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From Michael Feng's, "Snuffles," Fall '99 From Michael Feng's, "Snuffles," Fall '99Like almost any place in the world these days, China is filled with American culture. I cannot walk a block down the street without passing people wearing fake Nikes or signs advertising McDonald's. From The Eagles to Nirvana to Metallica, American rock has both engendered and fueled the rise of the underground music scene in China. In fact, the biggest party night in Beijing is the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide, commemorated with all-night concerts by local bands. Though crude compared to American rock, Chinese rock still has an authentic vitality not found in the other two types of music here: Government-produced propaganda music and canto-pop imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Accordingly, American-style Chinese rock has developed one prevailing motif -- the government's all-enveloping oppression of freedom. The song "I Have Nothing," by Cui Jian, China's biggest rock star, became the anthem of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators. Even in today's China, the song is as emblematic of the movement as the video footage of the lone man standing in front of the tank. Unfortunately, propaganda music and canto-pop receive the vast majority of publicity and airplay, despite repeating the same tired themes of patriotism and unrequited love in every song. Propaganda music, which consists mainly of songs about peasants cheerfully harvesting wheat, inspires the least interest from Chinese youth. To call these songs dull is an understatement. Even the older generation that listens to propaganda music does so out of habit; until recently, no other type of music was allowed in China. In the late '70s, however, the government gradually eased its embargo on Hong Kong and Taiwanese canto-pop, a music genre in which virtually all the artists are clones of Celine Dion and Bryan Adams. This is not to say that canto-pop is bad. I readily and unabashedly admit to knowing quite a few of Celine Dion's greatest hits by heart. However, in the last two months I have heard enough syrupy, melodramatic love songs to last a lifetime. The reason for canto-pop's uniformity is simple. For every song, one person writes the lyrics, another composes the melody and the pop star merely sings and looks pretty for the flashbulbs. Since a lyric-writer or melody-writer may work for several different singers, it is small wonder that many songs are virtually identical to one another. This "music by committee" approach is not nearly as inconceivable and remote as it may initially seem. After all, does anyone believe that Britney Spears is the creative impetus behind her songs? These songs are essentially meaningless, so the Chinese government feels no danger of them inciting grass-roots unrest. Thus, the government imposes no ban on them. However, until recently, Chinese rock was banned. Now, having tried unsuccessfully for years to quell the multitude of impromptu concerts in dingy bars, the government has now given up, apparently on the grounds that Chinese youth utilize rock music rather than demonstrations as an outlet for their feelings of rebellion. Before arriving in Beijing, I never considered myself lucky to be able to turn on the radio and listen to music created by artists and not institutions. I took for granted that music would invariably have diversity and meaning. And despite the recent emergence of carefully tailored "music packages" such as Britney Spears, the bulk of American music still has those characteristics. After listening to Chinese radio, I realize that good music, just like any other art, cannot be systematically planned or mass-produced. In a country where mass media is synonymous with mass propaganda, the raw emotions and lyrics of American-style rock provide a substantial and authentic alternative to the government-imposed falseness that permeates Chinese culture.

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