A Summer for Chinese Indie Rock Bands: Time to Embrace the Crowd

Good music is the dope of life. It’s what we rely on to forget about the unhappy moments of our lives, even if just for a moment. If you trace back to the very beginning, Chinese rock once shined in 1986, when Cui Jian, Chinese rock icon, made his debut at Beijing Workers’ Stadium. Back then, people would walk out of factories in gloves and same-sized overalls and ride their bicycles back home. Few would pay attention to the exact genre of music blasting on the radio. This was how rock became a nostalgia, an alternative resort catered to a group of niche listeners in China.

Fast-forward to this year, Chinese audiences were greeted with a pleasant surprise this summer as one of the most popular music variety shows entitled “The Big Band” started airing on the internet with its focus on Chinese indie rock bands. According to iQiyi, the exclusive streaming platform for the show, The Big Band broke into altogether 366 top search lists across various platforms including Twitter-like Weibo and Quora-like Zhihu, and topped the charts of all variety shows in the first half of 2019 with a Baidu search index of 845,825. The remarkable numbers are both a testament to its popularity and an invitation for the general crowd to embrace indie music.

The Summer of Bands — the boundaries between the crowd and the alternative

Out of the 31 participating bands on the show, 16 fall into the category of rock. Among them are punk boys dressed in colorful costumes and wearing rainbow-colored glasses made out of plastic, legendary old-timers who were strongly influenced by Western rock, and emerging young artists trying to make a name for themselves. There’s even a handsome prodigy keyboardist who once turned down offers from a pop music superstar. In a word, the show had a vast mixture of youngsters and old-timers. Regardless of their past achievements, the bands’ “life and death”, in a sense, on the show is completely dependent on their popularity determined by the votes of the general audience and professional critics on set.

In the first few episodes, the host was depicted as a novice who often asked questions like, “What is punk?”, “Which member of the band is more important? Are the bass players and drummers getting marginalized?” The panel of co-hosts all came from different backgrounds including an experienced musician and another who was once a renowned comedian. The show began as a comedic variety show similar to Produce 101, except it’d be Rock 101 in this case, but slowly evolved into an enticing collision of different genres of music.

When asked whether or not the show intentionally excluded people who are outside of the rock circle, one of the directors of the show, Chen, said, “If you want to make niche stuff to entice more people, one thing you have to do is to be someone who can empathize with the audience. This is a necessary setting.”

“If you make a band show with all the participants being rock bands, and have top professionals like Dou Wei and Cui Jian (Chinese rock icons) as the judges, then it becomes a performance of those rockers’ own self-appreciation,” Chen said.

According to the public relations officer from iQiyi, the show is successful in that it brought indie music in front of the public and broke down cultural barriers. It depicted the authenticity of the band culture and the perception of human nature behind it.

Is there a victory or loss for indie music?

It’s not the first time that Chinese indie rock bands have participated in competitions on reality shows. When Escape Plan, a Britpop-style Chinese band performed on popular reality show Singer (the one Jessie J won the championship in 2018), their performance brought post-90s generation fans to tears in front of the TV. Their song “Your Love,” was praised as a perfect mixture of retro and trendy by top music critics on Weibo, “It reminded me of Japanese band Suchmos, and the 1975s, with the charm of city-pop and feels like the sunset of a golden city.” Their performance, however, did not evoke a powerful resonance from the audience compared to other pop singers. In fact, the band was eliminated shortly from the show after two short rounds with an all-time low score for the past seven seasons that the show aired.

The same cruelty was seen on The Big Band as well. Some bands were eliminated from the set as soon as their total number of votes appeared on the big screen. “With so many genres, there is no absolute good or bad. But we’ve already decided that it has to be a contest. If there’s no contest, there’s no sense of competition. Then there’s no way to stimulate and evoke emotions from players. If it’s like the CCTV program, Singers Come, where you sing two songs and leave, the participants wouldn’t be able to indulge themselves.” Chen said.

The genres — get rid of the labels?

The bands are all distinctively branded with the specific music genres, whether it’s punk, Britpop, Funk, new wave or nu metal.

“We wouldn’t say we are a Britpop band. That title only belongs to bands on that island. We are a Chinese band that pays tribute to the style of Britpop,” said the lead singer of Penicillin, a band that got into the final Top 5 with their refreshing arrangements and style. When recommended by one of the judges to revise the grammar mistake in his lyrics, he would just say confidently, “That’s what I heard people say when I was studying overseas in Manchester.” He replied backstage, “I won’t do that. If I did, then it won’t be my music.”

One of their most loved songs “A Rainy Night in Manchester” was accused by many fans online as plagiarizing another song “New Town Velocity” by Johnny Marr, the respected Manchester musician. Furthermore, music fans who are familiar with Western music couldn’t help but feel traces of Linkin Park in another nu metal band on the show.

“Before we did this project, our company would organize a lot of relevant trainings about the history of music, rock and more. There are two major trends in the music industry. Either you inherit the good things from the previous generations and make it bigger, or you move towards the complete opposite direction,” the on-site director of the show told us.

“The so-called plagiarism, I would say, is more of a reference, a similarity in terms of style. It’s just these several genres. Once a musician hears something good, he would naturally want to make his own music just like that, based on his own experiences.”

“Even if it sounds similar in a way, the spiritual core messages and emotions that the song is trying to convey must be different,” the director concluded. That said, “A Rainy Night in Manchester” is unique in that it talks about the singer’s encounter with a beggar in Manchester. It’s refreshing and different with its somewhat broken English verses and rigid Chinese accent.

Songs with Chinese characteristics

In the west, rock music is a product of the times, born amidst the social disturbances like sex emancipation, civil rights and anti-war movements. It’s a ventilation of the rebellious nature of the times. That’s how The Sex Pistols wrote “Anarchy in the UK”, and how Billie Joe Armstrong wrote “American Idiot.”

“The punk is simple, the rock is stale,” said a British friend of mine who majored in music composition when asked what he thinks about Chinese indie music compared with the west.

The punk bands that sang about roast ducks and campus love life injected a breathe of fresh air and youth into the show. It’s not as good as Sum 41 or Simple Plan, but it’s fun. Critics might accuse the lyrics of being simple and silly. However, it is undeniable that these indie rock bands do convey the spiritual core of Chinese people and what’s happening in this era. There might be constraints about political affairs, but there is still a lot left to talk about. People’s love and emotions is another strong confrontation towards the consuming anxiety of the times.

“Back in the 1990s, there were a lot of themes to write about still, and singers were more villainous, and some of them have gone crazy,” expressed the director of The Big Band sincerely. “This is about China nowadays. That’s how New Pants wrote Because of You Life is Hot (a song written in 2016). I don’t think it is necessary to reflect the big trends of the times, or to write some very big-themed songs. In fact, I believe that subtle emotions also belong to this era. Girl sitting in the cubicle, looks so pretty after a while. I will marry her. Take me back to the small town for the spring festival. This is the most vivid China! This is not shallow, it’s fresh.”

“I think young people nowadays, especially those born after the millennium, don’t know of the pain or suffering anymore. That’s why I think dubstep is a lead genre now. You can just be happy and live life,” explained Lily, a lead singer from a city-pop band after watching the show.