MAY 21, 2016
IN A LOOK BACK at music in 2015, The New York Times cited “muchness” as a defining factor, finding, in celebrated records by Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Titus Andronicus, and others, a new trend toward epic releases. Another record came out that should be added to the list: Frozen Light by Cui Jian (ts-way jen). CJ is China’s Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Chuck D. In 1986, a point in China’s history when the outside world had only just appeared on the horizon as something other than an ideological foe, he literally taught a billion people to rock.
The silence of the international music community in response to the album is in marked contrast to CJ’s massive popularity across China and the diaspora. But in the 30 years since he introduced China to rock ’n’ roll, English-language news of his work was once again just that: news. CJ has been the regular subject of news profiles in the Western press, but of scant musical criticism. With Frozen Light another AP profile made the rounds, once again managing to say nothing about the actual music.
I’m trying to imagine another instance in which a new release from a major rock musician was covered only under “news.” Rock ’n’ roll is supposed to free us from the constraints of categories, and whether it’s a new record by CJ or David Bowie shouldn’t matter: the music press has a responsibility to both as important figures in the world of music (and, in both cases, beyond). As China fills news and business sections, CJ represents something more than just a neglected rock star from some foreign land. He represents a unique and powerful vessel for cross-cultural understanding. And that he happens to have made an excellent record is not just incidental to his story. As always, without the music, there is no story.
China Learns (to) Rock
Cui Jian was born in 1961, the son of a dancer and a trumpet player. Thanks to China’s Maoist-Marxist worldview, the pursuit of the arts was a noble undertaking, providing the People and the Revolution with a kind of intellectual nourishment equivalent to that provided by the farmer. CJ took up the trumpet, and by the time he was 20, was a member of the song-and-dance troupe that would eventually become the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. He heard Western music that trickled into the country via cassette tapes, made possible by China’s new ability to visit the outside world, and for the outside world to visit China.
In 1984, he formed a band that covered Western pop tunes; in 1986, his first solo cover album launched him onto the pop landscape: he was named one of the Hundred Stars, the 107-member supergroup China put together to enter into the pop-stars-gather-for-a-cause fray. Their cause was World Peace and their song, the 17-minute opus “Let the World Be Full of Love,” debuted almost exactly 30 years ago, on May 9, 1986, at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, and was televised to the nation. Several Stars, including CJ, were given a chance to perform their own work. The song he performed, “Nothing to My Name,” remains his most popular, and is the point at which yaogun (rock ’n’ roll) was introduced in China.
In order to understand just how powerful the song’s effect upon the country was, it’s helpful to note the vacuum from which yaogun, and CJ’s fame (and infamy), came. In “Let the World Be Full of Love,” not long after the tune transitions from cheese-laden piano ballad to a MIDI-powered disco-doo-wop-via-Mariachi section, CJ sings, “This world is changing / It only longs to never change.” The foreshadowing and irony contained in the line couldn’t have been more apt, as the ascent of “Nothing to My Name” and CJ’s yaogun went on to prove.
It is clear from the start that “Nothing to My Name” is an altogether different species than the song he and his 106 fellow Stars sang. The title alone separated it from the cheery good-tidings pop of the day, and it contained a tone to match. “I have asked you endlessly,” CJ’s voice, full of gravel and strain, proclaims in its opening, “When will you go with me / But you always laugh at me / Nothing to my name.” The song’s title, a Chinese idiom, is the source of its impact. It’s borrowed from another well-known tune, the Chinese version of “The Internationale:” “Don’t say we have nothing (to our names) / We’ll be masters of the world!” In May 1986, few Chinese would not have been intimately familiar with the idiom and its context — not to mention with the idea that “having nothing” was the opposite of what the Party promised its people.
(This poor-quality recording of that May 9, 1986, performance of “Nothing to My Name” offers a sense of how most Chinese eager for new music would have heard a lot of the music: copies of copies of copies passed around and played literally into the ground.)
The song’s impact was immediate. “It was as if (people) had been waiting and longing for something,” said Liang Heping, who played keyboards in CJ’s backing band that night, “and finally someone sang it out.” These were fraught times. Citizens, the Communist Party, and Chinese communism generally struggled in the wake of Mao Zedong’s death and the country’s sudden, creeping emergence into an unknown world. The psychological toll was severe, and CJ provided the couch. With his debut album, 1989’s Rock ’n’ Roll on the New Long March, a gauntlet was thrown, and a mission announced. Yaogun would provide the soundtrack to the next national movement.
