Nope, this isn’t about the still-unreleased Guns N Roses album. In honor of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and of my roommate’s documentary work in the city, I decided to hunt down some Chinese emo. In my hunt, I immediately stumbled upon John Thompson’s intriguing story. Thompson, who recently graduated from the University of Chicago, wrote his senior honor’s thesis on China’s emo scene after experiencing the scene there firsthand.
Thompson’s thesis, entitled “Tears That Flutter and Fade,” is as much an observation of a cultural and musical movement as it is a critique of cultural observations. As many academic pieces on the meaning of music on a global scale concern scales of “authenticity,” Thompson is often most critical of the interpretation of authenticity itself. “Authenticity,” as Thompson strongly argues, is as much a tool for conforming to Westernized standards of the type of creative product from which the music is derived (often rock music) as it is a method of observing cultural productions in other countries. In that, many cultural critics have often made their interpretation of American rock the standard to which every international music is weighed against. As Thompson notes, this has often painted a slightly-inaccurate portrait of Chinese rock music in general.
Most music and cultural writers are quick to paint Chinese rock in a political light, as rock is inherently rebellious in its American creation. And yet – especially in the guise of emo – the music is not overtly political. True, the fact that rock is often associated with the capitalist system of America, any rock act in China is inherently slightly political simply in its existence, but that is more of a muddled existence than an attack against the country’s political beliefs. Politics isn’t the biggest battleground in Chinese popular music – English is. As “authenticity” and even originality is often prescribed to how bands reinterpret cultural forms imported from other countries, singing in Chinese or English often comes up as a heated topic of debate.
In that sense, emo in China is really no different than other rock genres – at least, on the surface. Thompson marks 2005 as the year that China produced numerous bands who self-described themselves as emo. Many of these groups take off of numerous third wave American emo and screamo bands ranging from Underoath to Finch to Thursday. Thompson’s descriptions of the 10 or so self-labeled emo bands operating in China tend to reflect many of the stereotypes held about the genre in America today. The members wear black clothing and ironic t-shirts, the music offers a mix of heavy guitars, a cathartic release, and a dynamic shift between quiet and loud, and the songs are often overtly sad in order to convey the truth of the song’s emotional meanings. Thompson does note a major difference in the style of lyrics; whereas Chinese emo acts take certain aesthetic elements from American bands (such as a strong connection to location), the lyrics are often less-violent than current emo groups when discussing themes of love and are more sexually pervasive.
It’s an interesting and slightly conflicting scene in and of itself. The music is very much a subcultural mark – it isn’t quite that popular, and the delineations of its history are a bit muddled; one band, Tookoo, is generally thought of as being the first emo band in China, but do not label themselves thus and have been around since 1999 (well before the 2005 mark that Thompson set). As music originating in one place is then transported and recombined in a new setting, its interpretation is often a reflection of the values that stand out the most from the original cultural form. And in a sense, what is on the surface of emo in China offers a lot of aesthetic similarities with the stereotypes of emo… though once you scratch the surface, there is a much deeper element there as well. As Thompson remarks at one point in his thesis on the case of being an authentic emo band in China, “they claim their music is true to their inner emotional lives, regardless of its popularity or glamorous mien.”
Thompson was especially helpful in pointing out some of the key emo groups operating in China at the moment. He pointed me towards FZTH Records, the record label that most of the groups that label themselves emo are on. Thompson also singled out bands such as The Raving Radio (screamo in the guise of Underoath), Flip Side (a noticeably lighter take on the pop-friendly sound that Finch often dabbles in and also sing in English), and Surprise (who’s stuff reminds me a little of a softer My Chemical Romance, though with much less aggravating vocals) as stalwarts in the small scene. I owe John Thompson a big thank you for the abundance of information he sent me – without it, this post surely would have been doomed. Below are some songs, generously provided by John, highlighting Chinese emo. Take a listen…
Tookoo – Take Me Home (video):
PS; Looks like this will be the only post for the week. I’ve got job training all week and will not have any access or time to update for the next handful of days. But don’t fret – there is plenty more to write about right afterwards! Take care.