Pete Seeger is one of many Western artists to whom Cui Jian is compared, and with good reason. The two men are linked by their commitment to getting their music, and message, to as many people as possible, seeing in the art of songwriting, and the form of a song, a potent tool for reaching audiences.
With Seeger’s recent passing at the age of 95 and recent Cui Jian news, it seems reasonable to turn to a series of events that bring the comparison closer.
Did we all jinx it by getting our hopes up? By “we all” I mean the million reports on the invitation Chinese rock’s alpha and omega, Cui Jian, received to perform on China Central Television’s massivest Spring Festival Gala, and the zillions of zeros and ones involved in the multi-lingual speculations as to whether he’d play “Nothing to My Name” if he accepted.
Alas. Call it the Year of the Hoarse. The New Year will not kick off with a yaogunny bang. At least not on CCTV.
Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year is upon us. The first day of the Year of the Horse is January 31, which means that on the eve of January 30, a ridiculous number of people will be in front of their television sets, en famille, to watch the always-extravagant and never understated New Year’s Gala (春节联欢晚会). Broadcast on China Central Television, the massive event is something akin to the Superbowl Halftime Show meets Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve by way of Jerry Lewis Telethon and American Idol finale—only bigger. Sketches, musical performances, comedy routines, celebrity appearances and more ring in the new year as only Chinese variety-show television can. Recall, when you imagine the scale and scope of such a performance, what Beijing did for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in 2008, and you start to have an idea of what it all looks like.
Though there is nothing that could be less yaogun than the Gala, there are hints that this year’s gala just might get a little dose of rock and roll.
In light of the Year of the Snake’s arrival, I put together a playlist, of sorts, for CBC Music. Anything to direct folks away from the madness of China Central Television’s Spring Festival Galavariety-show-on-steroids-laced-with-Angel-Dust-and-acid madness, and what better way than with yaogun.
(though, on the Canadian Content front, we rejoice, if reservedly, as Celine Dion and Mark “Da Shan” Roswell will both appear. For those outside of China, Roswell is the most famous Canuck in China, having mastered a traditional comedic style and appearing in commercials, billboards, TV shows and more across China for the better part of the last two decades).
As always, there were a million tunes that didn’t make the cut, because, well, you gotta cut it off somewhere…
In a happy new year move from an element of the Chinese music community, a track to celebrate the upcoming Year of the Dragon in a style dear to those of us, in the West, with fond memories of Band Aid and its international brethren and sisterians as well as those familiar with China’s own take on the phenom in that group’s wake.
Seems that over thirty folks got together in a studio to record “Rock 2012,” calling the song the Third Annual Yaogun Spring-Festival Theme Song Recording (though the word ‘yaogun’ might be better, here, translated at ‘Rock and Roll’ particularly based on the song lyrics, see below). The last time folks came together under such a banner was for a concert at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium last January featuring an even wider group of groups. This year, in addition to the concert, a song.
Sure, they’re not going to feed the world – heck, they probably won’t be able to feed Sun Jie, the most enormous one in on the recording (who is oft found manhandling a keytar in his aptly-named group Big Man 大块头 whose members are each no less than 220 lbs, though this video questions their hiring practices, assuming bassists, too, must meet the requirements) – but it is a gathering in the service of happy- and rock-ifying our new year.
As a person who was careful about assigning different meanings to “rock” and “yaogun” – in short: the former comes from the West, the latter comes from China, though not all rocky music made in China qualifies – it’s interesting to note that the singers here only refer to the English word for rock and roll. My quick translation of the chorus:
We’re singing rock and roll
Whether that day will come
We still want Rock N ‘Roll
Just for that little feeling of freedom”
I struggle with yaogun, and with China, and with China’s attitude and behavior toward yaogun, and this video is a good example. On the one hand, there’s a lot not-quite-rock about it. The folks involved, like the kiddie-band, and the sprinkling of popstar-types. The tune itself sounds like one of those “rock” songs a room full of executives might’ve written by committee and focus groups: ‘Ooooo! Don’t forget the traditional-music breakdown section,’ one says. ‘Right, that’ll test well with the older folks. And also we should totally bring down the music like halfway through and dramatically, slowly, bring it back in after a bit of that soft-singing,’ adds another. ‘Oh, and don’t forget that thing where you make the song suddenly go up higher, like a step,’ someone else chimes in. ‘That’s where you’ll get shivers!’
If the poppy participants and elements were cringe-worthy, the yaogunners among the ranks were nearly shocking: Lei Jun, of Oi!-punks Misandao, who is not the only bald one in the video, but is the only self-described skinhead, for one: There is footage from this flick of the band’s somewhat regular trips to load up on cough syrup to fuel the night’s shenanigans. I see Gao Hu of Miserable Faith, Xiao Nan, the venerable co-founder of Cobra, who was one of the stars of the nineties’ yaogun scene. And a few others.
But in yaogun’s, erm, long, strange march to something less than a hated and sometimes feared thing that needs to be stamped out – or worse: ignored – it’s stuff like this that helps it along. Pop is not necessarily the enemy, especially as a means to an end. Yeah, the poppers make it look bad, and the music here isn’t what you’d call epic, but pop is the quickest, best, and, really, only way to the ears of the masses. We just hope that the masses take to rock. And that these folks go from “singing rock and roll” to living and creating yaogun.