WESTERN POP MUSIC, WHAM, BJORK, THE ROLLING STONES AND BOB DYLAN IN CHINA

WESTERN POP AND ROCK MUSIC IN CHINA

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Wham in China
The Carpenters was one of the first groups to be officially sanctioned to play in China. Some say it was the "beginning of the opening of China." Today, muzak, Simon and Garfunkle and Richard Clayderman and very popular.

The first Western rock group to perform in China was Wham! (See Above). People who got up to dance during their April 1985 concert were taken away by the police. Yanni was granted permission to perform in the Forbidden City in Beijing but the Rolling Stones weren't. The Rolling Stones did their first gig in China in Shanghai in April 2006 but were told not to sing some of sexually-suggestive hits. The Culture Ministry restricted the band from performing five songs: “Beast of Burden,” “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Rough Justice.”

Jan and Dean are very popular in China and the Little Old Lady from Pasadena sells well as a pirated cassette. At a Jan and Dean concert in 1986 in Shanghai, the aging performers invited some students on stage to dance. The students had a good time at the show but afterwards they were taken away by police and beaten for "being disruptive."

The Sex Pistols' John Lydon played in China early 2013 and Metallica appearing in Shanghai in August the same year. Celine Dion and Chinese female singer Song Zuying performed a duet of "Molihua" at the 2013 CCTV New Year's Gala. Kurt Cobain is regarded by some Chinese as something of a hero. On the streets of Shanghai it possible to buy CDs by Nirvana as well Pink Floyd, Sting, The Strokes and Bon Jovi for a little as 50 cents a piece.

Recent Visits by Western Pop Artists in China

Britney Spears is very popular among young men and male teenagers. In June 2004, the Culture Ministry approved a Chinese tour by Spears as long as she didn’t reveal too much. A state-run news agency reported, “Relevant departments will carry strict revues of Britney Spears’ clothing.

Beyoncé came in late 2009, Usher in July 2010, but most of the recent foreign acts have been B-list. Christina Aguilera was given a green light to perform but a performance by rapper Jay-Z was canceled because some of his lyrics were deemed “vulgar.” A video by Green Day was because banned because of provocative images of U.S. army personnel. Some felt Madonna’s Hung Up video was vulgar. in 2009, Oasis were told they were “unsuitable” to play in Beijing and Shanghai as Noel Gallagher had appeared at a Tibet freedom concert 12 years earlier.

In March 2008, the Iceland pop singer Bjork shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” after performing the song “Declare Independence”. Censors and ordinary Chinese were appalled. Some people in the audience walked out. Most appeared to have not understood what said, Internet chatter in China on the issue was generally negative. A posting on the Culture of Ministry website said that Bjork “broke Chinese law and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.” Censors pledged to exert tighter controls over foreign performs in the future.

In the early 2000s, Korean pop music became very popular in China. In the mid 2000s, Taiwan’s Jay Chou was one of the biggest pop acts in China. Regarded as the king of “mado-pop,” he mixes pop, hip-hop and Chinese style R&B and had a big hit in 2007 with the single Still Fantasy. The Japanese artists Glay and Kinkie Kids have topped the charts in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Glay played before 35,000 fans in Beijing in October 2002.

A concert by the Japanese pop group SMAP at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 was canceled because of ‘security concerns” caused by a large number of "raps."

The Chinese government exercises tight control of live performances by foreign artists in China. It requires artists to submit detailed lists of songs, casts and crew members before approval is given. Censors increased scrutiny after singer Bjork shouted "Tibet, Tibet" at the close of a song titled "Declare Independence" at a Shanghai performance in 2008. [Ibid]

Bob Dylan in China

In April 2010, a planned tour of east Asia by Bob Dylan was cancelled after the Culture Ministry did not give the needed approvals to play in Beijing and Shanghai. Jeffrey Wu, of Taiwan-based promoters Brokers Brothers Herald, told The Guardian the 2010 shows were cancelled because authorities were wary of Dylan's past as countercultural icon. Wu said officials had become more cautious since Björk chanted “Tibet! Tibet!” after performing a song called Declare Independence in Shanghai in 2008.”What Björk did definitely made life very difficult for other performers. They are very wary of what will be said by performers on stage now,” Wu said [Source:Peter Walker, The Guardian, April 4, 2010]

The Hollywood Reporter quoted Kelly Cha, a young Beijing-based musician, as saying: "Dylan has probably got more fans than all the other acts that have visited China from overseas."

