And now for something completely different. I thought it would make a nice change to share some stand-out modern Chinese bands/artists I have come across - and inviting people who are more familiar with it to share some of their own.
First, a disclaimer: I am looking at a relatively narrow but very vibrant section of modern Chinese music - rock'n'roll, alt-rock, indie, punk (both "underground" and artists with more mainstream exposure). This was basically a question of my own musical taste and interest, and I am sure there are many interesting developments taking place in other genres.
Furthermore, I am only looking at music since the 1980s - here is a timeline of significant artists from earlier periods.
Here is a sample of the lyrics - the song is below:
For a long time I kept on asking
When will you come with me
But all you do is laugh at me
For I have nothing to my name
I want to give you my dreams
To give you my liberty too
But all you do is laugh at me
For I having to my name.
In the aftermath of the killings at Tianenmen, Cui became famous for wearing a red strip of cloth across his eyes at performances - supposedly a challenge to his fellow nationals not to turn a blind eye to what had happened.
Here he is giving a performance with his trusted trumpet, showing signs of increasing New Wave influences.
At the same time, other Chinese bands began making a name for themselves including metal bands like Tang Dynasty and Hei Bao (Black Panther). Here is one of Hei Bao's easier listens from 1992:
According to de Kloet, the mid-1990s saw a transition in China from the liumang generation, with their sincere if simplistic political stance, to the Dakou generation, with more cynical, sarcastic and barbed attitudes to politics. But this generation also witnessed the flourishing of a far more diverse and experimental underground scene (dixia yinyue).
The Dakou generation are named after the cut Western CDs that flooded into China in the 1990s, under the radar of state censors, and provided many Chinese enthusiasts with their first exposure to all manner of foreign genres and spawned indigenous movements.
This is how de Kloet describes the importance of Dakou:
Here is an example of China's punk scene - a band called Brain Failure, giving a characteristically intense performance at New York's legendary CBGB:
Here is a 2001 documentary called Made in China which features interviews with Brain Failure as well as other seminal underground artists and musicians in China's youth culture.
De Kloet raises an important point about the consciousness in the yaogun scene that they are regarded as playing "catch-up" to the West, and their desire to make music that is unique. This impulse leads in two directions: on the one hand, commercial pressure to heavily emphasise "Chineseness" and traditional themes - "localisation through sinification is adopted to avoid the charge of copying" - and on the other, a search for a sound that is unique at a deeper level.
Here is a Snapline track. I think I can hear echoes of Wire in it.
Here is a trailer for a new documentary film by Andrew Field called Down: Indie Rock in the PRC (named after a SUBS song). All of the bands featured in the trailer are worth checking out, and I have included most of them further down. One such band that has attained recognition is the indie rock outfit PK-14, who formed in 1997. Here they are playing in New York:
Guang Chang ('Square') from their 2005 debut sees the band sailing close to the political limits of subjects deemed suitable for songs. It is based on Zhang's experience of being detained by police who thought he and his friends looked suspicious mulling around Tianenmen Square one morning. But with lyrics like "this is a square without hope", the song manages to be just ambiguous enough - is it about the hope of the nation, or of those who had invested their hopes in the protests? - to pass.
This limited freedom has allowed many Chinese indie rock bands to develop dedicated fanbases. They include Hedgehog (Ciwei), who emerged in the mid-2000s and found success with upbeat tunes and cheerily nonsensical lyrics.
One of my favourite bands to come out of China is My Little Airport.
The group formed in 2001 in Hong Kong, and specialise in making their own brand of blissful, bleepy, highly catchy indie-pop (nevertheless, enjoying greater freedoms than on the mainland, they have penned songs with increasingly political lyrics, such as "Donald Tsang, please die" - their most recent album is called Hong Kong is One Big Shopping Mall).
Then there is the minimalist experimental sound of Lonely China Day, who have blended elements of traditional Chinese music with bare, punctuated effects, to create music that is often compared with Sigur Ros.
Here is an interview with SUBS, interspersed with footage of their raucous stage presence. I was a convert as soon as the frontwoman Kang Mao described her inspiration: "The Pixies - for me they are like gods", and then explained that the band were out to use yaogun to destroy the superficial "subversiveness" of "hipsters" in the West.
Staying true to their underground ethos, the band told Reuters in an interview that they mostly played in bars and rehearsed in a nine-square-metre space. It was a "good night" if they made $37.50.
Here they are on what I hope was a good night in Shanghai, 2009: