Music and totalitarianism

I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist — not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision.
— Joni Mitchell

No artist tolerates reality.
— Nietzsche

1. The incarceration of music

Let’s imagine we’re back in the 1950s. McCarthyism triumphs and America descends into full-blown, Handmaid’s Tale-style Christian fascism, with executed intellectuals publicly suspended from hooks, closed borders, the works. In totalitarian dictatorships, the first thing to go is jazz. Once the music is gone the next thing to go is sex, but we’ll stick to music here. Soon all that’s left is a few square-dancing tunes and John Philip Sousa marches, everything else being forbidden on pain of imprisonment. But then the authorities decide that even this music is corrupting (too much dancing) and in the 1960s it gets replaced by a carefully curated selection of Mormon Tabernacle Choir-style hymns.

That’s it for music until the 1990s, when the state’s grip relaxes a bit and people are allowed to make their own music again. But by then it’s too late because those with any interest left in music need to learn how to appreciate it all over again. They have little to go on, all former music having been wiped out, obliterated. Jazz, blues — all gone, forgotten. Rock music, nipped in the bud; Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis, disappeared. No surviving recordings, no musical instruments, no musical scores. Yet starting all over again with a blank slate, somehow, somewhere, people know how to make their own banjos and Jew’s harps and are pouring forth simple, earnest folk songs. Memorable melodies start shining through the frothy, pious lyrics, though without irony or any hint of rebelliousness. The urge to create music is irrepressible. And at a certain point, lo and behold, those who retain some memory of the music of their youth, the elderly, can confirm: the music is almost as good as it used to be.

I resort to an alternate-history analogy because it’s the only way to convey the extent of the musical devastation China went through during the four decades of the 1950s-80s, a destruction so comprehensive that it can only be described as the cultural equivalent of nuclear war.

Upon China’s Communist Revolution in 1949, music was classed as a bourgeois indulgence. Shanghai’s lively jazz scene — about the only place in China people could hear international music — was shown the door. Domestic music was largely confined to live Chinese opera and itinerant street musicians. In the 1950s the only new music was Soviet Army songs. After the Sino-Soviet Split in 1961, the Soviet songs got the boot. All remaining music, art, and literature then got the boot during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when Madame Mao decided none of it was sufficiently revolutionary. The only music now allowed was the so-called “Eight Model Operas,” newly commissioned revolutionary operas fashioned after the style of Peking Opera but smoothed out and made more singable for the masses. You read that right: for ten years, one-quarter of the world’s population was allowed to listen to only eight works of music, or rather eight versions of the same music. People were too poor to afford radios, record players or tape recorders and would have been beaten to death for possessing one. The operas continuously blared from factory loudspeakers. Incidentally, one of these model operas, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, caught the attention of British rock musician Brian Eno and inspired his quirky, eponymously named album in 1974, though with no musical connection to the opera.

Instruction book with score for staging the revolutionary opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Beijing: People’s Press, 1971).

On a 1979 state visit to the USA, Premier Deng Xiaoping was favorably impressed enough with John Denver’s White House performance of his “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to initiate a sea change, though a glacial one. That is to say, although things started looking up, it took years to clear the debris. Denver was eventually invited to perform in China, but the planned multi-city tour was delayed over crowd-control concerns until 1992. The British group Wham! were the first to get their foot in the door in 1985. “The security presence was so intimidating people were too timid to make any noise during the songs,” according to one concertgoer. “When you see that many police you feel terrified. Everyone sat in separate sections and each section had police lined up in front, facing the crowd” (Cate Cadell, Reuters, 26 Dec. 2016). A handful of pop hits — e.g. the Carpenters’s “Yesterday Once More,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California” — trickled in over the next few years, packaged as “American Country Music” (i.e. music from the country of America) in cassette and later CD sets (“Hotel California” would be the standard track audio dealers demoed their hi-fi equipment with). Rock music began to seep in. By the time of the June 4, 1989 protests, China had its own rock star, Cui Jian. In the early ’90s, more Western music of the light pop variety was officially promoted. Richard Clayderman, whose sweet piano arpeggios many Chinese confused with Western classical music, was playing on park loudspeakers, along with the Paul Mauriat Orchestra, Yanni, and the smooth jazz of Kenny G. The 1990 Kenny G instrumental piece “Going Home” somehow took wing and became, bizarrely and to Kenny G.’s own befuddlement, the biggest Western hit in China ever. Restaurants started playing it to signal to customers they were closing up; many restaurants played the tune at all times regardless; you might still hear it in backwater cities. With its lilting, wistful melody reminiscent of traditional erhu pieces, many Chinese weren’t aware the song wasn’t Chinese in origin. I had always thought it was a Chinese melody until I saw an article about it.

