Correcting the record (and oriental gaze) on Radiolab’s China Mixtape episode
Many moons ago, Krish Raghav raised some serious concerns about a Radiolab episode on the emergence of the rock music scene in China. “Framing China’s musical lineage as ‘Revolutionary operas to John Denver’ is such a frustrating half-truth,” he said, “[and] positing ‘western’ music as the sole force of transformation is both wrong and a disappointing omission.” As a long-time Radiolab fan, I was horrified. Doubly so because I knew that Krish had lived in China for many years, and had even worked in the music industry there for some of that time. This month, I finally bit the bullet, and listened to the podcast.
Radiolab’s Mixtape: Dakou episode chronicles the spread of marked-for-trash, cut-out cassettes in China in the 1990s. These cassettes often contained Western music that was unavailable (and technically illegal) back then in China. Vendors and middle persons discovered stashses of these discards, repaired them so that they were playable again, and sold them on the streets. The sudden spread of these previously inaccessible tracks, in a heavily-censored market, played an outsized role in the burgeoning rock scene in China in the 90s. This is the gist of what the episode is about. But that is far from how they framed it.
Unfortunately, the episode pushes an angle of Western saviorism meets primitive Eastern people. For example, one of its main interviewees, a present-day music writer in China is described as “never [having] heard a song about death. Never imagined music could be so emotionally complicated and layered” — after hearing a song in a Hollywood movie by The Doors. This same person, they narrate, grew up on “decades of communist party operas, sprinkled only with the occasional John Denver song.” Towards the end of his story arc, the interpreter says “what he felt about dakou, if you have to summarize in one word is—gratitude.”
This oriental gaze is also applied to a rock musician in China. “He wasn’t even aware there were genres,” they say about him, and that he only thought of music as either a) Western or b) things people listen to in China. Later in the show, they (with the help of an Chinese American guest who acts as an unofficial co-host) describe the musician’s band playing a surprising “chimera of 70’s US punk and 80’s British metal.” Using a mythical beast to describe the act of mixing genres — something musicians do every day — is weird enough but then they double down and call the practice both oblivious and liberated in the same breath. The narration says: “He was able to make music liberated from its own history, its own expectations. And all across China, other musicians were doing this same thing. Obliviously mixing rock with bebop with outlaw country with classical.”
But a flowery bias is not the only issue with this story. As Krish mentions in his initial post, the central assumptions of the episode from some serious errors of omission:
- Listeners in 1970s/80s China had access to more than just revolutionary songs and John Denver. Pop and rock from Taiwan and Hong Kong had made their way into the market too. Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, who Hua Hsu calls “The Melancholy Pop Idol Who Haunts China,” was a superstar then in Taiwan and in China. Andrew Jones describes the spread of her music this way: “It’s really through that medium [cassettes], that her voice travels… deep into the Chinese countryside, and widely disseminated through Chinese cities… in the late 70s and early 80s.” Not quite to the same scale, but with a high level of access nonetheless, Hong Kong pop star Anita Mui played her first concert in China in early 1989 (scroll down to see a photo from her performance), while rock group Beyond performed in 1988 at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium.
- There was already a small but growing Chinese rock scene in the 80s. One of the pioneers of rock in China, Cui Jian, formed his first band and 1984 and had already performed at the Worker’s Stadium in 1986. Similarly, pioneering alternative group Black Panther was formed in 1987 and released their first album in 1992. They did benefit from the dakou phenomenon though. As Nathanel Amer writes, dakou “provided young Chinese of the 1990s with a large selection of Western rock music censored by the authorities, and it allowed them to re-create rock communities, which were subjected to a larger crackdown on popular cultural expression since 1989.” (Both acts were preceded by the short-lived Beatles and Rolling Stones cover band Wan Li Ma Wang in 1979.)
- Musicians mix genres all the time, no matter where they are. (This was addressed above.)
Sadly, this flattened narrative of 90s Chinese rock (which ignores the points above) is also prevalent within the scene in China. As Chaoyang Trap points out in its issue on Taiwan indie music in China:
Yes there is something like an “excessive virility” of Beijing rock, a mythology constructed since the 1980s in opposition to the more “feminine” Cantopop, as De Kloet and Chow put it. Of course it doesn’t mean that it’s true, but these kinds of stereotypical discourses have real implications.
Partly as a result, I think there has been a kind of hesitancy to talk about the influence of Taiwanese (and Hongkongese) music, and particularly pop music, in China by music scholars. The focus on “Beijing rock” and the false debate on its “authenticity” have prevented us from seeing the historical complexity of Taiwan (and Hong Kong) influence, even in the “underground” music scene.
I wish I could say that Radiolab was not to blame, that they were simply representing the above, common point of view. Unfortunately, after the episode was published, one of the interviewees in the podcast voiced their frustration on social media about the process. The hosts, they said, were stubborn about their perspective and cut out anything they said that didn’t fit their narrative. The post has since been deleted, but given all of the information above, their words do ring true.
Update: A reader sent in these new clippings from 2012, to show that this is not Radiolab’s first brush with orientalism. Read Hyphen Magazine coverage of it: Deliberate Distortions: ‘Radiolab’ and the Hmong Story and The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of Hmong Experience.