This article presents a study on the punk phenomenon in China, with a focus on how the punk musicians create new spaces within music production and performances. More importantly, it will examine how these spaces and acts of performance engage with political structures in contemporary China. By analyzing the impact that the political and economic changes of recent decades have had on the nature of Chinese society and culture, the article will first set out to understand the social context in which the punk phenomenon emerged and developed in China. Drawing on interviews with Chinese punk musicians, a discussion of the politics of place will show how a Chinese punk band has challenged a dominated space by performing in the Tiananmen Square. Informed by Attali’s theoretical discussion on “noise”, the next focus will be on an exploration of the process of power negotiation in performing punk music and seeking punk authenticity through non-conforming practices at government/institution-sponsored events. Overall, it is argued that punk performance can carve out a space for alternative political aspirations through interaction with authoritative figures (e.g. in resisting the existing powers), thus challenging state power and institutional oppression in China.
The punk phenomenon in China, which originated from Anglo-American societies, emerged in the 1990s. According to Andrew Field and Jeroen Groenewegen, this was a period in which the performance of punk music kept the revolutionary spirit alive after the emergence of pop music.1 The impact of punk rock as a music style or a culture on a society has gained wide attention in academia, particularly around its role of societal intervention despite limited discussions of the Chinese punk phenomenon. In his classical book “The Meaning of Style”, Dick Hebdige defines punk rock as an example of subculture that points to “a representation of ‘noise’, i.e. ‘the interference in orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media.’”2 An example of this appears in Paula Guerra’s examination of the punk phenomenon as social intervention, and its role as a social movement in Portugal.3 Since 2011, Portuguese punks have been frequently connected to protests that are deeply rooted in their dissatisfaction with the development of advanced capitalism. Being a form of personal and political expression, punk provides resources to agency and empowerment through a DIY ethos and anti-status quo stance. For example, some argue that the punk elements facilitated the Pussy Riot movement in Russia in their acts of public intervention.4 To be more specific, with less focus on the music, Pussy Riot employed typical punk instruments and angry attitudes or sounds to intervene in a particular Russian political context, and against Russian religious as well as social authoritarianism. Meanwhile, the performers’ clothing style can be regarded as artistic intervention in the extreme sexualization of women in Russia.
Considering the nature of rebellion, one would imagine that it would be a struggle to produce or perform punk music in the authoritarian Chinese context. Indeed, punk musicians, who are first active underground, begin to face restrictions, particularly when emerging into the mainstream, and deal with situations they have not met when performing at local dives.5 For instance, the punk band Anarchy Jerks (also known as Anarchy Boys) in their early days had to leave out songs from their album that otherwise may have been censored anyway, such as “Our Freedom of Speech has Been Eaten by the Dogs.” In contemporary China, the conflicts between punk musicians and the party-state are negotiated in a complicated way since, on the one hand, the cultural policy for promoting national values is increasingly threatened by the artistic production and expansion of the commercial market in popular culture,6 and on the other, the discourse around cultural industries can depoliticize the rock culture and music.7
In their research on the UK punk phenomenon in the 1970s, the scholars from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) adopted the subcultural approach, which conceptualizes the opposition between class-based subcultural groups and their parent culture.8 In particular, Hebdige conducted a study examining the punk phenomenon in post-war Britain and framed subculture mainly in terms of style. The subcultural approach, however, has since been found to be problematic not only in terms of an absence of consideration for the lived experiences of the subject group but also, as Williams points out, its one-sidedness in regarding ideological conflict as a prerequisite for the formation of subcultural style.9 Thus this subcultural approach is not adopted in this article. Rather, by exploring the lived experiences of punk musicians and focusing on punk performance, our central concern is how the punk musicians create new spaces that provide outlets for expression and identity in a restricted environment, often alongside conflicting interactions with authoritative figures, such as policemen or government/institution officials. To address this topic, we explore how the punk disturbance invokes a particular set of reactions from the agents of social control, and the interplay between the non-conformity and the reaction. Accompanied by a process of seeking punk authenticity as well as an intention of initiating political interventions, this article explores a particular example of when some punk musicians intruded and challenged a dominated space—Tiananmen Square—by filming a music video there; and also explores the interruption of government/institution-sponsored activities through non-conforming practices in performing punk music. The findings are supported by data collection from 2013, when one of the authors spent four months in various cities of China, including Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, and interviewed 34 Chinese punk musicians (covering performers of various musical sub-genres, such as hardcore, Oi!, and street punk), ranging from the old generation to the younger one. He also participated in two types of music events organized in various performance venues, including punk-only performances in small venues and performances consisting of mixed genres, such as metal, pop or punk in larger venues.
