Chinese Alternative Music in the 2010s: A Lost Decade?
In a few days, the 2010s will be over, and everyone is making his own list, discussing the best and worst of the 2010s (like the best and worst movies of the decade – a piece of advise: if the #1 is not Mad Max Fury Road, the list is not accurate). Plenty of lists regarding Chinese music have been published – among them the always fascinating Krish Raghav who listed the 10 songs that defined Chinese music in the 2010s, or our friends at RadiiChina with the best underground labels of the 2010s. But how can we assess these past 10 years? Was it a good or a bad decade for Chinese underground music? Is it a “lost decade” (nothing to do with Michel Bonnin’s “lost generation” of the Cultural Revolution, although…) as many commentators seem to say?
On the dark side of the decade, we have witnessed a particularly bad decade for indie live venues, who have been shutting down one after another – at least since Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. The legendary D22 closed in 2012, followed in 2015 by its successor the XP after the organization of a concert with the blacklisted Japanese musician Kawabata. In 2014, the 2 Kolegas also closed down after a police raid during a reggae party – apparently people smoke weed during reggae concerts. The Mao Livehouse closed down a couple of years ago – because of a concurrent Mao – but also the Yugongyishan or the DMC in Tongzhou. Lei Jun, the singer of the Beijing skinhead band Misandao 蜜三刀, passed away in 2015, shaking the punk-rock community which lost one of its most well-known and controversial figure. This decade has been tough on livehouses, and concert-wise, a new tax policy in 2019 makes everyone concerned with the possible disappearance of foreign acts from the Chinese live music market. Speaking about disappearance, plenty of rock songs have been (not so) mysteriously erased from the Chinese internet in anticipation of the 30 years anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown (Cui Jian’s songs, but also Miserable Faith or Zhou Yunpeng’s). More importantly, we still have no news from the folk singer Li Zhi 李志, who physically disappeared last year after cancelling a show in Sichuan. The most troublesome crackdown is unquestionably located in Xinjiang, where prominent figures of Uyghur pop or traditional music are locked-up, as Ablajan or Sanubar Tursun, while Uyghur musicians are forced to perform a fantasized Han identity.
Alternative rock and punk also seem to have lost energy, replaced by a new hip-hop hype – which is not new but has gained visibility with the popularity of the TV show “The Rap of China” 中国有嘻哈, and even after the so-called “hip-hop ban”, Chinese rap is here to stay. Even the “indie rock” response to “The Rap of China”, led by Modern Sky and Taihe Music, “The Big Band” (乐队的夏天), does not seem to have a long lasting cultural impact. The bands which participated to the show represent the new wave of Chinese indie rock music… of the past 10 to 20 years: New Pants, Miserable Faith, Hedgehog, etc. Maybe Mars, the label created by the guys behind the D22 and XP was sold to Taihe Music, a big company, which worries the most underground acts signed by Maybe Mars.
A strong nostalgic discourse is dominating the Chinese musical narrative. The 2010s represent a lost decade, compared to the golden era of the 2000s, when the new indie rock/punk scene was thriving, thanks to the D22, Maybe Mars, Scream Records, Badhead Productions, etc. This nostalgic feeling again is not new, every decade had its own detractors, generally the older participants of the music scene – a systemic “Ok Boomer” if you prefer. Remember, in the 1980s, young rockers as Cui Jian, He Yong, 黑豹 were criticized for being too Western-oriented and individualistic (see for instance Freestyle 自由风格, a book centered on interviews with Cui Jian). In the 1990s, the rockers of the 1980s, dubbed the “liumang” (hooligan) 流氓 generation, criticized the individualistic generation of the 1990s, who did not experience Maoism or the democratic movement of 1989. In the 2000s, the dakou 打口 generation of the 1990s despised the new generation of rockers, as pointed out by the music critic Yan Jun 颜峻: “the dakou generation is disappearing. China is changing, youth is getting old, the market is spreading itself. Wild thoughts, commitment, poesy and even suicidal tendencies have been put away by wealth accumulation”. Because kids of the 2000s found music on the internet instead of rummaging through piles of pirated CDs and dakou like their elders…
So, when we hear these kind of critics and nostalgic discourses resurfacing again at the beginning of this new decade, we should all take a step back and take a rather critical point of view, without forgetting the incredible influence of the past decades. Nostalgia is not something intrinsically bad or good, we have to analyze how it is used, as Frederic Jameson puts it: “if nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with fascism, there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude, cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other”.