Meanwhile, local rock bands were popping up in underground bars, quickly smacked down if they got the attention of the authorities. I attended one officially sanctioned rock concert at an auditorium in Beijing in 1994. They weren’t that bad. At the end of the concert, the Party members who had authorized the performance strode out of their front-row seats and onto the stage in their suits and ties to receive bouquets and tepid applause for their beneficence. It’s been a while, but I seem to recall the band members not receiving any bouquets. Yet things were indeed opening up. A brisk business in pirated CDs appeared on street corners. A few years later would see an infinite supply of pirated movies on DVD, including international films not distributed in the U.S. I picked up CDs by R.E.M., Nirvana, the Stones. There was no rhyme or reason to the titles that got reproduced in the underground CD factories or acquired from remaindered CDs abroad. Everything was gobbled up.

The music boom grew by leaps and bounds over the next decades. The authorities now deigned to invite such high-profile stadium acts as the Rolling Stones (2006), Roger Waters (2007), Björk (2008 — permanently banned from China after she shouted support for Tibet at a Shanghai concert), Beyoncé (2009), Bob Dylan (2011), Elton John (2012 — also excoriated for politicizing his concert), and Taylor Swift (2015, 2019). Locally grown rock music festivals mushroomed around the country in the 2010s, including some staged at the Great Wall. This boom coincided with an equally adventurous invasion of foreign classical orchestras and opera troupes (classical music in China is a story in its own right), though that also ended with the pandemic. Live concerts have been making a quiet comeback but only with domestic performers and when a city is not under lockdown. Despite increasing repression in the Xi era, approved apps are allowed to stream music from abroad and with video sites such as the YouTube equivalent bilibili, the Chinese continue to have access to an inexhaustive supply of international music.

A first-time visitor to today’s China would not necessarily be under the impression music was being suppressed. It is everywhere — Chinese pop, Norah Jones, and Beatles’ covers in restaurants, the usual light jazz in Starbucks, the ubiquitous Muzak in shopping malls, commuters plugged into their AirPods, bars and dance clubs galore. At times one almost feels there is too much music, as when cafes put the same song on repeat all day, oblivious of their contribution to the national noise pollution problem even when you point it out to them. After much speculation on this phenomenon, wholly unique to China, I came to the sad realization that music is not quite as important to the Chinese as it is just about everywhere else in the world. Or to be more exact, you do have a lot of people who are passionate about music, but they are in the minority. For the rest, music is noise pollution.

A more extended stay in China will confirm this. On the rare occasion I’ve been invited to people’s homes for dinner, which is not the custom as homes tend to be cluttered and entertaining in restaurants is preferred, there is invariably no music in the house. This includes households where children are forced to learn the piano, supposedly as part of a proper upbringing. Now, sometimes children need to be compelled to try out something like a musical instrument if they happen to be grateful for the introduction years later. Except that apart from the piano, there is no music in the house. The piano has no value except as a potential cash cow if the family can produce the next Lang Lang or Yuja Wang. Well, to be fair, a few families are into the singing competitions on TV. But the effect of all of this is to make me reluctant to put music on whenever I invite Chinese guests over, even the most innocuous jazz cranked down as low as possible. I’m afraid of sending the wrong message: that even though I invited them it was on the spot and I did so reluctantly, expecting them to decline out of politeness. But now that they’ve committed the gaffe of showing up, it needs to be made subtly apparent, by my intrusive music, that they are now imposing on me and interfering with my routines. This was not, of course, my intention at all. I was being absolutely sincere in my invitation. Interacting with the Chinese can be complicated as they tend to read subliminal signs rather than take you at face value. In any case, you won’t often find yourself in this situation since most would politely decline your dinner invitation at the outset.

When Chinese musicians were finally allowed to make music in the 1980s, they didn’t have much to work with. Only a fraction of the public then actually listened to music — any music. So they imitated what little Western pop or rock they could get their hands on for a few years of experimentation before they were sidelined by the burgeoning industry of state-approved commercial music. Western reporting on popular music in China has long spotlighted those who bear the brunt of state censorship and oppression — the underground rock and indie scenes. The pop music business is dismissed as irrelevant and craven, with its manufactured run of talentless idol-clones churning out formulaic fluff. First impressions tend to bear this out. I long considered Mainland pop music unbearably cheesy, worse even than Cantopop or Taiwan Mandopop, if such was possible. My prejudice persisted for quite a few years until I decided, in order to understand what makes it tick and why people listen to it, to approach the music with an open mind and immerse myself in it fully. I discovered two things. First, some of this music is actually very good. Second, there is no clear dividing line between the indie scene and commercial pop in China, any more than there is in the Anglosphere.