PUNK MUSIC IN CHINA: HISTORY, CULTURE AND SOCIETY
Possibly the first punk in China, He Yong, arose in 1994 in Beijing, and the first two punk bands, Underbaby and Catcher in the Rye, emerged at the same time. Only a few years later, 1998 witnessed the explosive growth of punk bands in China. At that time, there were several influential bands, such as 69, Brain Failure, and Anarchy boys, which inspired the young generation to sport Mohawks and leather jackets. Also, a landmark event occurred that year: a punk club called the Scream (嚎叫俱乐部) opened in Beijing, growing into a significant cultural space for the punk musicians of that period—for instance, Wuliao Contingent. The term “youth restlessness” was adopted to contextualize the nature of the band Underbaby.10 Meanwhile, punk music and philosophy, which are related to the pursuit of individual freedom,11 provided a frame of reference for facilitating individual action. The special characteristics of the punk phenomenon in China, featuring a particular visual style, an anarchistic philosophy, and a lively performing style, have attracted the attention of the mainstream and the authorities from all different aspects, including gangs, deviant youth, and controversial performers.12 More importantly, the punks, who are rebellious in both their life paths and musical careers, take full initiative not only to collectively create symbolic fashion styles, but also punk identities in public.
As part of the emerging youth subcultural/cultural forms after the 1990s, punk music is influenced by the political and economic changes that affected the nature of Chinese society. The essential conflicts, as Juchuan Li comments on this period, lie in the sudden gain of a great deal of “freedom” in all sorts of aspects, including bodily, sensational, materialistic changes, and becoming “individualistic,” but at the same time, the existence of political suppression continued, thus leading to the emergence of various types of rock music (especially punk music) in different cities.13 This period can be traced back to Deng Xiaoping‘s 1978 reform,14 when the new capitalist trend equipped people with freedom in accommodating a great variety of values. This trend of embracing freedom and individuality can also be seen in other domains of life, for instance, in the burgeoning genre of youth literature. According to Ian Weber, the reform forced Chinese youth to confront the changing “social typography.”15 In his analysis, a burgeoning genre of literature (for instance, Shanghai Baby) demonstrates that people in their early 20s attempted (albeit with a pragmatic and materialism-driven approach) to integrate individualistic values into a society permeated by collective-oriented values, counting on in-groups (such as family or organizations) for support in these efforts (Hofstede, 1994) or conforming to the disciplinary power of the state. Another example came from a well-known vanguard artistic movement known as “89 Modern Art Exhibition,” which emerged in February 1989, right before the Tiananmen Square incident.16 It promoted individualistic values, challenging traditional art exhibitions. This contrasted heavily with the pre-1985 artistic forms in China that strictly forbade individualistic styles of creation.
The punk movement happened at a time of change in terms of the pattern of state control and the forms of resistance. As noted by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden, if 1989 can be seen as the end to a time of struggles and conflicts, a more confrontational and direct approach tended to be adopted to challenge the authorities before the 1990s, while indirect and non-violent resistance from individuals became the typical approach after the 1990s.17 The Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with a bloody and violent governmental suppression, has been significant in this change, constituting a threat to potential protests thereafter. While the emergence of youth cultural forms may seem to herald changes of Chinese overarching social systems, the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest led Chinese leaders to “find a solution to their legitimacy crisis, particularly among the rebellious youth.”18 In economic terms, the strategy was to make China rich while transforming it into a middle-class society; politically, analysts looked at the “liberal initiatives” in China and argued about the emergence of a “soft authoritarianism.”19 For instance, the reform has opened up new spaces for expressing local interests in elections or led the state to retreat from direct control over many spheres of life.20 This resonates with how Jeroen de Kloet and Antony Fung understand contemporary Chinese society. They employ a Foucauldian perspective from which influence is not limited to state-centralized control. Instead, “it extends through various capillaries of social and cultural channels to manage political activities and events, family and household, and pedagogy and education.”21 For them, it is particularly interesting to see how young people construct alternative spaces, and intervene in the web of power that exists in Chinese society, even if momentarily and temporarily.
