I was walking through Wangfujing subway station the other day when I saw a poster advertising a concert by one of the most popular western bands in China. No, it’s not U2, Coldplay, Radiohead or the Kings Of Leon – the band performing are those superstars of Danish soft rock, Michael Learns To Rock.
You probably have never heard of MLTR, and frankly I don’t blame you. They don’t appear to have ever done anything notable. For twenty years or so they have churned out an uninspired series of inoffensive pop-rock ballads in a style reminiscent of Bon Jovi playing the hits of Westlife – only somehow even worse than that sounds. Aside from their grizzled appearance they could easily have been the result of a deadlocked music industry committee trying to produce the least offensive band of all time. That sounds silly, maybe, surely even the blandest music has some effect on someone – surely nobody would actually want music to lack any sort of inspiration, soul, innovation, emotion…. Well, welcome to China MLTR!
In 2006 the band made a shrewd business decision – they recorded a English version of the soppy Jacky Cheung ballad “Goodbye Kiss”, renaming it “Take Me To Your Heart”. By the end of the year it had sold 6 million copies and was “most downloaded song of the year” – not bad in a country where practically nobody pays for music. Here it is. I advise you not to watch it.
Yes, this is the face of western music in China. Other popular acts include Celine Dion, Westlife and The Backstreet Boys. Yes, in 2010. These acts match well with the expectations of Chinese music – slow ballads you can sing at karaoke, nothing noisy or challenging, and most importantly which contain lyrics which only concern romantic love in its most homogenized, inoffensive form. Even Chinese hip-hop acts, who follow the look faithfully, have song titles like “Sweet Girl” and “Be My Love”.
People really care about lyrics here, which makes this poverty of meaning at once baffling and more inevitable. Baffling because these songs follow formulas so formulaic that the words hold little or no meaning, and inevitable because it’s in many people’s interest for every artform to be controlled. To take an example from another field Chinese horror films are not allowed to put forward the notion that anything supernatural exists. No ghosts, no vampires, no monsters. Chinese directors try to get round this by adding a narrator or tacking on a Scooby-doo reveal, but in the pop world it seems to be easier just to avoid controversial topics whatsoever. And from the words comes the music.
Of course I should say that there is interesting music in China, but it’s invariably underground and seems to be limited to a small group of people in a few major cities. You will never hear it in public and it will not be played on TV or on the radio.
Pop music can be a brilliant thing. It takes the most primitive instincts, the darkest urges, the newest slang, technology and culture and boils it down to a three-minute slice of life. Take a music video from any time in the last 40 years and you could easily extrapolate a books-worth of information from it. Take the kind of song and video popular in China and I just get, well, the above. And that’s it.