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China’s Feel Good Hit of the Summer is Bringing Rock Music to New Audiences

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iQIYI is doing it again. Via the currently airing variety show The Big Band, the streaming platform has been helping some (semi-)underground rock bands as well as their music to earn mainstream recognition this summer — just like they did with a crop of previously lesser known rappers with the first season of Rap of China.

When your social media feeds are flooded with songs from the likes of New Pants, Hedgehog, or Mr. Sea Turtle on Sunday mornings, or some updated personal rankings of favorite songs in The Big Band, you know the previous night’s show has hit the target when it comes to bringing these rockers to an ever-increasing audience.

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Is “The Big Band” About to do for Rock Music What “Rap of China” Did for Hip Hop?

On the 6 episodes of The Big Band that have aired to date, 31 bands picked from more than 1,000 Chinese acts spanning funk, punk, Brit-pop, indie rock and metal, have performed and been narrowed down to 8 in the latest 1 on 1 round which broadcast last weekend. The competition results of every round are decided by the studio audience, consisting of 5 celebrity “super fans” who are producers, musicians and entertainers, 20 “professional fans” who are livehouse managers, music critics and music podcasters, and 100 public fans, 80% of whom were born in the ’90s.

Yet when the show’s line-up and visual identity were first unveiled, many seasoned Chinese rock fans were skeptical over whether it would make an impact. So what’s happened to make the show a success?

Here are our Big Band theories:

Let the Music Speak

“We felt really reluctant to get involved with this show in the first place, like why did we have to talk to the directors?” says Hedgehog’s drummer Atom one one episode. “But they just started with knowing nothing about us, to handing me hot water before our performance… I am really moved [by the production team].”

Gao Hu, vocalist of long-running rock act Miserable Faith, also acknowledged the show’s production, “I don’t really watch variety shows, but you guys have a great team, a lot of young people, with a hardworking attitude. I believe you can do this right, so we’re here.”

Besides being taken good care of by the producers and directors, the more important reason that the bands are willing to stay on The Big Band longer is that the show is made for music rather than something else.

There are sections explaining terms such as “strumming,” “bass slap,” “jam” and teaching the rock horns gesture to the audience. One of the “super fans”, veteran music producer (and nerd) Zhang Yadong, will often ask the bands to improvise with common chords in compositions like “1625” and “2516.” Musicians such as Wonfu’s Xiao Min and Mr. Sea Turtle’s Huang Wei have had improvised guitar duels after their bands’ 1v1 battle. The show gives them the space to do this.

The “super fans” play the role of advisors rather than judges. Even the one that seems least related to music, comedian Qiao Shan, turns out to be a good guitar player who has collaborated with quite a few of the rock musicians in his film City of Rock (2017). Ma Dong, another “super fan” and CEO of the partnering production company MEWE Media, regularly emphasizes that he is tone deaf and keeps it humble with a curious attitude toward the bands and their performances.

The rockers are also pretty frank and direct when answering questions about their experience and opinions, which is interesting and rare to see on a music-themed show in China nowadays. “A lot of bands are not good at talking, and what they say could be super dumb,” says Zhang Yadong, who has worked with underground rockers in China for decades. “But people need to listen to their music, different music. It’s like going to different places in the world, to open a new world to yourself. Otherwise it’s a waste of your ears.”

“We Missed the Golden Age”

A lot of these bands have been trying to reach more ears for years and even decades, while surviving in real life. As indie musicians who are still separated from the pop music industry, life has often been tough for them. According to a report from Southern Metropolis Entertainment, more than half of the musicians on the show have day jobs as designers, teachers, programmers, and so on.

Hedgehog guitarist and vocalist Zijian quit his job to appear on the show, something he’s done a couple of times in the past to take the band on tour since they formed in 2004. Atom, as a single mother, had decided to leave Hedgehog before they recorded their 8th album last year.

“I stayed for Zijian’s talent. His disadvantages are like those of many stars, but his musical talent is like the sun — when it comes out, the stars disappear.”

Her praise went viral on the internet, along with their song “火车驶向云外,梦安魂于九霄” (“Requiem for a Train of Life”) written by Zijian for the album, and featuring the line, “Every generation of people will age, but there are always young ones.”

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Widely dubbed the “Chinese Bruno Mars”, Ricky from funk duo Click#15 has also told of his poverty-stricken life. The talented performer sounded desperate when he told the show, “I’ve been playing in bands for years, but I’ve never made money from music. I don’t expect or fantasize that I’ll be a superstar one day, but I only hope that I have enough audience for my music, more than 100 or 200. I just want to be a real musician.”

The biggest dark horse in the show is Jiu Lian Zhen Ren, a Hakka dialect rock trio from Guangdong Province. Off stage, they’re art and music teachers in a small town elementary school. They also have kids to raise, like the members of Reflector and New Pants, who expressed hope of staying longer in the show to receive more public attention.

Click #15 – “Steal Your Love For Me”

“The golden age of Chinese rock was in the ’90s. We missed it,” says Peng Lei, vocalist and guitarist of New Pants, a band that played Coachella in 2011 but has never quite cracked the mainstream in China. “I felt so sad when watching the people that I played music with twenty years ago getting old but we’re still just ordinary. I thought such a variety show might just be a bunch of middle-aged rockers being humiliated, but actually we have so many brilliant young bands here of different new styles. They are awesome.

“Then I started to believe that maybe this show can lead them to a brighter future. Maybe indie music’s golden age is still in the future.”

Is this the Summer of Chinese Rock?

For rockers themselves, music is something that they need to do, no matter how bad the environment could is. A Long, vocalist and guitarist of Jiu Lian Zhen Ren, recently told cultural publication North Park, “I was addicted to online gaming when I was a teenager, so they gave me a guitar hoping to distract me. Now playing music is the only thing that we pursue in spirit, and if it was taken away, then the life is meaningless.”

One of Beijing’s hottest keyboard-players Yang Ce from Click#15 has shared a similar experience: “I don’t like to talk to people, it’s kind of autism. But music saved me. I feel who I am when I’m on stage, and the person off stage is not me.”

New Pants – “Do You Wanna Dance?”

For people who had never been to a rock live concert, it could be a good thing to watch the essence of the past twenty years performed with top stage design. And when the musicians’ brilliance, weakness as well as passion are all presented in the limelight, it is powerful and moving. Online articles like So Many Adults Don’t Dare to Live Like This comparing most of the Chinese adults who would prefer a “normal” but tedious life and the rockers at the same age who still struggle to pursue their dreams, have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Chinese social media and resonated with the people on whom rock music is growing.

For older fans like me, it might be a bit of a bummer that it’s suddenly hard to buy tickets for some of the bands’ gigs now — Click#15, for example, are doing commercials on microblogging site Weibo now, and their national tour tickets sold out in minutes. But good music deserves a larger audience, and the cultivation of more diverse musical tastes is long overdue in China.

Hedgehog – “Blue Daydreaming”

The Big Band just announced this week that pop superstar Chris Lee will join the show finale. Lee is dropping her new album WA on July 4, in which she collaborated with French electronic band Club Chevalis, adding to the buzz this episode ought to create. We’ll see how the pop star — who has tens of millions of fans — will help to make Chinese rock heard by even more people.

Like Atom said on the show, “The summer of Chinese rock is almost here” — and now we just hope it will last a long, long time.

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van