Copyright The Wall Street Journal
SHANGHAI — The heavy metal band Guns N’ Roses is roiling China’s music scene. But sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll aren’t the issue.
It has taken 17 years for the band to produce a new studio record. Now, even before it goes on sale Sunday, in a release heralded by its producers as a “historic moment in rock ‘ n’ roll,” the disc is getting the thumbs down from Chinese authorities. It’s also causing anxiety among GN’R’s legion of loyal fans here, who aren’t sure they like what lead singer W. Axl Rose is trying to say about their country.
China’s government-owned music-importing monopoly has signaled that local record distributors shouldn’t bother ordering the GN’R production. Anything with “democracy” in the name is “not going to work,” said an official at the China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corp., part of the Ministry of Culture.
For fans, the response is more complicated. GN’R developed a major following in China in the late 1980s, when the young Mr. Rose was recording early hit songs like “Welcome to the Jungle.” China was in the throes of its own rebellious era, and heavy metal was its protest music. GN’R’s popularity soared in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Learning the band’s 1991 ballad “Don’t Cry” was a rite of passage for a generation of Chinese guitarists.
Listen to a clip of the title track from GN’R’s new album and, below, read some of the lyrics.
If they were missionaries
Sitting in a Chinese stew
To view my disinfatuation
I know that I’m a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falun Gong
They’ve seen the end and it can’t hold on now.
When your great wall rocks blame yourself
While their arms reach up for your help
And you’re out of time
“It was not only the music, the band’s clothes also pushed the craze,” says 30-year-old Chen Lei , one of Beijing’s best-regarded rock guitarists, who cites GN’R as a primary influence.
GN’R nostalgia remains strong. A program on state-run China Central Television last year ranked “Qiang Hua” (literally, “Guns Flowers”), as the group is known in Chinese, at No. 8 on a list of top rock bands of all time.
Chinese fans eager for news on the Web about the new album sidestep censors by using coded language. Many deliberately scramble the name, typing “Chinese Democraxy” or “Chi Dem.” They say they fear that typing the Chinese characters for the title will draw government scrutiny. Still, it’s not much challenge to find news about the record on the Web, where even the site www.chinesedemocracy.com is a discussion of GN’R, not politics.
Some fans in China relish how the album discomfits the establishment. “Rock ‘n’ roll, as a weapon, is an invisible bomb,” says one.
Leo Huang, a 25-year-old guitarist, just hopes it will retrace GN’R’s roots. “I prefer rock ‘n’ roll,” said the skinny 25-year-old guitarist after a recent gig with his band, the Wildcats, at a hard-rock bar below a Shanghai highway.
Yet, for some fans in this nation of 2.6 billion ears, the new album’s title is an irritation. Democracy is a touchy subject in this country. Elections are limited to votes for selected village-level officials, and senior leaders are all chosen in secret within the Communist Party. Many Chinese wish for greater say in their government. But others — including some rockers — think too much democracy too quickly could lead to chaos, and they resent foreign efforts to push the issue.
Mr. Chen, the guitarist, says the “Chinese Democracy” album title suggests “they don’t understand China well” and are “just trying to stir up publicity.”
Some Chinese artists, loath to be branded as democracy campaigners, declined valuable offers to help illustrate the album. “I listened to their music when I was little,” says Beijing visual artist Chen Zhuo . He was “very glad” when GN’R asked to buy rights to use his picture of Tiananmen Square rendered as an amusement park — with Mao Zedong’s head near a roller coaster. Then, Mr. Chen looked at lyrics of the album’s title song and, after consulting with his lawyer and partner, declined the band’s $18,000 offer. “We have to take political risks into account as artists in China,” says the 30-year-old.
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JAMES T. AREDDY – The Wall Street Journal
Copyright The Wall Street Journal