Shanghai Memo: The Sound, Not of Music, but of Control

Copyright The New York Times
By Howard W. French
SHANGHAI, Oct. 24 — A song often heard on the radio these days begins with a light and upbeat melody, and lyrics that are even bubblier.
“Don’t care about loneliness,” croons the lead singer. “I don’t think it really matters.”
Another much played song tries even harder to soothe. “Ah, little man, ah, succeed quickly,” it counsels. “Enjoy being poor but happy every day.”
Marxists once referred to religion as the opium of the people, but in today’s China it is the music promoted on state-monopolized radio that increasingly claims that role. China’s leader, Hu Jintao, has talked since he assumed power five years ago about “building a harmonious society,” an ambiguous phrase subject to countless interpretations.
But Chinese musicians, cultural critics and fans say that in entertainment, the government’s thrust seems clear: Harmonious means blandly homogeneous, with virtually all contemporary music on the radio consisting of gentle love songs and uplifting ballads.
In recent weeks, television networks have come under intense pressure from Beijing to purge their programming of crime and even mildly suggestive sexual references. Variety show producers are subject to new rules aimed at enforcing official notions of dignity. Art galleries and theatrical productions, meanwhile, have always been subject to review by censors.
Even without resorting to direct censorship, the state has formidable powers for controlling popular music and shaping tastes. They include state ownership of all broadcast media, the screening of lyrics for all commercial music and strict control of performance sites.
Many say one result has been the dumbing down and deadening of popular music culture. Fu Guoyong, an independent cultural critic in Hangzhou, likened today’s pop music culture to the politically enforced conformity of the Cultural Revolution, when only eight highly idealized Socialist “model operas” could be performed in China.
“Nowadays singers can sing many songs, but in the end, they’re all singing the same song, the core of which is, ‘Have fun,’” Mr. Fu said. “Culture has become an empty vessel.”
Nowhere is conformity enforced more vigorously than on broadcast radio, where pop music programs are saturated with the Chinese equivalent of the kind of easy listening often associated in other countries with elevators and dentists’ offices.
Rock ’n’ roll is mostly limited to special programs that are allowed brief windows of airtime during the graveyard shift, and even then there are few hints of angst, alienation or any but the very mildest expressions of teenage rebellion.
Rock enjoyed a wave of popularity in China the early 1990s, but the works of the country’s most famous performer, Cui Jian, disappeared from the airwaves around that time because, many fans believe, his lyrics began to flirt with political themes.
By this year, the rock groups felt so unwanted that when the Chinese Olympic Committee called on musicians to submit songs for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, virtually none stepped forward, according to Shen Lihui, a music company executive who was consulted by the committee.
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