Chinese pop music can be traced back to iconic Shanghai singer-actress Zhou Xuan of the 1930s and later the equally celebrated Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng of the 1970s. This tradition was carried on in Hong Kong, though in Cantonese. Cantopop stars such as Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Anita Mui, Karen Mok, and most notably, Faye Wong (Wang Fei), were deemed harmless enough for the airwaves and brought commercial music to the Mainland in the late ’80s-early ’90s. Originally from Beijing, Faye Wong got started in Hong Kong by singing in Cantonese and later her native Mandarin when she broke out in the Mainland in the early 1990s. Considered to be Mainland China’s first pop superstar, this gifted singer-songwriter encapsulates all the pitfalls and potential of the Mainland music industry. She herself perfectly expressed this predicament early in her career when reminiscing on her sojourn in New York City for singing coaching in 1991: “I wandered around, visited museums and sat at cafes….There were so many strange, confident-looking people. They didn’t care what other people thought of them. I felt I was originally like that too, independent and a little rebellious. But in Hong Kong I lost myself. I was shaped by others and became like a machine, a dress hanger. I had no personality and no sense of direction” (Time Int’l Ed., 14 Oct. 1996).

Faye Wong’s 1996 album Fuzao

Chafing under the constraints of her automaton role as reigning Cantopop queen, Wong drew inspiration from Western musicians such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sinéad O’Connor, the Cocteau Twins, and the Cranberries, and began hanging out with Beijing rockers, one of whom, Dou Wei, she married in 1996. Dou Wei’s 1994 album Black Dream is one of the best Chinese rock albums ever to come out (see for instance “Haiyou Ni”). His influence is heard on Wong’s albums Di-Dar (1995) and Fuzao [trans. Restless or Anxiety] (1996), both of which marked a sharp departure from her previous work, especially Fuzao, whose angular, offbeat delivery sounded unlike anything else in Chinese pop at the time and a refreshing antidote to the cloying sentimental ballads she was known for. The album cover is odd as well, either playfully loopy or contorted and disturbing depending on how you look at it, as if suggestive of the fraught state of music in a repressive society. These contradictions have played out in her subsequent albums, each of which jarringly juxtaposes avant-garde numbers and syrupy pop hits, with a balance of tracks by herself and others. Remarkably, her own compositions not only hold their own next to the accompanying songwriters but are often the best on the album, as exemplified by “Jiaqi” (from Di-dar), “Ganqing Shenghuo” and “Xiaocongming” (from Changyou [Sing and Play]), and the hard-rocking “Jiang Ai” (from Jiang Ai [To Love]). “Lian” (from Changyou) is of matchless beauty, while “Hanwuji” (from Yuyan [Fable]) conjures up a beguilingly decadent Oriental past. Mystifyingly, Wong stopped putting out albums after her 2003 Jiang Ai, though she has occasionally appeared in concert. Perhaps the only rational response to the contradictions of being a searching musical artist in the stultifying atmosphere of Mainland commercial pop is to retreat into a fiercely protected privacy, disappearing from the public eye for years at a time and emerging now and then on her own terms. This elusiveness has only increased her mystique.

Two Mainland singers from the 2000s stand out, though for different reasons. Li Jian, from Harbin in China’s northeast, epitomizes the love-ballad crooner. In the Mainland today this role has a Pavlovian character when performed live before a televised audience. Decked out with ostentatious staging and backed by strings or full orchestra, these grand theatrical affairs are engineered to wring out the maximum sentiment with stimulus-response precision: cue the violins and cut to the female audience members in tears. Li Jian was struggling in relative obscurity when Faye Wong took notice and covered his song “Chuanqi” (“Legend”) in the 2010 Spring Festival Gala concert, and he rocketed to fame. As with many Chinese pop stars, his delivery is direct from the heart, devoid of archness or irony. There is the usual avoidance of harmony vocals, as if that only muddies the melodic line, which lends so many Chinese pop numbers the character of children’s songs or lullabies. His songs are relentlessly alike, “Jiaru Ai You Tianyi” and “Guxiang Shanchuan” being representative. On the other hand, though his concerts rely on elaborate instrumental arrangements, many of his recorded songs, such as “Yixiang Ren” and “Zhanfang,” are accompanied by just an acoustic guitar or two and harken back to the Chinese “folk music” tradition of Ai Jing and Zang Tianshuo of the 1990s. What distinguishes Li Jian from the run of pop artists of his generation, apart from his lovely voice and good looks and the fact that he composes the music and lyrics of most of his songs, is his music has a signature, immediately identifiable style and is replete with genuine melodic invention. He could be described as a Chinese Jack Johnson.