For all these reasons, I decided not to make a list, but give some reasons to still hope for a better future regarding Chinese alternative music scene. Prominent actors of the rock scene are not mentioned here, because, well, the 2010s were not the best years of their careers. Cui Jian’s 2015 album 光凍 (Frozen Light) was not his most memorable production. With all my love for XTX 谢天笑, the albums he released in the 2010s, as 幻觉 (2013) or 那不是我 (2017) cannot be compared to his earlier works, the same goes for Miserable Faith 痛苦的信仰, or even UnderBaby 地下婴儿 with their very disturbing album 蜕变 released in 2012. As for Brain Failure 脑浊, another legend of the early punk rock community, they kind of split-up in 2013 – the singer Xiao Rong left the band to start a solo career (I literally saw Chinese punks listening to his solo songs just to make fun of him) – but the bassist DeeDee kept the band together. Maybe he shouldn’t have.
So here is my 2010s in music.
The King in the North – Wang Wen 惘闻
It’s cold in Dalian, so people make noise to keep warm. Wang Wen 惘闻 is at the avant-garde of the Chinese math-rock and post-rock movement, which is well established in Dalian. Xie Yugang, the lead guitarist, started the band in 1999, but they really found their own sound in the 2010s, each album surpassing the other. They released L&R in 2010, 0.7 in 2012, the beautiful 八匹馬 in 2015, and finally their masterpiece Invisible City in 2018. Wang Wen is the proof that some bands can get better years after years. Xie Yugang is invested in a lot of side-projects, including one with the French guitarist Serge Teyssot-Gay of Noir Désir.
20 Years Rebellion – SMZB 生命之饼
If you want objectivity, go look somewhere else. SMZB will always be number one in my heart. Another band that gets better and angrier with time. They released 3 albums this decade, each tackling very specific political, social or historical issues. The Wuhan legendary punk band released in 2011 Sin Harmony 罪和谐, then in 2014 they published their boldest album A Letter from China 中国来信 as a tribute to the 25th years anniversary of the Tiananmen movement of 1989, and finally released in 2016 The Chinese Are Coming 中国人来了, a very complex album about identity and history. Their next album should come out hopefully next year if they don’t have any more troubles. I could go on and on about SMZB, but apart of being the best Chinese punk band, they also embody the consciousness of Chinese music in general. Maybe the most important song they produced this decade is “海鸥之歌” (The Song of the Seagull), a poem written by Lin Zhao, a communist intellectual persecuted during the Maoist era, killed during the Cultural Revolution, who wrote poems in prison using her own blood. And the most important album is indisputably A Letter from China – a musical manifest similar to Ba Jin or Liu Xiaobo’s work, stating that only by acknowledging the past shall we avoid repeating its mistakes. For me, the most important album of the decade.
Ablajan, Perhat Khaliq and the Impossibility of a Uyghur Music
As we said earlier it is a very sad and traumatic decade for Uyghur music, especially in the past four years. We should remember that popular Uyghur musicians were helping redefine contemporary Uyghur identity through popular music. Known as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber”, Ablajan Awut Ayup rose to fame with his catchy pop songs, inspired heavily by Michael Jackson, singing in Uyghur the hopes and dreams of a new generation, before being detained indefinitely and without reasons. Perhat Khaliq is another important Uyghur singer, who released in 2010 his first album with his band, Qetiq: Rock from Taklamakan Desert. In 2014 he participated to The Voice of China, and impressed the jury with his nostalgic folk rock songs. Good news nonetheless, the Uyghur rapper Aire 艾热 won the new season of “The Rap of China”, and is now one of the figure of Chinese hip-hop music, rapping in Mandarin.
