A few weeks ago, I sent an email to Pitchfork Media. It was long, perhaps too long to warrant a reply, and I didn’t expect to get one. I was basically drawing attention to the fact that there are no mentions of Chinese bands on their website, at least as far as I found as I trawled the archives.
Slagging off Pitchfork is of no interest to me. Criticisms of the their editorial style and musical tastes are fair and well-spoken for. The fact remains that, as a critical and promotional vehicle, Pitchfork Media has considerable clout and has been able, through enthusiastic coverage, have a very positive influence on the careers of a number of musicians.
So I tapped out a subject for my email (“Who gets blessed?”) and sent it away, with no expectation of reply and a single, central question: if China is fast becoming a dominant economic, geopolitical and cultural power, how does it make any sense for no Chinese bands to get mentioned on the website?
I should have written one more question that I didn’t think of at the time. If Chinese music – or at least the music I concern myself with – so exemplifies artistic and commercial independence, how can it be of no interest to a leading independent music publication?
Not long after sending it – very much to their credit – I got a (short) reply from one of Pitchfork’s editors. He didn’t answer my question at all. He probably didn’t have time. But he did ask me which bands I would recommend.
So I rattled off a few, mostly the well-established Beijing bands. I added that they were not really my sort of thing, and sent him links to bands that were: Duck Fight Goose, Pairs, Next Year’s Love and Boys Climbing Ropes. I could have said more, but didn’t really want to push it. A good mixture of artistic and local significance, I thought, as I sent the email. I didn’t expect a reply this time, either.
But just a few days ago, I got a reply. It was terse as the first email, and said that he’s not really into any of these bands. Let him know if I could think of any more. I thanked him in my polite way, and left it at that.
The response – the complete lack of it – didn’t surprise me. I’d never expected anything more. But the outright dismissal started to nag at me after a short time, and upon reflection I find his response seriously lacking in foresight, if not civility.
There are no bands in Shanghai (China, as well?) who really satisfy Pitchfork’s particular editorial preference for Johnny Two-Hats, hipster quirk. They talk about all kinds of music, and a lot of music I really like, but there is a consistent air of vague ‘indieness’ that surrounds a lot of the musicians they write about. It’s a legitimate editorial policy, I suppose, but it does seem to water down the ideal of independence into a fashionable, saleable thing.
An adopted shabbiness, a wild – but concerted – grasping at that which is fashionably odd. Trying to seems like you don’t give a fuck, rather than just plain not giving a fuck. The music I know and love in Shanghai, and other cities too I’m sure, demonstrates a true independent spirit. It’s rooted in a DIY ethic, commercial constraint, proactive and direct relationships with local audiences and music that seeks to honestly reflect – if not always successfully – the local environment that inspires and supports it. Independent, not hipster-indie.
While it would be nice, and supremely helpful, if international media took an active interest in what’s happening here, the unfortunate fact is that journalists, whatever they happen to be writing about, tend to look for subjects that match their preconceptions, so they might better fit the story’s narrative (and hence the journalist’s own ambitions and ends).
Just after I came to China, I caught an episode of Australia’s Foreign Correspondent. It’s mostly an excellent and long-running investigative journalism program. The episode was about the sustainability of economic growth in China.
It wasn’t about music, but the reporter interviewed the band members of Rustic to get their thoughts on China’s economic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get much.
(Just to clarify: aside from the fact that I don’t like their music, I’m not criticising Rustic here. I know I bring them up a lot, but this is a criticism of the journalist for his poor investigative judgement.)
The reporter (who is otherwise really good at what he does) could easily have found other bands in Beijing; bands who could have provided a more nuanced contribution to the issue, as well as given an incidental but important hint at the more subversive side of music in China. But that wouldn’t have fit the story. The reporter, his producers, the audience – whoever – wanted a carefree group of young chaps to provide a glamorized, obligatory voice of “hope” in the report.
You see it all the time; it’s a convention of contemporary investigative journalism. The grocer in the Gaza strip, and how his daily struggle is symptomatic of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. The family doctor in outback Australia, and how his life reveals the lack of government funding of isolated medical practices. The youthful band members of Rustic, and how they represent the emergence of China onto the world stage.
Why can’t the grocer just be a grocer, the doctor a doctor and the musicians musicians? Why shape the subjects into representations, and editorialize every word they say, when you can just show them as they are, and let others make their own conclusions?
The problem, in the case of the story with Rustic, was that it made the idea of expression through music in China seem farcical. Something whimsical and glamorous, bordering on artificial.
So. A prejudiced and compromised international media. High profile independent music publications that don’t much care for independence, but rather a commoditized ‘indie’. Where does this leave bands in Shanghai?
Well, not in such a bad state, based on a fairly incredible month of musical prowling I’ve been doing. I will write about that another time – but not here! Bloody hell, not now. I’ve gone on long enough (this is why I don’t write very often).
Given all this, the overriding questions is: does music here need external legitimacy and patronage? I would argue that it probably doesn’t, but that it also would hurt. In an interview after their recent tour of the US and their show at SXSW, Han Han from Duck Fight Goose said how “you always think that as a Chinese, the foreign band will always be better. But I’ve seen that it’s not true.”
And it’s not fucking true. I found the same thing when I returned to Sydney last year and saw a few local bands. There is great music being produced in Shanghai just as anywhere else, and some of it is truly, astoundingly good. Stalin Gardens (pictured) are the latest band to really amaze me. Another post, another time, I guess. Also – and their Douban page is a bit ambiguous about this – but I think, I think they may be looking for a drummer, and it would be your privilege to play with them.
That’s not all. Bands have been coming up with really nifty ideas to engage their fans, and draw in new ones. Giving them something more, as a friend said to me the other day. And it does compel me – should compel everyone – to appreciate what we do have, which is a truly independent music community. No arts grants or hipster-journo blessings or earnest news reporting, but some great grassroots initiatives. And the music, always the music.