The Lee readings for Wednesday span several different topics. The essay is structured in five parts and a conclusion, each of which I attempt to briefly summarize. Lee begins by posing the question of whether music can have a different function in China as opposed to its function in the West. He presents a concise overview of the changes in political ideologies, economic position, and population size, of China in the 20th century, in order to analyze the position and rise of popular music. The second section presents an immediate categorization of popular music (or rather, music that is ‘intended’ to be popular) into the consciously political and the unconsciously political. The consciously political music is defined as that music which has a “clear political agenda and message” (97). It is here that Lee cites the example of Cui Jian. I have only heard Jian’s one song ‘Nothing to my Name’, and with this as my example, I would disagree with Lee in his assertion that Jian’s “message is conveyed not merely in sound, but also by a subversive and ironically deployed semiotics of visual image”– it seems to me that the consciously political aspect of Jian is found mainly in his image and only secondarily in his music. From our class discussion, it would seem that Jian’s music, in particular ‘Nothing to my Name’, was only later appropriated as a political anthem for youth, but was originally intended as a love ballad. In this respect, I would say that Cui Jian belongs more to the unconsciously political category. That said, I think that Lee uses unconsciously and consciously political more in reference to the way the songs are used and distributed, rather than the way they were ‘intended’. This initial categorization is developed into Lee’s two defining types of pop music: officially sanctioned music (tongsu) and the officially discouraged music (liuxing yingyue). It is also here that Lee brings up the example of Madonna and the way that her image is used to sell official Party songs and state sanctioned music. As was discussed in class, we find in this example that traditionally congruent phenomena – that which is sold and that which is used to sell – are not only inverted inasmuch as they are separated completely. The third section focuses on discussing the exploitation of music to ‘sell’ national sentiment and the exploitation of national sentiment to sell music. One nice example Lee proposes is Cui Jian’s titling of his album “New Long March of Rock and Roll”, in reference to the immense 6,000 mile journey/forced relocation of the communist Party in the mid 1930s. The fourth section is more abstract, where Lee brings up the general notion hybridity. Lee states that “Chinese official power … itself being a hybrid form of power , a ‘con-fusion’, or rather a product, of Marxist-Leninist and Chinese imperial-Confucian ideologies”(103). How does Lee use his notion of hybridity in relation to pop music? The fifth section discusses how music can be used to undermine or communicate in spite of authority.
In the Perris readings for Monday, I particularly enjoyed reading through the various quotes from Mao regarding his musical ideology. It was interesting to note that Mao, too, had a rubric for classifying music for its political and artistic qualities. I wonder how this would fit in with Lee’s notion of consciously and unconsciously political music. Does the will to create a political artwork impede upon artistic potential? As we discussed in class, it was interesting to note that Mao does value the ‘transcendental’ quality of music, but music must also be ideologically sound for it to serve its primary function which, in his view, is pushing society toward the idealist Communist society. One question from Monday’s class that I found provocative was whether Capitalist societies and the demands of the Capitalist market necessarily induce a form of censorship over an artist’s work.
I am sympathetic to the idea articulated by Perris, that propaganda of socialist regimes does not necessarily inhibit creativity. It is undeniable that regimes’ ideologies are represented in the music of the period, and that restrictive ideologies may hurt creativity. However, he raises the point that capitalism as a societal system also influences creativity in ways that may be advantageous or harmful.
It’s kind of ridiculous that Western scholars have not investigated state-employed artists as much as independent ones. I would think that Western scholars would be more interested in state-employed artists if only because it provides more insight into the Chinese regime and its cultural impact. There has been a common theme in the readings that I’ve noticed was reiterated by Baranovitch when he talks about there being alternatives to complete rebelliousness or complacency. Baranovitch provides the example of Mongolian artist Teng Ge’er, who is a state-employed artist, but who still creates personal songs that do not comply with strict guidelines for propaganda.
I am somewhat amused by the fact that use of music to exert cultural and also political influence on societies has such a long history, as Perris describes tribal traditions and Platonian references to this concept. One might think that given the long history of this, the totalitarian rulers might have been more sophisticated in their propaganda than recomposing lyrics such as “I love you because you are handsome and strong” into “I love you because you love the Party and work hard to construct socialism.” But maybe this says something more about the heavy-handedness of totalitarian rule than the potential in politicizing music.