In 2011, Bob Dylan played two dates in China: in Beijing on April 6 and Shanghai April 8. Chinese promoters said: "These Bob Dylan concerts are destined to be one of the year's major tours and a musical event of depth, grace and greatness." It almost didn’t happen as Dylan’s promoters and the government censors haggled over what songs would be included.

Dylan, who turned 70 on 24 May 2011, performed at the 12,000-seat indoor Beijing Workers Gymnasium and at the 8,000-seat Shanghai Grand Theater. Tickets ranged in price from 280 yuan ($42) each to 1,961.411 yuan ($300), a figure paying tribute to Dylan's show with blues singer John Lee Hooker in New York on 11 April 1961.

Initially officials refused to give the singer permission to play. Why? One former culture ministry official, Shi Baojun, told the Guardian it may have had the result of some new thinking at the Chinese embassy in Washington, where officials pore over the record of any artist hoping to play in China, examining their biography, opinions and---above all---previous comments on China. "As personnel change all the time, changes in decisions often only reflect who is in charge. Some are bold, some are cautious," Shi said. "You have to understand, the government's always balancing the need to look liberal with the need to keep control...They have so many audiences, and there's often no point in looking for logic because there isn't much, or any." [Source: Martin Wieland, The Guardian, April 6, 2011]

Other said the Chinese government and Dylan agreed to a concert “performed with the approved content”---in which Dylan agreed not to play songs with rebellious themes such as “Blowin” in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin?”“ After the concerts were over Dylan said he didn’t bow to pressure from the Chinese government to play songs they didn’t want him to play.


Bob Dylan in Shanghai

Bob Dylan in Beijing

During the Beijing concert Dylan wore a stetson and drainpipe trousers with a military yellow stripe down the side. Martin Wieland of The Guardian wrote: “He still has the same tripping, graceful step, although he handles his voice with care now, as if it's a fragile instrument he doesn't quite trust. Still, as he growled, rasped, whooped and slides through his repertoire, the attack and the attitude were still, as ever, disconcerting and compelling...The setlist featured some Dylan standards, greeted with enthusiasm by the audience---“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate” . He also showcased some more recent work---Lovesick, Thunder on the Mountain, Beyond Here Lies Nothin'. [Source: Martin Wieland, The Guardian, April 6, 2011]

Keith B. Richburg wrote in Washington Post, “Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, April 7, 2011]

“Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list---which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos---was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones...In Taiwan...Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.” But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick’ in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.” [Ibid]

“Among those in the crowd for the concert Wednesday night at the Workers’ Gymnasium was an artist, surnamed Qi, who watched Dylan’s show and afterward said, “China is really unthinkable. You know the artist Ai Weiwei? Somebody can lose his freedom, and you can go see a show by Bob Dylan who sings about freedom.” Qi shook his head and said, “It’s very strange.” For many of the Chinese fans in the audience, the concert was the chance to see an American icon in person---even if they didn’t understand the songs or even know much about his legacy. “It’s great. Perfect,” said a young woman named Hao Wen, 23, who works for a movie production company. “But he doesn’t speak.” Another young woman, Ilaria, 23, a student, said, “He didn’t sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I was waiting for that song.” [Ibid]

“The audience included a large percentage of foreigners, members of Beijing’s expatriate community and many of them baby boomers who grew up with Dylan’s music. Most of the crowd seemed pleased, if not overwhelmed. The applause was polite but not sustained. And the most popular songs were the old-time crowd favorites, like “Highway 61" and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” [Ibid]

Weiland wrote guy in his early 30s sitting next to me, Song Xiao Feng, remarked coolly: "We're not here for the music, we're here for the legend.". One Chinese man behind me said: "He's not singing, he's talking." As Dylan left, a young Chinese man, Gong Ping, used a distinctive Chinese word of respect: "People say he's out of date, but he has experience and wisdom. He's a 'sheng ren'---a sage, like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King." As the audience clapped and cheered at the end, the feeling was that we had seen a unique event, the first, and perhaps last, of its kind in China. [Weiland, Op. Cit]

Elton John Dedicates Beijing Show To Ai Weiwei

In November 2012, AP reported: “Pop icon Elton John publicly dedicated his only concert in Beijing to Chinese artist and political critic Ai Weiwei, sending a murmur of shock through an audience accustomed to tight censorship of entertainment. Minutes into a more than two-hour show Sunday night, John told the audience that the performance was dedicated "to the spirit and talent of Ai Weiwei," according to several audience members. They said the crowd rumbled in recognition that Ai remains a touchy subject for the Chinese government. [Source: AP, November 26, 2012]