Jacques Attali (1985) once explained the changing role of musicians in European society, where musicians gained new status as entrepreneurs rather than valets, whose bodies belonged to a lord after monopoly; and music “fell subject to the rules and contradictions of the capitalist economy.”22 Similarly, the post-Tiananmen Square period not only witnessed the growth of the Chinese music industry, but also the changing role of musicians who had gained more power in expression. As Shuwen Qu points out, the voice can serve as a powerful signifier of political ideology; a pop singing style introduced to the official voice soundscape was regarded as a challenge to the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.23 For instance, the rock musician Cui Jian’s forceful outcrying voice signifies individualism and heroism. A song “Nothing to my name” (一无所有, literally “I own nothing”) by this controversial figure had become the anthem of the protestors in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. It can be interpreted as a declaration of rejecting tradition and an expression of confusion toward the dramatic societal change after the reform. As Cui Jian, together with other rock musicians, carved out a new space for youth culture that is fostered by rock music,24 revolutionary discourse was sublimated in music and art forms in the aftermath of the protesters’ failure.25 Punk musician Miss Ka commented on a particular style of performance,
Pogo, for instance, is believed as a revolution. This country regards people as idiotic with no feelings. You can have no expression; you can also have a sweet smile. But it will become a problem if you laugh out loud. If you laugh to an extreme extent, which makes them confused and worried, you will have a big problem.
This account indicates that the punk performance often equips itself with an emotional “acting-out” and implies the relationship of watching and being watched between the authorities and the musicians, which has facilitated her construction of an identity as a musician with a strategy. Influenced by western punk bands, Chinese punk musicians share a similar punk philosophy that promotes an anti-government stance.26 Together with their frequent stage political talk before starting to perform, the extravagant bodily behaviors or emotions, for instance, pogoing or laughing, can cause anxieties in “the people in charge,” Deeply speaking, the feelings of anxiety, which are invoked by the ambiguity,27 come from the contrast between the official pop music performance and the punk performance. To be specific, the well-trained pop singers are well-disciplined with controlled body stance, a denial of individuality, a sense of authority and acting as signifiers of the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.28 In contrast, the punk performance is similar to how Attali asserts, the game of music is similar to the game of power with the feature of monopolizing the right of violence, which in turn, results in noise control from the party-state.29 As noted by Stanley Cohen, anxiety can be reduced by structuring the situation into a more predictable direction.30 In reacting to deviance, a more complicated belief system can be established not only to redefine the situation but also to assign blame toward a specific responsible agent. In many cases of performance, those active punk musicians and their particular style can become the responsible agents for determining a challenging situation.
In a “soft authoritarian” social context, it is not surprising to see that gaze, instead of direct violence, becomes a strategy of social control since looking connotes power and being looked at is powerless.31 In fact, the gaze at performances from the agents of social control, such as police officers or political authorities, can be associated with the force that, in John Berger’s words, may cause the objects to structure their consciousness to follow how the “looking” ones treat them. In his analysis of the issue of gaze within a sexual relationship, the fact that men gaze at women who, in turn, are being watched not only determines the relationship between them, but also the relationship between women and themselves. The woman surveys herself but in the same way that the man surveys her. In this process, “she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision—a sight.”32 Thus, the gaze can potentially define the relationship between the authorities and the musicians. From another perspective, “the ‘sovereign subject’ gave way to multiple identities forged by diverse institutional mechanisms of supervision, surveillance and review, collectively conceived by Foucault as “the gaze.”33As the instrumental gaze emphasizes the “looking” of the authority aiming to maintain social order, the identificatory gaze, serving as a foundation of administrative violence, is more related to the individual’s internalization of the authorities’ viewpoints and accordingly carrying out oppression in order to claim their own authority.34 Direct violence, such as verbal or physical abuse or threat, usually happens when the individual internalization is not adequate. The cases presented in this article suggest that the force of gaze is often met with resistance since those punk musicians are often very aware of “being watched” and so deliberately rebel against it. Moreover, the “ideal” spectators for the punk musicians are a type of audience that is not only passionate about the music and culture but also has an accumulation of knowledge about them. In those “ideal” performances, the punk musicians and the spectators both submit to certain rules, for instance, being political or behaving extremely emotional. Nevertheless, in reality, the performances with the control agents or other spectators present who participate in the scene without any particular intentions, can often shape a performance and create noise experience in a more spontaneous way.