Before moving on to the other notable Mainland singer of the 2000s, Jane Zhang, a detour is required. If there’s one figure who since the turn of the millennium dominates the pop music Sinosphere it’s unquestionably Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jay Chou (Zhou Jielun). Chinese pop stars tend to have a short shelf life — here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not really the custom in China to collect music and there is scant conception of what we call “classics,” as in “classic rock,” “70s hits,” “80s hits,” and the like. Who wants a cellphone from five years ago? Similarly, why listen to singers from five or ten years ago when you can listen to the latest? Jay Chou exploded onto the scene over two decades ago and he is still going strong. After hearing his name come up again and again whenever I have asked Chinese teenagers who their favorite musician is, I began to feel I might be missing out on something. Could it be Jay Chou is Asia’s own musical giant on a par with the Beatles or Bob Dylan, and only our Anglocentric bias is preventing us from appreciating this? Well, no. Rather, fortuitous circumstances came together to place him on China’s pop throne. What can be said in his favor is that he is a very talented singer-songwriter and producer. He is fully conversant in the latest international pop, and Western classical music as well, in which he was initially trained. He creatively combines these influences in his songs, from traditional Chinese instrumentation and harmonies (“Qilixiang“) to deftly integrated R&B and hip-hop (“Qingtian,” “Yequ“). His songs make grand statements and are melodic and memorable (“Bu Gai“).

A curious feature of Jay Chou’s music videos, which he produces himself, is that he never smiles. He seems perpetually wracked by some inner pain and turmoil. Except for his growing up shy and introverted, there doesn’t seem to be any traumatic incident in his life to explain this (as documented in Wikipedia at least). The other possibility is that his musical and visual iconography is all calibrated (perhaps cynically) to strike, literally, just the right chords. He has optimally stylized his persona to enable his young listeners to project all their romantic yearnings onto him. This would go far in explaining his widespread appeal. As regards his tens of millions of followers in Mainland China, we could credit the more sophisticated production values coming out of Taiwan’s music industry, two decades ago anyway. But most importantly, Jay Chou is squeaky clean and straight as an arrow: he neither smokes nor drinks, disdains nightclubs, and happens to be an evangelical Christian (his religion is not a problem in China as long as he keeps it out of his lyrics). In other words, the Chinese Government has found propaganda value in Jay Chou as a reliably benign and uncontroversial cultural ambassador. He is accordingly invited to the Mainland to perform concerts, and the Chinese public is free to celebrate this morally correct role model to their heart’s content.

The Mainland’s own Jane Zhang (Zhang Liangying), from Sichuan, has likewise maintained her superstar status since breaking out in the early 2000s. On first acquaintance, Zhang might strike you as slavishly conservative and indistinguishable from her pop star compatriots of the 2000s, groomed to advance a kind of musical isolationism in their careful adherence to domestic trends. For her televised appearances, she has cultivated the desired image of feminine, wedding-dress purity (“Hua Xin“), though unlike many ballad crooners with their penchant for pulling out the sentimental stops, she has a natural and relaxed rapport, an understated manner reminding the audience there is no need to get too worked up; it’s only about music and the joy of singing. She likes to show off her acrobatic voice, including Tibetan and Mongolian-style throat singing (“Sheng Ru Xia Hua“), as Faye Wong did in Di-Dar. Throat singing was popularized by one of the first female Chinese singers to break out in the 1990s, the innovative Dadawa (Zhu Zheqin), and later Sa Dingding, both of whom benefitted from international recording productions. Unlike most conventional Chinese pop stars, Jane Zhang is also outward-looking, experimental, and ever-evolving, infusing her music with a sophisticated savoir-faire. She counts Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and P!nk among her influences. Increasingly, she sings and records in English. (Or might her reaching out abroad be due to waning popularity at home?) She collaborated with U.S. producer Timbaland and the rap group Migos on her latest album, Past Progressive (2019). It’s an impressive (if inconsistent) effort and there are solid numbers such as “Battlefield” and “Dust My Shoulders Off” (this video version of the latter track is brilliantly creative, with live recreations of famous paintings).

The field is getting more crowded since the 2010s and it’s more difficult for a single star to dominate the limelight as Faye Wong did a generation ago. One musician stands out. Chen Li, from Guizhou Province, is remarkable not only for her independence but also for the quality of her work: a musical artist who refuses to pander to fashion but rises above it. She may be the closest thing the Mainland currently has to a singer-songwriter genius. The opening track of her debut album Ru Ye (2015), “Bumie” (“Indestructible”), draws you into the album as assuredly as any of Bob Dylan’s opening tracks. It’s a love song, but the lyrics are intriguingly enigmatic: “If everyone meets everyone after death / Then what’s the charm of death? / If one road may not overlap with another / Then it’s worth saying goodbye….” Mainland musicians cannot get national exposure unless they have at least one foot in the pop world, and intermixed with other great songs such as the powerful “Zhu Xing” is lighter fare, but the whole album coheres and grows on you. She has a sensuous, malleable voice, ranging from sweetly cooing to gruffly stentorian (“Yi Ran Yi Baozha“). “Ren Zhaomu” and “Da Meng” from her second album Xiao Meng Da Ban (2016) exemplify her singular style, which is to start off a song with quiet insinuation before unleashing an otherworldly torrent as if from the throat of a shamaness. “Yuyan” from her latest album Youchang Jiaqi (2021) creeps up on the listener with Peter Gabriel-like malevolence.