CJ’s trouble with the authorities started early, soon after his May 1986 performance. His music was targeted in the campaign against bourgeois liberalization, and he was prevented from performing for a time in the late ’80s. His performance for the hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 would have had much more serious repercussions upon his career had he not, in the wake of the tragedy of the Square, arranged a concert tour with the authorities’ blessing. That tour, which had initially been planned around his just-released album, transformed into one raising awareness and funds for the upcoming Asian Games, which were to be held in Beijing in 1990. The tour, though, was cancelled by authorities after four cities’ worth of stadium shows: audiences were clearly still reeling from the events of 1989, and were less entertained by CJ than galvanized, their angst, anger, and frustration given physical, emotional, and psychological release. Seeing CJ’s effect on the masses, there was little the authorities could do but pull the plug.
As yaogun blossomed in China’s heady ’90s, things were difficult, but not unproductive for CJ: he released three albums that added complexity to his music — hip-hop and a unique mixture of traditional Chinese elements in particular — and toured the world while unable to perform in his hometown of Beijing or promote his albums in the mainstream media. He produced some of his best and most affecting work, continuing to express that which his country discovered it desperately needed expressing.
“Piece of Red Cloth” (Solution, 1990), was a scathing, if barely metaphoric, indictment: “That day you took a piece of red cloth / Covered-up my eyes and covered-up the sky,” he sang, often acting out the lyrics. “This feeling made me so tranquil / It made me forget I have no place to live.” “Balls Under the Red Flag” (Balls Under the Red Flag, 1994): “Money flutters in the air / We have no ideals […] Our personalities are all rounded / Like balls under the red flag.” “Slackers” (Power of the Powerless, 1998): “These days, money is worth more than any education. / Whoever says life is hard is an idiot. / If you just think a little and grease the gears a little, you can get it done.”
CJ came back into favor with the authorities thanks in large part to a campaign against, oddly enough, lip-synching. Officialdom’s take on the campaign was commercial — a sign of the changing “Chinese characteristics” affecting local socialism if there ever was one: audiences buying tickets to hear their favorite artists are ripped off by lip-synching. For CJ, though, something different, though never explicitly communicated, was likely the impetus. As in all of his work, his role is to encourage authentic feeling and independent thought. If the singing’s fake, he never directly suggested people ask, what else might be?
The Muchness of Frozen Light
There’s some atypical CJ on Frozen Light, though hardcore and early won fans would say that everything’s been atypical since he started to diverge from the rockers and rock ballads of his early years. His last record, Show You Colour, was especially tough for that contingent: first, the eight-year wait, and then the discovery of its heavy reliance on electronics. The electronics remain an important element on Frozen Light, but, for much of the record, CJ lets the more familiar rock instruments take the lead. And like Show You Colour, with each listen, it becomes increasingly clear that what we’re seeing on Frozen Light is not a return to form, because there was never a departure. It just took him a while to put out his second record of the 21st century. Frozen Light is another station on the march that began 30 years ago, and CJ doesn’t just prove that he’s older and wiser than his fellow yaogunners, but that he’s more contemporary, and still the only one worthy of leading the charge.
Like much of CJ’s work, the album communicates what China sounds, and feels, like, and as anyone who’s visited in the last couple decades can tell you, “muchness” only goes part of the way to describing the feeling of being there. It’s an overwhelming, somewhat disorienting, rollicking rush to the future with an ever-present, subtle, connection to the past.
Public Enemy, the Police, and the Carpenters defined CJ’s work as much as the two longest-standing members of his band: one, a saxophonist (and other reed/wind instruments Chinese and Western) — Clarence, to CJ’s Bruce — started as a folk musician and has become China’s jazz guru; the other a happy-go-lucky Madagascan guitarist and bassist whose influence on the sound and tastes of the early rock scene belies and defies the country’s obsession and difficulties with all things foreign. This combination is the source of Frozen Light’s muchness.
Before you’re settled into the folk-strummy opening of the titular and opening track, CJ’s gone to full-on muchness, with choral additions that invoke U2’s Rattle and Hum. What might seem like flirtation with the line between epic and cheesy is actually a confident march squarely on the side of the former, and it colors the whole album.
CJ’s is a hard rock that embraces not just sincerity and grandeur, but the power of a rock song carefully constructed. Those tuned only to the frequency of irony will surely smirk in response to his ballads — they could be construed as “epic” in the way a Journey song might. But CJ knows the power of rock ’n’ roll; it changed his life, his country, and his world, and it can — and should — change yours, too.
The way CJ conceives of and employs rock ’n’ roll is in great contrast to the lo-fi and unvarnished sounds of younger Chinese bands making waves inside and outside of China — bands whose music will sound familiar to fans of indie rock. Familiar, though, has never been what CJ’s been after, and the value of his music is not simply in demonstrating the variety of yaogun. The value of CJ’s music, and of Frozen Light in particular, is in demonstrating what rock ’n’ roll music is capable. Frozen Light is not just the sound of China: it’s the sound of rock ’n’ roll’s potential.
Jonathan Campbell promoted, presented, performed, and chronicled a range of music while based in Beijing from 2000–2010. He is the author of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw Books, 2011), and currently lives in Toronto, where he continues to work and live in the music world.