The Times’ China Syndrome: Culture as Commodity

Last Sunday’s New York Times featured a front-page Arts & Leisure item on Western rock music breaking into the Chinese market (“For all the Rock in China,” Nov. 25) that should have been in the Business section:

Once largely closed to foreign music, the country has gradually loosened restrictions and — at a time when record sales in the West continue to plunge, and new sources of revenue have become essential — emerged as a crucial territory on pop’s global map.

“China is on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” said Peter Grosslight, worldwide head of music for the William Morris Agency. “There’s 1.3 billion people there. It’s becoming a much wealthier place. How can we ignore that?”

But can you ignore the fact that rock ‘n’ hip-hop — the mainstays of modern pop — were cultural and political phenomena before they were economic commodities?

The Times somehow does, glossing over the big-picture cultural impacts of Western music — the fads, fascinations, memes, behaviors, trends and dialogue that can spring up around it. The inherent radicalism of punk, metal, jazz, psychedelia and dance music (and we’re not just talkin’ “Footloose”) gets factored out of the equation.

Tiananmen Square Protestors, 1989

Even the article’s references to tour-circuit trailblazing in China by underground Western artists are more concerned with the financial and logistical issues than the vivid culture and politics of a live music scene:

Small bands can escape the notice of the Chinese government, but any band playing a gig above the club level will inevitably encounter the Ministry of Culture and its censors. Every lyric on a CD and every song planned for a live performance must be approved to obtain the necessary permits for a concert or retail release of an album. Approval can take months, and the ministry has a way of undercutting the best-laid plans of global promotional campaigns.

If they’re too marginal for even the Ministry of Culture to worry about, why dig any deeper?

China is the future, the Times observes, and sees that future in terms of “Long Boom” economic utopianism — with the formerly Maoist dictatorship as a virgin market in need only of improved copyright laws … and where issues of censorship are given a “you can’t fight city hall” kind of shrug:

Censorship can rear its head in less obvious ways. When Sonic Youth played Beijing in April, its hand-picked opening act, a Chinese band called Carsick Cars, was taken off the bill at the last minute. No explanation was given, but Thurston Moore, one of Sonic Youth’s guitarists, said he suspected the government had been alerted to his band’s participation in the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the United States in the 1990s and was offering an oblique punishment.

“Who do you argue with?” Mr. Moore said after returning home. “You don’t. If you argue, you go to jail.”

Wait! Tell me more about that. Who DO you argue with? What happens to a Chinese band that get censored? How many strikes before you’re out?

And — in a land of environmental decline, economic turmoil, political oppression and a recent history of revolutionary communism — just what are those bands trying to sing about, anyway?

The flip side of that coin gets even more uncomfortable.

How complicit will Western pop purveyors be to the demands of Chinese censors? How will Western artists be required to silence themselves or alter their works? Which ones will be barred entirely?

What more does Thurston Moore — one of the most important musicians of this or any era — have to say about this ethical dilemma?

There is no such inquiry. Just visions of greenbacks and up-sloping sales charts.

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