Video still of Chen Li’s song “Da Meng” from the album Xiao Meng Da Ban

Chen Li composes all her own songs and the words to most of them. Lyricists on the Mainland are severely constrained and must find clever ways to fit the pathos of their music to text sanitized of any trace of the morally or politically objectionable — the same predicament of Chinese poets going back centuries who could fall afoul of local authorities with a few misplaced words. They found refuge in the language of nature and metaphor. At first glance, Chen’s lyrics might seem as bland as those of any other Chinese lyricist operating at present, but a closer look at a song such as the beautiful “Guang” (“Light”) reveals a subtle command of imagery that shifts from the romantic to the discordant while remaining ambiguous enough to be safely insulated from the censors. At the same time, the lyrics serve as a Rorschach blot to read one’s own state of mind into. The song’s cheerful melody belies the dark tones of its imagery to generate ironic tension. One Chinese friend I showed the lyrics to said they perfectly fit her dour mood, stemming from China’s recent draconian zero-Covid lockdown of Beijing:

To shift to a different type of popular music, many of the Mainland’s younger generation (those born around or after the turn of the century) have fallen under the spell of Korean hip-hop, or K-pop for short. Unlike the American variety of hip-hop, which tends to get lost in translation, K-pop privileges visuals over lyrics, and its frenetic energy and intricate synchronized dancing appeal to Chinese youth. Though undeniable artistry goes into these slick and dazzling video productions, personally speaking, too much of K-pop leaves me cold; it seems to have more in common with advertising than music. Another curious feature of K-pop is its penchant for the androgynous look — the slight build, tousled hair, and makeup job with trimmed eyebrows — taken up by its Chinese K-pop imitators and male stars in Chinese film and fashion. In late 2021, China’s cultural police had enough and warned the homegrown idol industry against aping the “sissy” look. But it’s a big market and even Kazakhstan has produced a pretty-boy clone in the form of Dimash Kudaibergen, who has hit the jackpot in China. I am acquainted with the sad specter of a woman who is holding out the hope this pop star will become her lover. Like countless other female fans, she has spent thousands of dollars on his concerts and gifts she lavishes on him backstage.

Chinese female K-pop imitators have conversely adopted a tough, aggressive style and appearance, with male mannerisms and even haircuts: less ideologically threatening than the emasculation of the nation’s manhood. Televised singing competitions have proliferated on the Mainland and the latest trend is contests between pop groups or rock bands. One show entitled Youth With You invited the best up-and-coming female singer-dancers to compete in performing the same song. Twenty contestants were randomly grouped into four teams, each collaborating on a perfectly choreographed version of the song “Ambush On All Sides 2,” a catchy native hip-hop tune with martial-arts moves and rapid-fire lyrics, charmingly embellished with Chinese opera flourishes. You can get a pretty good idea of these young women’s talents, as they all do a fine job and it’s hard to pick a winner. One of the Chinese K-pop stars of the moment is Liu Yuxin (aka. Xin Liu or XIN), from Guizhou Province, who appears in the April 26 Team A (with the short hair): “Ambush On All Sides 2” (Team A, Apr. 16, 2020); “Ambush On All Sides 2” (Team B, Apr. 16, 2020); “Ambush On All Sides 2” (Team A, Apr. 26, 2020); “Ambush On All Sides 2” (Team B, Apr. 26, 2020).

China has made great strides in recovering from the blasted landscape of the 1950s-80s and rebuilding its musical heritage practically from scratch. The Chinese state’s radical experiment in creating its own music during the Cultural Revolution was a travesty — utterly destroying music for a whole generation. Even North Korea, where all music is controlled and created by the state, understands that it needs to continually supply the public with fresh tunes. On my own trip there I saw an array of music in the form of “pop” concerts performed by girls with electric violins, accordions, guitars and drum kits, school children marching home in formation singing the national anthem, and plenty of propagandistic music cassettes in the stores. But totalitarian regimes as a whole tend not to be very good at music. The simplest explanation for this is that they hate music. Afghanistan under the Taliban is at least honest about it and bans music altogether. Autocrats are managers who have ascended the rungs of power through managerial ruthlessness, a severe, stripped-down, operationalized mindset with little capacity for humanism, and its corollary, aesthetics. In a word, philistinism. The ministers of culture have no interest in culture.

