Fascinating things happen, the Pussy Riot trial reminds us, when music is used to give the finger to a stagnant government — especially an authoritarian one. In light of this, and the recent uptick in works (such as Slate editor William J. Dobson’s “The Dictator’s Learning Curve“) arguing convincingly that the 2012 incarnations of still-Communist China and post-Communist Russia have more in common than anyone imagined, I was interested in learning more about possible parallels between the Pussy Riot phenomenon and Chinese punks, rebels, and rockers. So I shot off an email full of questions to Jonathan Campbell. Why turn to him? Because he spent 10 years living among, writing about, promoting, and playing the music of rockers in Beijing and is the author of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (see Ali Pechman’s review here).
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: When contemporary China analogies have been brought up in coverage of the Pussy Riot trial, commentators have tended to veer away from music. For example, some have compared Pussy Riot’s in-your-face form of dissent to that of Ai Weiwei and noted that, again, an authoritarian state’s repressive moves have increased the global fame of the person or people being punished. There have also been some references to Pussy Riot’s “show trial” taking place at the same time as that of Gu Kailai, a very different figure, of course, accused of a very different crime. Is there any parallel related to censorship and dissent, and contemporary Chinese music, that comes to mind for you? Or, if not, any thoughts on the Ai Weiwei analogy?
JONATHAN CAMPBELL: I think that what unites Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot, and some of China’s most interesting and noteworthy rockers is that socialist legacy of the responsibility of artists to be examples to society, to use their art to make a difference. Looking at the closing statements of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, it’s clear that this is not just about punk rock.
JW: Are there ways, though, that you think the Ai Weiwei analogy doesn’t work?
JC: The main point at which the Ai Weiwei analogy fails for me is that he became a big international deal for his work, and, perhaps more so, for speaking out, rather than for being suppressed — that unlike Pussy Riot, who were not well known prior to this incident, Ai already had a degree of fame, though I would agree that his arrest and various punishments certainly increased that.
Also, I think that in the Chinese context, the reaction to dissent, musical or otherwise, is far more insidious than in Pussy Riot’s case. In Russia, the trio has been charged with a crime and put on trial; the line they crossed is pretty clear. In China, however, that line is never clear. There’s the old Sinologist saw about the anaconda in the chandelier that’s apt: the dinner party goes on below, each guest fully aware of what’s coiled up above, and not 100% sure of what might cause an attack — though sure of the general sorts of things that might make the snake emerge.
JW: Can you give a concrete example of what you mean?
JC: Take Ai Weiwei. Instead of putting him on trial, the punishment is far more sinister: his life is made ever more difficult at every turn. We’ve seen this before in the musical context. When Cui Jian, the man who invented yaogun (Chinese rock) was experiencing the worst of his run-ins with officialdom through the nineties, nobody ever told him, or anyone else, that he was banned from the stage. But anyone that wanted to put on a Cui Jian concert was met with conditions that made it impossible to do so.
Similarly, music festivals have not so much been cancelled because of specifics as much as they have been impossible to stage in advance of important events, for fear of ‘trouble’. In the lead-up to a change in leadership, or to major political meetings, the Beijing Olympics or the Shanghai Expo, organizers know to withdraw applications. Those that don’t get the hint see permissions/permits denied and proverbial plugs pulled, often at the last minute. It’s never about specific “hooliganism,” but about general societal harmoniousness.
JW: How else does this affect music?
JC: Lyrics are examined before any records are released — released officially, that is — so the worst that happens to folks that say something bad tends to be that their album is not approved for release until things are cleaned up. And folks that want to say the kinds of things that get censored don’t tend to officially release records.
JW: Getting back to Pussy Riot, are there any direct analogies in Chinese rock that come to mind?
The one band that I think provides a parallel with Pussy Riot is Pangu, the extremely political Chinese punk band that I write about in Red Rock and at my own blog. They name names and point fingers, but have done so, since 2004, from outside of Mainland China. En route back to China after a performance in Taiwan where they played at a “Say Yes to Taiwan” event and expressed their support for a Taiwan independent from China, they realized that returning home would be dangerous, and sought asylum in Sweden.
JW: There have also been historical references raised online tying Pussy Riot to, for example, the activities of Central European rockers Plastic People, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that in China’s case, rock and politics got tightly entangled during the 1989 protests, and you deal with this in Red Rock. What stands out as some basic things it might be useful to readers unfamiliar with the history of rock in China to know about music and the Tiananmen moment?
JC: Brian Eno, talking about Plastic People, said that the difference between those living behind the Iron Curtain and those of us in the West was that they “believed in the power of art [. . .] They believed, that it could make a difference.” Note that this applies to both the authorities and to artists equally. And I think that’s an important thing to appreciate when looking into the political angle on Chinese rock and roll. It’s also important to contextualize what has been happening in China for the past 40 years: they’ve gone from being sealed off from the world under an authoritarian regime to a slowly-opening socialist society to madcap free-market wild-west capitalism with regular shifts back and forth along the spectrum in between.
