theme of love in Chinese pop, especially when compared to the sexually charged, rebellion-fueled music of Hip Hop, Rock n Roll or whatever sub-genre of dubstep you’re currently listening to. But factoring in cultural context, it seems appropriate that the Chinese aversion for sexual discussion is also reflected in its arts. Couple that with the regulatory policies of the ministry of propaganda, and you’ve effectively rooted out any potential rebellious undertones. That doesn’t really leave you with too much to expand on. However, when interviewing Chinese pop musicians here at ICS, I’m beginning to come across more indie artists who are distinguishing their music in two categories; “love songs” and “music about life”. The latter could refer to anything from the tribulations of “working a nine-to-five”, to having to “cook their own dinner for the first time”. Admittedly still in the vicinity of warm-milk, it does show an expansion in content in the music of some of the up-coming indie-pop artists like Ellen Lou (Lou Kai Tang), Shanghainese hip-pop group Ding Da, and rock band Double Poom.

I hear Chinese pop everyday, and often voice my distaste for the redundant, formulaic, poorly produced crap that somehow makes it on repeat, playing way too loud in some tiny bookstore in some tiny nook in Xujiahui. But it’s a young scene, controlled by unstoppable giants, with near unlimited money and resources, and incredibly profit-oriented short-term goals that generally don’t involve creativity. Do I blame the artists? A little bit, yes, but I also understand that a lot of zeroes look good at the beginning of a 30 page contract. Do I blame the label? Absolutely, it’s their formula which is systematically eroding the art from popular music here in China, and arguably in most other places in the world as well.

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