China kept music out of the country for a good four decades until the virus was deemed not quite as harmful as had been assumed and finally let in. Today music has been allowed to flourish again, but selectively so. The state still controls how much domestic musicians can get away with and who is allowed into China to perform. But though musical creation has been handed back into the hands of the public, it must still serve up revolutionary content in the broader sense of being morally uplifting. This entails that melodies must be easy on the ears and song lyrics anodyne and predictable. Ultimately, though, all music is a threat, except that which directly celebrates the state: march music, which can be heard on loudspeakers outside many Chinese public schools.

We take for granted music is abundant and musical creativity and passion are natural. They are not natural, however, but must be nurtured and learned. This is all the more difficult when music is officially pressed into the service of cultural nationalism. There is nothing viler than nationalism, the idea that countries are pitted together in a perpetual contest: the crude, puerile belief in the superiority of one’s own country and culture. Cultural nationalism is the tenet shared by autocratic regimes that the arts are too dangerous to be left to the public but must be administered by the state to serve the interests of patriotism. Musical nationalism — musical jingoism — combines three notions into one: that music must be controlled by the state, that music must be created by the state, as opposed to being created independently by people, and that the music of the state is sufficient unto itself. All other music, the rest of the world’s music, by contrast, is viewed with suspicion or hostility.

We now turn to the rest of the world’s music.

2. The liberation of music

One September afternoon in 1997 I was walking past the Double Door, a cozy little nightclub in Chicago’s gritty, hip, still pregentrified Wicker Park community just as one of their staff was on a ladder putting up that night’s act on the marquee. Those of us passing by stopped and stared in disbelief. It couldn’t be. After dinner that evening, I took along my then-Chinese wife, freshly arrived in the U.S. after her immigrant visa had been approved (I had arrived back the previous year after a two-year stint in Beijing), and headed back to the Double Door to see how the scene was picking up. By now the crowd had grown to hundreds, soon well over a thousand. The act was none other than the Rolling Stones. And by now word had spread. The Stones were kicking off their Bridges to Babylon worldwide tour with two stadium shows in Chicago (appropriate enough due to the city’s blues heritage). On a lark, they had decided to use a free night to do a gig at a small club for nostalgia’s sake. Local operators gave the band a tour of several options and the Double Door was deemed “just perfect.” Tickets sold out by lottery practically as soon as they went on sale earlier in the day. That didn’t stop the ticketless from sharing in the spectacle. One fan held aloft a framed painting he had grabbed off his wall of Keith Richards’ darkly ravaged mien. To keep the crowd at bay as the band members arrived in separate limousines to uproarious cheering and flashing press cameras, mounted police were aggressively pushing people back. One captain leaned down from his horse and repeatedly smacked a man on the head to hasten this process, causing my wife to remark, “Police in China would never treat people like that.”

My wife had no idea what was going on and I had to fill her in. Any other Chinese immigrants who happened upon the crowd that night would have been equally bewildered, or less bewildered than annoyed by the hassle of having to squeeze through all the people. The significance of the occasion would have been utterly lost on them. It’s hard to imagine such a scene in China, either several decades ago or today. Most Chinese cities have an underground rock scene but the police would hardly allow a crowd to gather out on the street like that and for a purpose not officially approved. Nor are domestic rock bands (as opposed to officially sanctioned pop stars) ever permitted to grow beyond local, home-town fame given the de facto ban on alternative music on the national airwaves, not to mention being allowed to tour nationally in large venues such as stadiums. But most inexplicable of all, to many Chinese, is how a mere rock band could elicit such passion and fanaticism. Pop superstars like Jay Chou or Faye Wong, maybe. But a rock band? Those strange Americans must really love the loud music of their motherland, evidence at least that they are patriotic. It would then of course need to be pointed out that the Rolling Stones aren’t American. They are British.

That reminds me of a news story last September when President Biden awarded the National Humanities Medal to Sir Elton John at the White House. Some Chinese have passing familiarity with Elton John, or at least a few of his tunes if not the man, from his soundtrack for the Lion King, a hit movie in China when it came out in 1994, one of the tiny quota of foreign features allowed into the country every year. John tried to capitalize on that tenuous memory two decades later in 2012 when he performed in Beijing (a concert I attended) and promptly offended the Chinese Government by dedicating the concert to the artist and anti-government critic Ai Weiwei. But the point here is that John likewise is British. Why in the world is an American president awarding a national medal to a non-American for his cultural contributions? In China, this is not only inconceivable, it’s incomprehensible. Perhaps Americans are reminded of their former status as colonial subjects and still retain a slavish admiration for the superiority of British culture?