An internationally acclaimed sculptor and installation artist, Ai has used his art and his renown to draw attention to social injustice. He was detained for nearly three months last year, and he remains barred from leaving China. [Ibid]

Ai and John met each other briefly on Sunday before the concert. "I super like him, although we only spent 10 minutes together. Sincere, generous" Ai said on his feed on Twitter, which is banned in China but on which he has 180,000 followers. China-based online media sites reported on John's Beijing show, as they did on a performance in Shanghai, but they did not report John's remark about Ai. [Ibid]

The South China Morning Post reported: “In front of a sold-out concert at the MasterCard Centre the British singer dedicated his “whole show” to Ai, who for many years has been mainland officials” public enemy No 1.Chinese netizens were quick to draw parallels with a similar incident involving a foreign pop star and a touchy political issue. Icelandic pop sensation Bjork was slammed by China's Foreign Ministry in 2008 after she innocuously dedicated the song Declare Independence to the Tibetan independence movement at a Shanghai concert. [Source: South China Morning Post, November 26, 2012]

China’s Culture Ministry accused the singer of “hurting Chinese people’s feelings” and vowed to keep closer tabs on foreign artists performing in the country. Sir Elton’s high-profile shout-out would probably have irked the Culture Ministry but he is unlikely to receive the same amount heat as Bjork did in 2008, who made her comment during the politically-charged period ahead of the Beijing Olympics. “Now, if he had donned black shades and shouted, 'Chen Guang-f*****n’-cheng, amirite” ' we might have a problem,” wrote one blogger, referring to blind legal activist Chen Guang-cheng. [Ibid]

AFP reported: “The Global Times---a top Chinese daily---condemned pop star Elton John for dedicating his Beijing show to dissident artist Ai Weiwei, saying it was disrespectful and could lead to bans on other Western performers. "John’s unexpected action was disrespectful to the audience and the contract that he signed with the Chinese side," the Global Times said in an editorial. "He forcibly added political content to the concert, which should have been nothing more than an entertaining performance." [Source: AFP, November 28, 2012]

"John’s action will also make the relevant agencies further hesitate in the future when they invite foreign artists," said the Global Times, a paper run by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily. "John himself is a senior entertainment figure, but has raised difficulties for future arts exchanges between China and other countries."

John return to China a week later to do a concert in the southern city of Guangzhou, following shows in South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The event was not cancelled. But the Global Times suggested "that Chinese audiences need not hesitate to protest the provocateur and boo him off the stage". Ai said he welcomed the editorial because it was a rare instance of state-run media mentioning his name and reporting on controversial issues that are routinely censored. "I’m quite happy they did this, at least they are starting to talk about the things that a lot of people think about," Ai said. "They [the paper] realise that they need to have their own voice and that they can’t remain silent all the time" on controversial issues censored by the authorities. [Ibid]

Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy”

In November 2008, Guns N’ Roses released their first album in 17 years, provocatively titled “Chinese Democracy”. In China, censors tried to black access to some web sites related to the album although others, including Guns N’ Roses home page remained accessible. Reaction to the album by critics and by Chinese who heard it---or heard of it on Internet bulletin boards---was mixed. The group’s singer Axl Rose was the only member of the band’s original line on the album, which cost $14 million to make.

NPR reported: “When Guns N' Roses released the album “Chinese Democracy” in 2008, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that, questions of politics aside, the GNR sound just wasn't most Chinese folks' cup of tea. "According to my knowledge," he said, "a lot of people don't like this kind of music because it's too noisy and too loud." That may be so. The country's airwaves are full of syrupy pop tunes and prissy patriotic odes. But generalizing about musical tastes is risky business, especially in a country of 1.3 billion pairs of ears. [Source: NPR, July 19, 2013]

China Bans Lady Gaga, Katy Perry And Backstreet Boys Hits

In August 2011, China's Ministry of Culture has ordered music download sites to delete songs by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys and other pop stars within two weeks or face punishment. The ministry posted a list of 100 songs---including Lady Gaga's "Judas" and Perry's "Last Friday Night"---that had to be purged from the Chinese web because they had never been submitted for mandatory government screening. [Source: AP, August 25, 2011]

Six Lady Gaga songs in all were on the list, all from her latest album. The 12-year-old ballad "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys was also targeted. Dozens of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop songs and a few Western hits were listed as well. The ministry said the rule was meant to preserve China's "national cultural security."

