CHINA ROCK & ROLL HISTORY: DJ YOUDAI
Rock and roll in the West came about when post-WWII youth were given cars, portable radios, television, and the mass-produced electric pickup by Les Paul and Rickenbacker.
Suddenly, for the first time in history, there was a race to find out how much independence and influence people of basically immature age could have in the modern era. The tinge of rebellion, the sweat of dance and sex, racial integration and the overturning of the old order… these were their mostly juvenile obsessions, and these were also the serious threats which were wrapped up in that bubblegum doo-wop and malt shop pop about “Open the Door Richard” (he maybe boning in there, that dick!)
Teenagers in the 30s and 40s did not get their own cars. Teenagers in the 50’s did. Suddenly they had the power to gather in large numbers, commingle without a chaperon, and make babies in the backseat. And they listened to the radio belting out The Orioles and Bill Haley while they did it.
Thus it was the DJ who was at the heart of the new teen culture, one which could create movements in a way that was not possible before those kids (who had grown up listening to their transistor radios under their blankets at night) were then handed the keys to their own cars.
TV was still new, and by the 60’s would shape the next generation of teenagers even more than radio, but from the time the RCA company started mass-producing those little boxes in the 1920’s onward to the end of the 80’s, it was the DJ who was the epitome of good taste and hidden knowledge, the man who had his ear to the ground and then broadcast it on the air for everyone to dig.
It was DJ Alan Freed (aka “Moondog” and the original Sultan of Swing) who is credited with playing records on the air and calling them rock and roll first. And, in the movie American Graffiti, for example, it is the radios which are constantly on, chattering in the background as a source of underground intelligence. (If you can refer to Wolfman Jack that way… But, hey, Clap for the Wolfman!)
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Still, as an American who was born in 1968 and watched it all happen, I had seen the beatnik to rock and roll to hippie rebellion spiral out to its radical edge and then swing back as it was assimilated into the American brand and co-opted by capitalism as just the groovy new way to sell things. (See, Wolfman Jack and “one flakey time machine” ).
Post-Grease Olivia Newton John America had already digested its nostalgia for “innocent” corruption of its 1950’s youth, barely avoided indigestion due to an overindulgent mix of drugs and liquor in 70’s, and then had shat it all back out as the pure cynicism of 1980’s big business. Big hair metal, post-disco synthpop, then its anti-matter Grunge. By the time I had washed up at the Bei Jing airport, Iggy Pop was selling insurance when he wasn’t grinding glass into his bare chest.
So as an American living in China for the first time in 1994, I was cynical about rock and roll at a time when they were just getting shipments of boxes of cut-out tapes of The Clash and Pearl Jam. They couldn’t understand the irony-and fake rage humor of The Pixies, for example, and I didn’t know what kind of assumptions I could make about the media savvy of the average Chinese person.
(When I found a scuffed copy of Doolittle near Zhong Guang Cun I was elated, and I said to the youthful proprietor, “Bu Cuo, not bad. These guys are funny. Ta men gao xiao.” “Gao Xiao? Ta men punk,” he said, indicating he thought they were thrash punk by their placement on the shelf with The Clash.)
So at first, I was duly cautious. Then, after I realized the city was far too big to have spies following me wherever I went, I began to search out the alternative culture I suspected might be there.
But I must admit it is a fallacy of western assumptions to go looking for and wanting to test the limit, to see where the line is. Perhaps it was because it was unclear where the line was, but it was a very exciting idea to find out that some freedoms of movement and some freedoms of speech were available to the average Chinese citizen.
In a country supposedly so authoritarian, they were free as long as they kept a low profile, even ones who liked rock and roll. In fact, it struck me that it was universal, that instinct to find the freedom to be who you are, and then to find a market in which to sell that idea to someone else.
At the same time, it was certainly still in the air that rock and roll and western behavior were dangerous and could get you thrown in jail on any kind of a pretext. (More on that later). It’s funny, because in 2014 China has rock and roll selling products on TV and commercial The Voice style singing contest programs just like the rest of the world, and they all have rock and roll haircuts and sing western style pop and rock and dance tracks, and no one blinks.
It’s a global YouTube and advertising-driven music world now in China, there is not much room for genuine rebellion that doesn’t also rebel against commercialism itself (and therefore dooms itself to irrelevance) and any threat rock once represented in China has been assimilated rather quickly and neutered just as much as it was in America into a kind of fashion if not progressive politics.
That I wanted to immediately help work with the Chinese cool kids to form some kind of rock and roll movement in YuanMingYuan and Beijing while I was there, that would overcome these barriers to freedom in this authoritarian country… it was perhaps as idealistic and naive as the teenagers that rock and roll is all about, and just as stupid in its own way.
But why not? I took for granted such freedoms, but here there was a line which was finally getting grayer by the day and it was exciting to watch. Why not show how easy it was to simply trample over the line (even if it wasn’t that easy for some)? After all, it was just a stupid stunt, being in a band with loud amps playing rock for the kids. But clearly the Chinese authorities in Zhong Nan Hai did not share that cynicism about the reach and power of western 20th century music to destabilize society (that is, until the money was too good to refuse).
And that is how I wound up writing a front-page features article on the DJ Youdai, perhaps the Alan Sneed of Chinese rock music, in the local expatriate newspaper Beijing Scene which was full of all kinds of talk of testing authority.