I was deeply intrigued by the notion of the hybridity of Chinese cultural identity, which was addressed by George Lee in his article on official and unofficial pop culture. His belief in the impossibility of defining and categorizing Chinese identity within the globalized international sphere of the late 20th century, in regards to phenomena such as the simultaneous utilization of images of Madonna and Mao for commercial consumption, resonated with me. With this in mind, the hybridity of culture in this era of globalization is not only reflected within China, but within the cultural identity of countless modern nations, such as the United States. I found the discussion of Confucianism in this week’s Lau reading (in conjunction with Lee’s argument) to be illuminating in the bizarre way that Lau exemplifies the trajectory of Chinese cultural development through the relationship between Confucian ideals and values with those of the Communist regime. Lau states that the use of emblematic cultural forms intended to articulate and maintain links between the Communist party and the masses was crucial to the establishment of images of national unity in socialist China. Upon reading this, I immediately drew a connection to the five relationships which make up society, as outlined by Confucianism: “the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, elder and younger sibling, elders and youngsters, and ruler and subject.” (118) The belief that the maintenance of these relationships would result in societal harmony drew upon the reasoning that based on these relationships the ruler (as the highest order of the family) has the responsibility to ensure that the nation is united and in order. Though the communist ideology enforced an extreme reevaluation and reconstruction of traditional Chinese cultural identity, the justification for the new value system drew upon a selection and manipulation of certain elements from ancient and established cultural values. The cultural hybridity within China stems from more than just the fact that it is a socialist society involved in capitalist practices of consumption and supply and demand, it stems from a self imposed re-appropriation of tradition (a notion evocative of the nostalgia for communism in the 1980s and 1990s, as referenced by Cui Jian and others in the Lee reading).
I was the most taken with/left questioning by the end of our discussion on Lee, as we began to touch on some of the complicated political theory offered in his article. For example the discussion of democracy and capitalism as mutually exclusive or as inherently connected with one another, especially in considering socialist spheres is interesting. Lee tells us the there is no organic length between capitalism and democracy, which eventually begs the question, does democracy and capitalism automatically mean individualism is celebrated or even truly practiced? Maria brought up the interesting point that the fear of people in the West is simply in effect that democracy will be destroyed by non capitalist ideas.
I think these discussions of capitalism/democracy are fruitful in talking about socialism because so often are socialist regimes associated with highly censored regimes, policed states, and seem very othered in discussion. I don’t think I have reached any sort of end in this post, but I enjoyed the frame of mind this discussion put us in as we move forward in the deepening of our understanding of socialist countries.
After this week, I find myself questioning my basic assumptions about political regimes. I had never really considered that democracy, individualism and capitalism were really separable until Wednesday when Raj described capitalism in Japan and how it feels more like a collective duty than a result of competition and individualism. I was also thinking about essays and quotes of Mao’s which were published and disseminated throughout China and how I assume this to be a staple of a totalitarian regime. I wonder how this would look in the U.S. where we are so used to having our politics filtered by the media. What if Obama just wrote stuff for us to read? I don’t think there’s anything about our democracy that necessarily prohibits this.
I am still struggling to arrive at an answer to Arnold Perris’ question of, “Which comes first, the “success” (aesthetic quality) of the art or the success (the accuracy and effectiveness) of the ideological message? First of all, these two different types of success seem too closely connected to determine which comes first. To expand upon that, it does not seem that one might clearly state that the success of the art came before the success of the ideological message — or vice versa — but rather that they are (potentially) reliant on one another for “success.” In connection with this, we talked in class about whether or not it is possible to tell what an artist’s true intention was in creating their work.
We talked about “art for art’s sake” and asked if this concept can be as simple and unaffected as it hopes to be. Perris seems to think that if an artist believes their art to be purely art, then he/she is not thinking hard enough about it or perhaps there is an unconscious influence. Someone in class made the interesting point that if an artist is saying that their work is “art for art’s sake,” then that is them saying that their goal is for their art to be just art. It does not mean that there are no political implications, it just means that the artist is focusing on making art for the sake of art. However, it seems almost impossible for an artist and his/her work not to be influenced by outside sources.
Even if someone is trying to defy societal and political ideologies, it still shows that they are aware them, so even if they do not want their work to be influenced in these ways, they themselves are, which in turn does influence their work whether or not they realize it. This connects to the question of, “If the self itself is formed from these external factors, then how could something created by the self be made separate from those societal implications?” Even those trying to create art for art’s sake are part of a society, so inherently their work is influenced.
This is kind of an uncomfortable (temporary) conclusion, because it almost seems that art can never just be art.
