One of the things that I've tried to get into while in Beijing was the Mandarin music scene. It's been a hard journey. CDs are pretty cheap, ranging between $1 or $2, so I've indulged quite a bit. And there are an incredible number of CD stores in Beijing, because of the rampant piracy which makes the CDs so cheap. Unfortunately, these stores all sell the same several dozen CDs of mostly shit Mandarin stars and pirated N'Sync CDs.
The biggest criticism is that the pop stuff is way too sentimental. Now anyone who knows my musical tastes is probably thinking, "But Wayne, you eat that shit up." And for the most part, that's true. I probably enjoy a 80s hair band power ballad more than your average, rational music consumer. But just on a percentage basis, the sappiness on any given album is incredible. I bought this one CD by Valen Hsu mostly because I had heard one song on it that had a vague dram and bass influence and was thus light years ahead of the vast majority of the Mandarin scene. Unfortunately, every one of the other 14 songs were hard core sap. Not a single beat of percussion. Just weepy violin-like sounds and piano for 14 straight songs. (Actually, there's one ballad that's particularly good just because it's a duet with Enrique Inglesias, who is forced to sing lyrics which sound like they've been written by someone who isn't exactly a native speaker of English.) And that's what the vast majority of the pop singers are like.
However, there are a few exceptions. It's interesting to note that the decent, mainstream stuff out here is done mostly by the female singers. The most famous (and most expats consider the only listenable) female singer is Wang Fei, who's out of Hong Kong. Her latest album "I Only Love Strangers" is probably the only Mandarin CD that non-Chinese speakers would enjoy. Not only is her music good, but I'm surprised at how someone as quirky as her is the most famous singer in China. Her lyrics are much closer to Bjork than Mariah Carey, and she wears pretty wigged out costumes. Since China is land hitherto uninfected by that gross virus of irony and apathy which Nirvana used to kill the great 80s hair bands, it's acceptable, even admired, to have some big corporate sponsorship deal. Wang Fei has a deal with Pepsi to advertise their tasty fizzy sugar water.
The other big one is A Mei, who hails from Taiwan. I think she's only so-so, but she's really big with the kids. I've seen some of her early music videos and she looked like a Chinese version of a late 80s Janet Jackson with huge shoulder pads, frizzy hair, a microphone headset, and flashy choreography. She used to advertise for Sprite. Commercials of her snowboarding down a random mountain and the quenching her thirst with a tasty Sprite used to be all over CCTV, but her promotional deal got mysteriously pulled after she sang the Taiwanese national anthem at the inauguration of Taiwan's new not-quite-separatist president.
The other big singer out here is CoCo Lee, whom I hate with every fiber of my soul. Admittedly she has one really good song that's popular, which is essentially a Chinese Motown song. But the rest of her body of work is absolute shit. I would not weep at her death. She advertises for Motorola cell phones.
The vast majority of the male pop singers are disgusting specimens of masculinity, who deliberately put on an air of androgynousity to lure the hearts and wallets of China's pre-teen set. I refuse to even touch most of these CDs, with their soft-touched, blow-dried cover photos. To be fair, the same can be said about boy bands in the US. I admit that I have to make the exception for Zhang Xinzhe. While this guy looks and sounds like not even a drop of testosterone has graced his delicate veins, I have to admit that he sings in especially clear Mandarin and thus it's easier for me to understand the romantic drivel that he's singing. And mushy that his songs are, they usually follow a pattern of slowly cresendoing from a soft keyboard to a full rock band until the final chorus of the song. There he pulls out the secret weapon of all good power ballads: knocking the key up a half-octave. It's even more incredible considering how high he is originally.
Besides the namby-pambies, there are some arena rock hair band types, but for some inexplicable reason, 90% of their songs are also shit ballads. However, I do make the exception for Power Station, who are two Taiwanese guys who seem like they were stuck in a closet 15 years ago with nothing but Nelson and Whitesnake albums. Real good shit.