The Only Band Singing in Haifeng hua – Wutiaoren 五条人
Five Guys is not only a fast-food restaurant, it’s first and foremost one of the most innovative Chinese folk-punk band. And they are not five, but (most often) four (or three – or two). The two lead singers, Ren Ke and Mao Tao come from Haifeng county in Guangdong province. They used to sell pirated books in Guangzhou in front of universities before forming their own band, singing in the Haifeng dialect. The specificity of Haifeng hua is its similarity to Minnan hua, the language spoken in Fujian province and Taiwan – very different from the Cantonese spoken in the Guangdong province. Their unique folk sound is mixed with a raw punk energy – one has to see them live to understand the power conveyed by their music. They have released most of their albums in the 2010s: 一些風景 in 2012, 广东姑娘 in 2015 (with its love letter to Guangdong girls), 夢幻麗莎髮廊 in 2016 and more recently 故事会 in 2018. A lot of songs deal with alcohol, as “像將軍那樣喝酒”, their masterpiece:
Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团 Last Album
It’s always sad when a legendary band split-up, it’s even sadder when it’s one of the only punk band in Shanghai. Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团 was created by the charistmatic and bald Lu Chen, at the time heavily influenced by GG-Alin. Their 2006 album “蔕米重访零陵路九十三号” was the first I bought in Beijing, and still reminds me of the craziness of a pre-Olympics, pre-Xi Jinping China. In 2010 they got into trouble after releasing “Shanghai doesn’t welcome you”, a satirical song against the Universal Exposition in Shanghai using the music of “Beijing welcomes you”. In 2013 they released their last album, all in Shanghainese, 谈钞票伤感情 谈感情又伤钞票又伤感情 Money Ruins a Relationship (Yet a Relationship Ruins Money and the Relationship), a sarcastic double album paying a vibrant tribute to Hot Star Chicken, a Taiwanese fried chicken brand, whose name in Shanghainese 豪大大鸡排 is similar to “very big dick”.
The Band from the Most Boring Chinese City – Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店
Technically, Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店 first – and for now only – album was produced in 2010 so it should make this list. But to be honest, this perfect album is the product of the previous decade, and of the boring atmosphere of China second-tier city of Shijiazhuang. Their instant hit “Kill the One From Shijiazhuang” (杀死那个石家庄的人) is certainly one of the most influential rock song of the decade, even if they did not produce anything new since – but you can still catch them live during rock festivals, singing the same songs again and again, but we honestly don’t mind. Omnipotent Youth Society is also associated with the Shijiazhuang rock base – revolving around the very important magazine So Rock! 我爱摇滚乐, which closed down during in 2013. More information about So Rock! on this modest website, with the “CD Archive Project”.
Wuhan New Wave – Chinese Football
“Do you like Chinese music? I don’t like Chinese music. Do you like Chinese football?”. We do like Chinese football, but we mean the rock band from Wuhan. The name of the band is of course a tribute to SMZB’s song, but the sound is closer to more traditional indie-rock bands. And it’s good. Maybe one of the best thing that happened to Wuhan after SMZB, with a bit of nostalgia for the 1980s in general and Game Boy in particular.
Wuhan Old New Wave – AV Okubo AV 大久保
AV Okubo is certainly one of the most famous post-rock band coming from Wuhan. Their first album, 大时代 was released in 2010 through Maybe Mars, and still represents a important milestone for Chinese rock. In 2014 they released their second album, Dynasty 一品国际, produced by Gang of Four’s original bassist, Andy Gill. The music video for their song “Break Wave” features Wu Wei, the singer of SMZB. So it’s good.
The Dirty Punx – Shochu Legion 烧酒军团
Shochu Legion 烧酒军团 is exactly what you think punk is – violent, dirty and rude. That’s why it’s good. I’ve seen tons of their performances, and each time they manage to turn the concert into a different kind of charivari. They play naked, with sunglasses shaped as dicks, without chords, etc. Their lyrics are gross and crude, but also very funny, and profundly critical of society and all kinds of authorities. They released independently 4 albums this decade, including the very good 和谐死了, “Harmony is Dead” – sometimes selling their albums in a USB key shaped as a bullet belt.
Demerit 过失, Ten Years Later, the Boys Came Back
The punk band Demerit released in 2008 an album that defined Chinese street-punk music for the coming decade. Bastards of the Nation was a milestone in Chinese punk rock history, and Spike, the singer, helped nurture an alternative music scene in Tongzhou, a suburb of Beijing, with his bar and live venue “DMC” (Dirty Monster Club). Recently, Spike returned to his hometown of Qingdao and opened a new DMC there. In 2018, after 10 years, Demerit released its long awaited second album, Out of the Fog. Not as important as their first one, but still, “the boys are coming back” indeed.