JW: How do the events and music of the mid-to-late 1980s fit in here?
JC: Cui Jian, who birthed Chinese rock in 1986, had an intense and widespread effect on ears, hearts and minds across the country at a time when those ears, hearts and minds were searching, on an existential level, for meaning in a world that was being reinvented out from underneath. So when you have a rocker like Cui insinuating that there might be someone with “Nothing to My Name” — the title of his first and still-much-loved song — at a time when the Official line was that everyone has exactly what they require, it has an effect beyond simply appealing to the ears. He didn’t say anything directly — he never has — but he hasn’t had to; his role has always been to get people thinking.
What was happening in yaogun was setting the scene for 1989 [Tiananmen Square Protests] — it’s not that yaogun caused 1989, but that yaogun was one of the things brewing over the period leading up to it: the arts, culture, academia…all of it was opening up and allowing people to hear and experience and think about new things, from pop music to art exhibitions, academic debate and more. It was in that spirit that things culminated in the Square in June, when people believed that the time was ripe for having conversations about the possibilities of the future.
Cui and others did perform in the Square, and certainly, everyone remotely interested in rock was there at some point. “Nothing to My Name” was certainly on the proverbial playlist — but so was “Frere Jacques” (with altered and politicized lyrics) and “The Internationale.”
JW: And after the Massacre, how did things change?
JC: It was a real surprise to discover how things changed in the tragedy’s wake. The country found out what happens when things go too far — the snake jumped out, did its damage, and, eventually, ducked back behind the lights. But the party didn’t just continue, it got a bit more exciting: the food and the booze improved, the guest list expanded, but, as always, the snake hovered. Yaogun benefitted in several ways from the post-‘89 situation: Stadium concerts happened and record labels emerged, because there was money to be made, and money-making and –spending was now deemed A-Okay; it proved to be just the distraction that people needed.
JW: Focusing on punk, when did it first make an impact on the Chinese music scene?
JC: After Kurt Cobain died, punk, via grunge, started to seep more widespread through the Chinese underground. In 1996, a book on Cobain galvanized a lot of kids across the country. The real ‘explosion’ happened in Beijing starting in 1996 and ‘97 and was aided by foreign residents with hardcore punk tape collections (like David O’Dell, who just wrote a memoir from that period). Within a couple years, crowds at punk gigs were equally split between fans there to see the show and journalists eager to tell the world about the Chinese punk scene. The first posse of bands was the Boredom Brigade (Wuliao jundui): their two-disc release from 1999 provides a great window into that era.
JW: What stands out to you as significant about Chinese punk groups?
JC: One of the things that’s interesting to me is how many of these bands are dealing with an intense patriotism alongside their beliefs. They know there are problems, but they believe, deeply, that there are domestic solutions and strategies. And they also believe that they are critical — if they are perceived as such — because of their love of their country and their desire to make it a better place.
I think that one important element is that, like a lot of yaogun, Chinese punks managed, despite serious linguistic and cultural boundaries, to get at the music’s power and potential in a way that their contemporaries in the West (me, for example) never did. They were reacting to societal situations, but, in punk’s earliest days, they were also reacting to the state of yaogun, where the biggest acts in the country were filling stadiums and instead of being music for the people, it became more of an elite club that not everyone seemed able to join. It was more an expression of “I want to do this” versus “I want to say something,” though it is important to note, in the process of wanting to do something, and doing something, they wound up saying something, and something important. Particularly in the eighties and nineties, but even today, young Chinese weren’t and aren’t necessarily aware that there are other options besides that which is expected of you.
JW: Any final Chinese parallels or contrasts relating to music, censorship, protest, or feminism that recent events in Russia have brought to mind?
JC: I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about Pangu; their desire to get their message out in a way that is similar to Pussy Riot. Certainly if anyone is going to host a Punk Prayer-type action, it would be Pangu, but they haven’t been inside China for some time. Nonetheless, they have release countless albums recently full of urgent messages for their fellow Chinese. One interesting thing about them is that a lot of yaogunners have strong feelings against them — not that they necessarily disagree with them, but that they disagree with their methods.
I think the real parallel here is in Pussy Riot’s concept of punk rock and the way that they, like the best and most interesting yaogun, see in that delivery system the ability to make statements and do things. Having looked at yaogun in depth, what is most inspiring to me is the way in which its practitioners really believe that rock and roll can change the world. Here in the West, we see that statement as a cheese-laden remnant of a sixties dream that never made it out of the decade. There, though, it’s still a force for change.
The way that the rock-and-roll-as-potential-democractic-savior narrative is unrolling all over Pussy Riot is fueling the international attention; even though most of us don’t believe in rock like we used to, we’re hopeful and excited when we see it in action elsewhere. I share in that hope, but I also see another: Just wait until people get a load of yaogun.