Widely speaking, punk in the Chinese context provides another example of the global punk phenomena. The processes of globalization and localization simultaneously constitute a complicated web of network flows, which shows progressive cultural homogeneity and highlights specific values as crucial in understanding popular music.35 While punk as a reaction against mainstream rock and roll music was first developed in England and the United States,36 it is difficult to trace a “pure” point of origin of any transnational cultural forms,37 especially in today’s world, where long-standing punk scenes can be found in South Asia, Japan, East and Western Europe, etc. The development of a punk scene in China, similarly to how Sean Martin-Iverson analyzes the Indonesian scene, can be described as “a form of cosmopolitanism urbanism” due to its involvement with global connections.38 As the earlier generation of Chinese punk musicians first became familiar with the punk music genre as introduced by David O’Dell, in this case, through a mix tape that contained music by bands such as Superchunk, Bad Brains, and Green Day, most of today’s musicians benefit from systematic use of the internet, informal social networks, and the music tours that enable the flow of ideas, bands or styles, which, in Augusto Santos Silva and Paula Guerra’s opinion, allows for a differentiated communication reaching a global level.39 In most instances, the Chinese musicians mobilize communication by sending emails or messaging services to punk musicians in other countries, for instance such as Cuba, Switzerland, or Indonesia, thus establishing collaborative activities or exchanging ideas. Meanwhile, punk, similar to other popular cultures of youth movement, became swiftly globalized. As the widespread use of the English language can be taken into account to explain the global force of punk movement,40 urban Chinese young people, like those in many other countries, have quickly adopted the sounds of punk and the lifestyles associated with it. In fact, the punk aesthetics of transgression provides young people a means to “voice their frustration at the alienation and disempowerment produced by modernity.”41 As Chinese society values conformity, the urban youngsters’ act of pushing the boundaries of conformity by adopting punk aesthetics itself can be regarded as a practice of resistance to the mainstream society. In this sense, the idea of punk aesthetics as a form of resistance in the Chinese context has its significance even today.
From another perspective, while the local punk scene in China to some extent can be regarded as a form of mimesis to the global scene, the imitation is never complete. Theorists of globalization, as Brent Luvaas points out,42 have devoted much time to discussing the subtle or significant changes in music forms in the process of moving across national borders and reflecting on the local indigenized process.43 The “local” can refer to maintaining an active relationship with a global culture.44 In this sense, the Chinese punk scene, similarly to how Sean Martin-Iverson interprets the Indonesian scene in Bandung, constitutes “a global network of cultural production and communication in which ‘the local’ circulates as a social value, cohering into particular scenes that implement models of social organization”.45 The punk identities are thus shaped by the “localness” in the global communication. On the one hand, punk music in China emphasizes the self-management of music process, centering on the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos and proposing a distinctive lifestyle and culture. On the other hand, the very particular Chinese political context in which Chinese punk is performed prompts specific forms of response to today’s political circumstances. Thus in this article, research on the local Chinese punk scene is shaped by the specific social, cultural and political background, but at the same time, is part of the global punk community. To be specific, the Chinese punk musicians who embrace a globally shared DIY ethos and underground performance have experienced tensions and conflicts with the control from the government. The negotiation in performing is particularly evident in the musicians’ attempts to organize the performances of their own spontaneity. While established power relations can shape the arrangement of a performance,46 the attitude of denial from the government can justify the political value of rock music in the Chinese social context.47 As some of the participants need to confront denial from the government in gaining a performance permit due to controversial themes or simply uncertainty, most of them have experienced surveillance or intervention from government officials even in private punk-only performances. In an environment filled with restrictions and negotiations, the punk musicians have started to create new spaces for expressing themselves, along with the process of pursuing punk authenticity.
IN TIANANMEN SQUARE: A CHALLENGE TO THE DOMINATED SPACE
The reciprocal interaction between space and social practice has often been discussed in the theorization of space in social life.48 As Linda Hershkovitz suggests, this interaction often involves competition, conflict and frequent violence.49 In China, Tiananmen Square serves such a space for conflicting social practices. With its historical morphology and monuments, it embodies the centralized political power of the state with.50 The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the historical process of occupation of the Square by dissidents and its defense by power holders, who symbolize the control of the Chinese state. Nevertheless, the public space is never completely enclosed. The conflict between the domination of a public space and the appropriation of it for communicating oppositional political meanings is part of the social process that produces and transforms social space. For instance, the 1989 student protest, through temporary occupation of the space, not only challenged the dominated space, but also held the power of “apparently ‘placeless’ movements to create and transform space in new and authentically revolutionary ways”.51 More recently, one punk band intruded this space in order to create a music video and thus reshaped this space through confrontation; the production of the music video is a manifestation of the power negotiation between the state and the “space of the other”. This is not surprising since punk ideology involves harboring an anti-state attitude, and some punk music styles such as street punk and hardcore punk exhibit a clear anti-police stance.52 Inherently, the process of punk intervention is progressive.