I was really interested in the conversation about censorship in music and whether rigidity of rules in the communist government actually inhibited creative progress. I feel like on the outside, this type of strict censorship seems to kill the arts, but I think it’s actually more complicated than that. Throughout history one can see how great art oftentimes comes from tension, struggle, and rebellion. Even in the last unit when we studied Siberian punk you could see how this happened. I think you can also compare it, in a way, to the strictness of western classical music. Composers have always created great music when they broke out of the norms and structures of the times. I think censorship can play this same role of being the cause of some of the creativity that has shown through despite the setbacks.
As others have noted, George Lee’s exploration of hybridity, as it pertains to Chinese cultural identity, was a particularly interesting facet of this week’s readings. The discussion of whether or not democracy can be separated from capitalism was another interesting aspect of this week’s discussions; to this end, given that the case studies of socialist regimes analyzed throughout this course, one might ponder whether socialism and totalitarianism are as mutually exclusive as Lee argues that capitalism and democracy are.
Lau’s explanation of Confucianism as it pertains to music was striking given the many similarities that it seems to hold with the Russian ideologies toward music espoused by the doctrine of socialist realism (his distinction between “proper music” and “vernacular music”).
During this week’s discussion I was probably most intrigued by the listening we did to Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”. I thought i t was very interesting how the fusion of Western and Chinese popular music and instruments fused in this particular case. It got me thinking about the ways in which the youth in China got ahold of these western musical materials. Perris makes mention of the cult of personality built around Madonna, but not much mention of how her provocative and probably censored music would make it into the walkmans of the Chinese people. Surely there was some sort of underground trade system, however there seems to be much more strict regulation as to what is censored in the case of China than that of the Soviet Union. This week seemed to bring out the largest difference we have seen between the Soviet Union and China, and it came in terms of Perris’ (and also somewhat in Lau’s) explanation of the precedent set in Confucianism that all music has ethical implications, which means that censorship laws would necessarily be more strict because the music would fall into one of two categories as opposed to a larger gradient. This concept of the ethical implications of music versus art for art’s sake was very interesting, and I think that it even helped me strengthen my grasp of the conflicts around yellow music from weeks prior.
This article got me thinking about my own biases when approaching music making in a socialist state. I was particularly struck by passages where Lee would acknowledge his own predisposition towards blatantly oppositional or marginalized work: “My personal inclination is to privilege the periphery against the centre. There is, however,a danger in privileging the marginalized, the periphery, of abandoning the centre and the a centre whose still dominated- centre-controlled; regnant authority dominates the lives of many who, while in a sense marginalised, are hierarchically, vertically dominated in a more traditionally conceived way.” When examining socialism do we look and become inappropriately fixated on figures like Cui Jian and Letov who seem to present a marginalized and peripheral take on a system that is alien to us, a system that seems worth protesting? Do we ignore those artists who create music while truly believing the ideology or engaging in a kind of a self censorship? It helped me to better understand my own desire to project protest onto artists that do not necessarily fit that mold.
I enjoyed listening to the npr segment on Chinese Reggae. Cui Jian is considered China’s Bob Marley – who rose to fame in the 1980s (Cui Jian says that the comparison should not be made, rather he is an element of Marley’s success). In the podcast they compare the story of a Chinese man picking up Reggae after hearing Bob Marley in a bar in China, to an American picking up Mongolian throat singing after hearing it in a Bar in the mid-west. The podcast also addresses the meaning of Reggae, “In China, Reggae is about feeling good.” Lauren Keane talks about whether or not Reggae will stick, because Reggae may or may not “strike them [the Chinese audience] in the heart.” Keane ends on a positive note, whether or not the music will resonate with the public, and whether or not a Chinese reggae superstar will be born, the musicians are “still giving it their best shot.”
The NPR segment on Chinese reggae was really interesting. The disconnect between the political aspects of Bob Marley’s political messages and the rhythm of the genre really surprised me. In Cui Jian interview he completely dodged Marley’s political statements and said that he wants to make reggae music because of the sound and not the political messages in the music. I wonder if it can still be considered reggae when the political is taken out of the music, since most of the reggae music that I’ve heard is politically charged.
I listened to “Nothing To My Name” on repeat after we heard it in class. The song is beautiful and addictive. I didn’t know about hooks before this class but now I recognize them easily. I wonder how he was able to write the song off as a love song and not an anthem for change. How does the Chinese gov decided what is able to be played? It would be cool if we could listen to the banned music as well and compare it to the allowed music.
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