If a Chinese person not terribly knowledgeable about contemporary global musical culture — which applies to just about all Mainlanders, with the exception, let me repeat, the notable exception of a small cohort of passionate enthusiasts — were to put to you the question as to how a rock band such as the Rolling Stones, or any famous rock band, could have wider significance beyond the latest passing fad, I’m sure you would find it odd and hard to answer. This significance is something we simply take for granted. It’s not even culture; it’s larger than that. It’s history: the history of the past 70-80 years and beyond, a history belonging equally to the UK and the US, and a history that has reached around the world to touch every country (almost). It’s even larger than history. It’s lore, the rich modern lore that we all share, a lore all the more precious and predominant because we are living it, as are the legends who constitute this lore, many of whom (including the Stones) are alive and well and performing. I cannot remember a time the Rolling Stones did not loom large in life, not after I got my hands on my first album of theirs at the age of ten anyway, Through the Past, Darkly, with its nifty octagonal cover meant to conjure up a time-travel portal (I had gotten started on the Beatles a few years before that).

In junior high school we would congregate at a nearby classmate’s house to listen, properly stoned, to the latest releases, each one a major event, among them Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and the Stones’ Goats Head Soup with its hit “Angie,” to give a few examples from 1973. A girl I met in the hippie enclave of Banff, Canada, in 1975 had the “Stones” embroidered on her jeans’ back pocket. This was wholly unremarkable as the band had been beyond famous for what had already seemed ages. The only reason the colored threads on her ass are still stamped in my mind is that I was in love with her. While teaching in a high school in the Japanese countryside in 1990, my supervisor would invite me to his home for dinner and one day pulled the latest Stones album, Steel Wheels, out of his stack of CDs. He did this matter of factly and not at all to show his American guest that the Japanese were up on the latest Western rock music. He just wanted to put on some music. The Stones belong to Japan just as much as they belong to the US, the UK, and everywhere else. The same Wicker Park neighborhood where they performed their 1997 Double Door gig had spawned rocker Liz Phair, whose 1993 breakout masterpiece Exile in Guyville was a feminist riposte to an album released two decades before that, the Stones’ Exile on Main St. (Her exposed nipple on the album cover was still a bit scandalous at the time but such bold female expressiveness has its own tradition stretching back to Josephine Baker, Grace Jones, and Madonna, and forward to Björk’s bare-breasted “Pagan Poetry” video from her 2001 album Vespertine.)

Not just the Rolling Stones, but all Anglo-American popular music belongs to the world. During a year in the German city of Marburg in 1976, a local teen bar I hung out in featured mostly British and a few American art rock bands, with Genesis, Elton John, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Kansas being the favorites. Later that year in Frankfurt I saw concerts by Pink Floyd and Peter Frampton. Their keen German audiences were indistinguishable from their Anglo-American counterparts. A visit to Cuba in 1989 was revelatory for many reasons, including music. Cuba boasts a great musical tradition of its own, the dance form known as salsa, a people’s music which the government would never dare try to curtail. There was a lot of dancing on our trip and the rum flowed freely. It’s impressive how such a small country was able to invent a musical style that has been embraced throughout Latin America and the world. It certainly benefitted, as did U.S. popular music in its roots, from its mix of cultures — Western church harmonies inherited from Spanish Catholicism infused with African rhythms. But the Cubans aren’t only interested in their own music. The students who swarmed around us on a tour of a Havana high school peppered us with questions about the Beatles. Why? Again, it’s a shared language, a shared global musical culture. On a visit to Russia in 1996, in a medieval-themed restaurant in the Siberian city of Irkutsk of all places, I called over the waiter, a guy with a blond ponytail, and asked him what the naggingly familiar music was that was playing on the stereo system. He looked at me quizzically and said, “You don’t know? It’s Yes’s Close To the Edge. A classic album.” Of course, I knew the British art rock group from their heyday in the seventies; it had just been quite a few years since I had last heard them.

To explain this all as concisely as I can to people I know in China, the Rolling Stones are embedded in a matrix thick with musical and cultural history. The term goes back ultimately to the old proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Somehow musicians latched onto a symbol that perfectly conveyed the energy of music. It was blues musician Muddy Waters’ 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” that inspired the band’s name when they formed in 1962. The other mighty musician who along with the Beatles and the Stones came of age in the early sixties, Bob Dylan, likewise named a song of his, “Like a Rolling Stone,” after the Muddy Waters song. In 1967, an American rock publication was launched also with the same name (initially to the Stones’ chagrin); Rolling Stone magazine is still going strong as a storied and preeminent publication of rock music criticism and investigative political journalism. Thus the term became a potent signifier with a whole series of associations called up by it, not just around rock music but post-WWII English and American popular culture as a whole.