The other complaint there is against the whole scene besides the mushiness is the lack of diversity. The underground scene in Beijing does exist but you have to dig pretty hard to find it. And for the most part this underground stuff is decent but not overwhelmingly good punk music, which is attended by mostly foreign students (The Flowers, Fall Into Sex, and Silly Army being the best of the Beijing punk bands). Once again, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule of shittiness like Dou Wei, which sounds like a vague hybrid of Pavement and Mazzy Star (and whose lead singer got married to and two months later divorced from the aforementioned Wang Fei.) There's also Catcher in the Rye, who sound like Ben Folds 5 mixed with Cardigans with a slight ska influence, and they actually somehow originate out of Beijing. But besides about 4 or 5 groups, there's really nothing that can be considered underground (as in the style of whatever random group is being played on WSRN) or even "alternative" (like Radiohead or REM).
Finally, I have to put in a word for Cui Jian, whose last album, "The Power of the Powerless," is fucking incredible. He's so influential that he's often referred to as the Father of Chinese Rock & Roll. He made Chinese rock history when in 1986 in Beijing, he climbed up on stage in peasant clothes and belted out "Nothing to My Name." (This performance ranks up there with Wham's concert in 1985 in Beijing's Worker's Stadium. It was the first-ever rock concert in post-Cultural Revolution China. From what I hear, the police were scared of what passionate emotions Wham would stir up that they intimidated anyone from trying to stand up and dance.) After the song was over, the crowd went nuts balling their eyes out or imitating his moves. The song is in the Confucian style of not overtly criticizing anything but making really vague references that could be construed to condemn corrupt officials, etc. The song came to symbolize the doe-eyed innocence and idealism of the student democracy activists during the 80's. The other performance that he's famous for is one in 1989 on Tiananmen Square, 15 days before the tanks started rolling. He played, "Piece of Red Cloth," which is about how blinding the slogans of the Cultural Revolution were, and halfway through he donned a red blindfold. It's not surprising, therefore, to see the abrupt change his style took after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. His lyrics start in the idealism of the 80's, "I want to give you my hope/I want to help make you free." They move onto the early 90's suppressed anger, "The red flag's still aflutter/But there's no fixed direction/The revolution still continues/The old men have even more power." And finally, they end at the late 90's money-grubbing cynicism, "Don't talk to me about anything serious; don't get deep with me./These days, money is worth more than any education./Whoever says life is hard is an idiot./If you just think a little and grease the gears a little, you can get it done." (Admittedly, my all-time favorite line is from He Yong, which goes along the lines of "We eat our conscience/and shit out our thoughts." Unfortunately, He Yong is unequivocally banned and I wasn't able to find any of his CDs.) Cui Jian's latest CD is not only imbued with a sense of searing cynicism, but it also branches out into interesting directions, with a strong Beastie Boys-type energy that instead of being directed into stupid frat antics, is sharpened into a moral ferocity. Highly recommended.
But perhaps the greatest tragedy is the complete absence (at least from my searches) of Chinese hip-hop. The whole tonal aspect of Mandarin makes rap a bit difficult. But, it would be interesting to see how Chinese cultural chauvinism translates into rhymes about lyrical domination. I do remember seeing one day on Channel V a VJ introduce the latest Ghostface Killah video. He noted with pride how much Chinese culture has influenced Wu-Tang Clan (somehow I doubt that WTC really is influenced by Chinese culture as opposed to bad kung-fu flicks when they drop references to the Manchu clan and such.) But alas, the only American hip-hop CD I've seen out in China is the latest Will Smith release.
But I definitely see a bright future for the Mandarin scene. Slowly, electronic and alternative music has made an influence on some artists. A native pop music has only existed here since the 80s and so I have optimism that listeners will become more discriminating and that artists will actually attempt something vaguely artistic. And hopefully the CD prices will stay around $1.