Mr. Li is from a Skinhead Oi! Punk band, who created a video about Chinese police and practiced the slogan A.C.A.B. (“All Cops Are Bastards”) popularized by the British Oi! punk band The 4-Skins in their 1980’s song with the same title. This demonstrates that globalization refers to the network of interconnections and interdependences, not only connected by financial flows, information and people, but also by beliefs, and various appropriations and images.53 In this case, with both the intentions of performing punk and directly challenging the particular authority figure and the representatives of the Chinese government, Mr Li started to film a music video in Tiananmen Square. The idea of performance, in this case, is concerned with “what individual subjects do, say, ‘act-out’”.54 Mr Li demonstrated his agency through this political strategy of performance. He described the filming process to me:
We were filming in front of Tiananmen Square. At that time, a police officer said we would be allowed to shoot only if we had permission. I told him we didn’t. We were then told we should go find People’s Square. Then I said I was a citizen and that there was no sign saying ‘no photography’. In the end, he confiscated my video camera. There was a big crowd at that moment.
We can notice that the elements of sound (i.e. the arguments), bodily performance (the gesture of filming and the bodily confrontation), interactions between the two oppositional actors (i.e. the punk musicians and the policeman) and between them and spectators (i.e. the crowd) constitute a process of intervention. As discussed above, Tiananmen Square serves as a dominated space filled with political power. The negotiation between the intruders who argued about their civil rights, and the policeman who responded to them, i.e. the defense of the space and the expulsion of the occupier, demonstrates the politics of place. The appropriation and transformation of the space by the punk musicians – entering Tiananmen Square with a video camera, arguing with the police and using the Square as a performing space for the music video—can be regarded as a strategy, or in Michael de Certeau’s words, a tactic.55 To be specific, the powerless, in this case, the punk musicians, gain their power from a tactical use of the “space of the other,” i.e. conducting a rather daily spatial practice in the terrain of the holder of power, and organizing it according to their own power. More importantly, the punk musicians momentarily produce a space with their alternative expressions and assert their punk identities not only through their appearance, such as by sporting bald heads, belted trousers and Doc. Martens boots, but also their firm resistance to the authority figures. Generally speaking, the meanings of this public space that put individuals into a relatively unimportant position have been shifted to one where one can feel powerful in the process of confrontation and negotiation, even only temporarily.
From another dimension, the final product of the music video that demonstrates the process of intervening in Tiananmen Square leads to a new way of seeing the situation around it, and thus entails a production of space by the punk musicians. In the full video, apart from the images of the musicians’ wandering around the city, the footage of the policeman who attempted to block the camera was presented, accompanied with the lyrics, “you take money you send people, you send people to the fucking jail. We are never afraid, we are never afraid. You are a fucking gun. We will fight, we will fight until we are dead.” In this sense, the power of punk resistance not only rests on the musicians’ appropriation of the space but is also demonstrated through the capacity of articulating their political visions through performance.
PUNK NOISE: THE PROCESS OF POWER NEGOTIATION
Rock music festivals in China nowadays tend to be state-sponsored.56 In particular, music festivals have become a means for local governments to construct their city image and develop local cultural industry. Meanwhile, the collaboration between local government officials and the festival organizers enables bottom-up initiatives and offers talented artists the opportunities to perform in the mainstream and gain official recognition. Thus it is not surprising that the punk musicians in China are invited to perform in the government/institution-sponsored events for simply entertaining the public or promoting the city image. Nevertheless, as “the musician has become an element in a new network of power,”57 those Chinese punk musicians often make their agency clear through musical strategies, along with the process of seeking punk authenticity.
Mr. Wei’s band enjoys great popularity in the punk scene and has therefore been invited to several performances organized by his local government. In a particular performance, Mr. Wei conducted a usual punk practice—commenting on an emerging political conflict between the local government and the residents—i.e. political talk before performance, which offended the local government officials. Mr. Wei told me about the story:
We were planning to perform 10 songs. When we arrived, we were told not to perform two songs of the 10. On the second day when we had lunch, we received a phone call: another song was forbidden to be performed. So we had only seven songs to perform. Before the performance, another song was cancelled. We had to perform for a certain long time and worried that there were not enough songs to fit the time. Then I said I could just play the rhythm of songs and get rid of the lyrics. One of the organisers said okay. After half a minute, my agent came to the stage and shouted at me not to play. I said I knew it. I wouldn’t sing it. But when he stepped off the stage, he was hit by one of the officers. The reason was that he didn’t effectively stop me from playing.