Don’t Forget Revenge with P-Town 皮痛
As for Demerit, I waited for P-Town 皮痛 second album for almost a decade. The hardcore band from Heifei (in Anhui province) is known for its energy and fighting spirit, embodied in their first E.P. released in 2009. They finally released a second E.P. in 2017, entitled 不要忘记复仇 (Don’t Forget Revenge). An angry attack of everything related to authority, including – of course – family, religion, or the government.
Shanghai Punk is Still Alive With Dirty Fingers 脏手指
Top Floor Circus is no more, but that doesn’t mean Shanghai punk is dead. Newcomers Dirty Fingers raise the bar of Shanghai punk with their witty, alcohol (and weed) infused songs. Even if they signed with Maybe Mars for their album How’d I Turn So Bad? released in 2017, Dirty Fingers is still committed to a strong DIY ethos. It reminds me of the early Diders, before they changed the line-up. The best things that happened to Shanghai in a long long time.
The Poet Yang Haisong and P.K.14
Yang Haisong was busy in the 2010s, between his job as a music producer for Maybe Mars, his tons of side-projects (Dear Eloise for instance, but also his project with Xie Yugang), or the two albums he released with his legendary band P.K.14. After the masterpiece City Weather Sailing released in 2008 (the best year for Chinese indie rock/punk/noise according to some people), P.K.14 had to reinvent themselves, since they reached the summit of what post-punk can possibly do. The 2010s was a decade of experimentation, for instance the album Music for An Exhibition, an improvised live set recorded at UCCA in 2015. Their 2013 album, 1984 was inspired by the Chinese political and social zeitgeist of the time, while What We Talk About When We Talk About His Name conveys a more urgent and distressed feeling.
Getting High in Sichuan With Hiperson
No, Sichuan is not only known for its thriving hip-hop scene, and for being the birthplace of Higher Brothers. It’s the other music capital, where a lot of post-rock, post-punk and noise musicians create new sounds, away from Beijing in a more relaxed atmosphere. Among this new generation of musicians, Hiperson is perhaps the most innovative and interesting, alongside South Acid Mimi from Kunming. produced by Yang Haisong, their last album, She Came Back From the Square is at the same time provocative, melancholic and totally contemporary. The voice of the frontwoman Chen Sijiang gains a new dimension, after their more classic 2015 album No Need For Another History.
All Star Punk Bands
Several punk bands came together this past decade to form “superbands”, bands composed of different well-known punk rockers. For instance, Banana Peel 香蕉皮, a old punk band composed of Liu Liu (ex-Demerit and 犯罪想法) and Lao Ma (ex-Brain Failure, current SMZB), who released a very good album in 2014, 魔鬼列车. The band Underdog 败犬, a punk/rockabilly/reggae band formed in 2016 by Chacha, Lao Ma and Guan Zheng from Casino Demon/Joyside, released a very good E.P. in 2018. Curry 3000 咖哩3000 is another punk superband, formed by Da Wangzi 大王梓 from The Human Centipede 人体蜈蚣, Li Peng 李鹏 from Reflector 反光镜, Jiang Yan 蒋晗 from 海龟先生 and Hayato from New Pants. They released in 2018 a 7’ vinyl with 6 very fast and very punk songs. In 2014, Fanzui Xiangfa 犯罪想法, a hardcore band composed of Liu Liu, Nevin and sometimes the Wuhan legend Mai Dian, released their complete discography: twenty-five 1 minute songs.
Chinese Hardcore Never Dies
The 2010s was definitely the decade of Chinese hardcore, with a lot a bands releasing CDs or songs online, plenty of Hardcore festivals (five different fests just last August!), thanks to CNHC (Chinese Hardcore), and lots of collaborations with Hong Kong hardcore bands. Among these bands, we have to mention SCOD (Speak Chinese or Die) led by the French singer Ben (who is also known for his side projects Milu and Digou), and their magnificent song “薄熙来，勃起来” (check also “Gao Caca”). The Beijing based hardcore band Struggle Session went on tour worldwide these past few years, and came back with plenty of 1 minutes songs. Own Up, Loudspeaker, Unregenerate Blood or Spill Your Guts are also worth checking. And of course, one of the best hardcore bands from the South, Disanxian from Shenzhen is still producing violent and political songs about Chinese contemporary society. In 2016, a compilation of Chinese hardcore and punk bands was released, entitled “Stand As One” – a double CD with the finest voices of the Chinese underground. Shout-out to the label TIC/Dying Art Production who released most of these albums, and produces a great deal of superb artworks.