The “Rolling Stones” conjures up not just rock music but a whole era. Both the band and the term itself stand for everything anti-establishment: freedom, rebellion, and creativity — genuine popular, grassroots creativity. No governmental officialdom, paternalistic establishment or corporate entity thought up or approved of this music. This is the people’s music, the whole shebang of folk, blues, and rock, and only the people could have created it. Before the corporate music world came to its senses and the Beatles broke out in 1963, they had been rejected again and again by the big record companies and radio as musically untalented. In the US as well the Beatles were derided as clowns by the few musical executives who deigned to listen to them. The Stones broke out soon after that, with the path painstakingly carved out by the Beatles now making things easier. Soon an explosion of English and American pop and rock groups, all writing their own music and masters of their destiny swarmed over the Western and eventually the whole world (almost). This is not to discount the exploitative entanglement of the corporate music world in this history, but that’s another story.

All of this, again, is common knowledge, not just in the US and UK but everywhere, and not just among those old enough to have lived through the era but the younger generations as well. But it is not common knowledge among the Chinese. The country has been and remains a blank slate, completely unaware of this history, blissfully ignorant of any of these cultural reference points. And why should they be aware of it? What gives me, an Anglo-American, the right to drag my obnoxious Anglo-American cultural imperialism into the picture? And the nerve I have in imposing my ethnocentric musical biases on top of it!

Let me first declare that the aforementioned musical artists and bands are not by a long shot the only ones I admire. My own tastes are not confined to the Anglosphere but are thoroughly eclectic and bound by neither time nor geography. They tend toward the French and Flemish chanson tradition of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries — Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin (all worth checking out if you want to know how the art song got started); the Italian madrigalists of the sixteenth; Monteverdi and the English consort composers (Byrd, Gibbons, Lawes, Jenkins) of the seventeenth; all of the Modernists, including Stockhausen and Boulez; Philip Glass; jazz, the harder the better (Taylor, Braxton, Zorn); the glories of Indian ragas and the Balinese gamelan; Javanese, African, Caribbean pop music; and Peking Opera, a pure, fierce, captivating music relentlessly reviled in its very own country by all but a handful of nostalgic geriatrics. I don’t discriminate musically. I am open to and do listen to anything and everything, including Chinese pop music, and as I hope to have made clear above, there is much to celebrate in Chinese popular music.

The Anglo-American music world by no means has a monopoly on good music. But the fact of the matter is that American popular music has over the past hundred years dominated and continues to dominate the world. This fact should be no more disconcerting than the fact France and Germany dominated nineteenth-century art, music, and philosophy, or that the Muslims dominated science, medicine, and philosophy a millennium ago. How the Americans pulled off this coup had to do with the fermenting mix of European and African cultures, the collective anguish of the enslaved and oppressed under the violence of American capitalism, the mysteries of innovation in the frontier imagination, and other historical factors. It’s not just an American endeavor. The British, sparked especially by their fascination with Black American music, have made major, transformative contributions since the 1960s. The Canadians (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young), Australians (AC/DC, Midnight Oil), and the Irish (U2; Sinéad O’Connor) — to name just a handful of musicians from these countries — have contributed as well. It’s been harder for non-English-speaking musicians to break through into the Anglosphere, but a few Scandinavians (Abba, Björk, Aurora) have been helped by their linguistic and cultural proximity.

Nobody feels that this musical dominance is undesirable or unfortunate. Which is not to say that cultural imperialism is an entirely innocent matter. But as far as music is concerned, I have never encountered people outside the Anglosphere complaining about this influence. Their own domestic music scenes remain lively and are only enriched by contact with international music. The music of the Anglosphere is enriched in turn and has long actively promoted such contact through the efforts of Paul Simon, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder, and many other celebrated stars who have reached out to world musicians for fresh inspiration.

While it’s not easy for international musicians from non-English-speaking countries to break into the Anglosphere, it’s not impossible. It’s not easy for any musician — American, British, whoever — to break out into fame and success. It requires a lot of innate ability, perseverance, and luck. Engaging in this endeavor in the Anglosphere has one major advantage over engaging in it elsewhere. It’s where the world’s top talent is concentrated — not just the musicians themselves but all roles involved in the production process. The Anglosphere is where musicians of the highest caliber are forged on the anvil of competition and where the hammering is most brutal. Many musicians from other countries choose the more modest and perhaps sensible route of perfecting their art at home, where they can cultivate a receptive audience in their own language.

Again I have to confess the awkward suspicion that I’m mouthing a lot of truisms and platitudes. Of course, music is a gift to the world! And here are some more truisms: the best popular music stems from oppositional culture. It responds to and articulates social problems. It is conceived against the grain and is anti-bourgeois by nature. This oppositional culture, as we have seen in the example of the Rolling Stones, is thick with history and lore. So why am I reiterating the obvious? Because it is not obvious to the roughly one-fifth of the world’s population who live in countries where oppositional culture is forbidden.

* * *

Related posts by Isham Cook:
The Chinese art of noise
Philip Glass and Tan Dun
On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China
John Dowland and the lost English Consort School of chamber music

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