Sites were told in the Aug. 19 announcement posted to the ministry's website that they had until Sept. 15 to carry out "self-correction" and delete the songs. It said violators would be punished, but didn't outline the penalties they would face. It didn't say that the listed songs were objectionable, just that they had not been approved for distribution.

The Chinese government carefully screens the content of imported entertainment content for political messages or commentary that runs contrary to its official line. Foreign music acts in particular are believed to receive special scrutiny after Icelandic singer Bjork shouted "Tibet!" during a 2008 concert in Shanghai after performing a song titled "Declare Independence."

In November 2011, a Chinese adaptation of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" went viral online. YouTube has logged over 709,000 viewers in a few days and a Facebook community was set up for it. This instance of genre-busting, border-crossing hilarious merry-making was broadcast by the Hunan Satellite TV on the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The chorus comes from the Hunan Retired Cadres (government officials) Activity Center in Changsha. They sing in Hunanese (Changsha dialect), and they make the English verb "hold" work so naturally in their lyrics! Watch for the lady in red at 3:18! You Tube Lady Gaga video Bad Romance

Nigerian Pop Star in China

Emmanuel Uwechue, a Nigerian who goes by the name Hao Ge, became a big star in China in the late 2000s. He sinsgin Chinese and many of his most popualr songs are sepeeded up versions of classic Chinese love songs. His adopted Chinese name sounds like the words for “good song” in Chinese. [Source: Jimmy wang, New York Times, March 15, 2011]

Uwechue is particularly popular with children and middle-aged women who watch “Xin Guang Da Dao,” the “American Idol” knockoff show, where he first gained notice a few years after his arrival in China in 2002. He has performed alongside a host of Chinese superstars---including Sun Nan, Na Ying and Han Hong---and has been enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese media. His albums include “Red and Black” (2006), “Hao Ge’s Latest Songs” (2008) and “Beloved Life” (2009).

Uwechue came to China after being invited by a Chinese friend he met in Lagos. In Beijing he was discovered by a top producer, Liu Huan, who encouraged him to expand his Mandarin-language repertoire. He became a star when he performed before hundreds of millions of Chinese on the popular Lunar New Year Gala television show. “He’s good---he’s not just another foreigner who got on TV because he could speak and sing in Chinese,” Yu Na, 40-year-old from northwest Beijing, told the New York Times, adding that she likes to “jump up and down” to Mr. Uwechue’s more upbeat songs.

Foreign Singers Need College Degrees to Perform in China

In February 2013, The Atlantic reported: “While it is axiomatic these days that you need to go to college to get ahead in life, there are a few professions in which having a four-year degree isn't strictly necessary. Music would seem to be one case in which schooling plays a minor role in determining success. But in China, this may soon cease to be the case. According to a recent article in The Guardian, Chinese culture minister Cai Wu has apparently demanded that all foreign musicians who perform in the country have college degrees. [Source: The Atlantic, February 14, 2013 ==]

“Cai's suggestion comes on the heels of an Elton John concert in Beijing last November, after which the musical icon dedicated his performance to the "spirit and talent" of dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Though John was permitted to play a subsequent show in Guangzhou in December, his comments did not sit well with China's authorities, and it is unclear whether he'll be invited back to play in the country. ==

“Celebrities the world over have always shown the predilection toward speaking out on politics. The question, then, is why China cares what they say. A country with the world's second-largest economy, one would think, has bigger matters to attend to than a singer who peaked in popularity more than three decades ago. But by floating his absurd proposal that foreign performers have university degrees, Cai Wu managed to perpetuate China's image as a petty country unable to take criticism. ==

“Then again, Cai and other Chinese leaders have another audience in mind: China's people. Beijing has long gone to great lengths to combat real or perceived slights to its image, a policy that bolsters its reputation as the defenders of China's national honor. It's this defense, accompanied by its stewardship of the economy, that gives the ruling Communist Party its legitimacy. So while it's unlikely that many Chinese even knew about Elton John's comments, a fair number would be pleased to hear that the government won't take a foreign star's comments lying down. Better-behaved foreign musicians need not be deterred from entering the Chinese market, however. The recent Spring Festival gala, an annual variety show commemorating the Chinese New Year, featured a performance by the lithe Canadian singer Celine Dion. And while none could deny her immense talent, Dion, it should be noted, never went to college.” ==

Image Sources: You Tube, Fan, artist and Chinese rock websites and blogs

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2013


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