Before its theoretical discussion, noise had been experienced as “destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages.”58 It can evoke an image of subversion, thus being repressed and monitored. As power reduces the noise made by others or adds sound prevention, its strength can possibly be judged by how effectively it controls the noise. While noise involves unauthorized voices or sounds, Mr. Wei’s seemingly legitimate singing becomes noise to the officials who attempt to sanction it. The above account thus shows the paranoid process of the local government officials’ severe surveillance as well as their over-reaction to punk performance in attempting to prevent “noise” in the public space. In fact, the surveillance had already started before the performance, which can be seen from the phone call from the officers asking for the cancellation of songs. This process reveals the gaze from the government, or more specifically, instrumental gaze in Dean MacCannell and Juliet Flower MacCannell’s words since the “looking” of the authority has been intense in the form of snooping on the victims’ information base.59 More importantly, it can be linked to direct violence in the way that the gaze isolates the object of intimidation, and can thus render aggressive attack or torture more effectively. From another perspective, this process is analogical to disaster research in a similar way that Cohen associates it with his analysis of Mod and Rocker culture.60 The over-reaction from the political authorities is a consequence of their recognition of cues to a threat that cannot be denied. In reacting to the warning phase of the noise performance, they were initially in the process of recognizing and validating appropriate cues, for instance, checking the musician’s background, in determining the danger of punk musicians. Meanwhile, they reached a heightened level of anxiety and were “set” to expect the threat that even the minor gestures from the punk musicians, in this case, singing without lyrics, can raise the probability of violation in their minds and thus invoke a violent reaction towards the situation.
More importantly, the performing space, in Mr. Wei’s case, formerly under strict control by the officials (through a pre-cancellation and warning), is reshaped into a space filled with “noise”. The noise comes not only from the punk songs, but also from Mr. Wei’s punk practice—political talk on stage before singing. The behavior of the government officials can be read as a response to the momentary loss of power in this direct confrontation.
It is also challenging when punk noise arises in a performance filled with various genres of music, organized in a particular environment, for instance, a university. As Mr. Cai described in his interview:
We performed a song called “fuck” in a university. Before us, all of the songs were just normal pop songs since it was a show for celebrating the government achievements. But we began with “fuck you” and were cut off straightaway. If you (the government) invite us here, then don’t cut me off. Now I won’t blame the university I blame you (the government). Later the government sent someone to fine us and threatened us to be caught in prison. I didn’t have money. If the government put me into the prison, I would feel contented to be with those political prisoners.
Within a performance with mainstream aesthetics and filled with controlling agents, in this case, the university and the government, the vocal style of punk music is deemed as challenging “noise”. While the government apparently expects the mere celebration of its achievements through performance, and its gaze at performance connotes an internalization of those expectations from the performers, punk musicians, who are conscious of being looked at, resist conforming to the “safe” style and keep practicing their chaotic and rude way in a constrained environment. Berger has described this in terms of the role of gaze in a sexual relationship where women survey themselves in the same way that men survey them through the process of “watching”.61 In Mr. Cai’s case, while the controlling agents gaze at the performance, the punk musicians have also undergone the process of evaluating the organizers through both the information provided beforehand and the conforming behaviors of the pop musicians, i.e., discerning their celebration of the achievements of the government, and realizing their expectations in the scene. But this recognition of being watched does not result in a conforming self; quite oppositely, the situation becomes one of the musicians expecting a reaction from the controlling agents to their challenging behavior. As “dirty words” are officially banned in any public shows in China, the deliberate choice of an offensively titled song irritates the government, particularly in an environment that explicitly forbids such use of language. Although it finally resulted in abrupt interruption by the government officials, one punk musician’s statement that “the fact that they cut us off means that they fear us” demonstrates how this alternative musical strategy of challenging the authorities can work, i.e. by making them react in such a manner.
From another perspective, for those musicians, resisting the power brought by the gaze that can potentially result in violence constitutes the process of creating punk identity in performance. To be specific, the non-conformity is a result of the pursuit of authenticity relating to Stephen Duncombe’s analysis that the threat of being assimilated can invoke authenticity and enable a division of community members.62 More specifically, the nature of underground Chinese popular music is conceptualized as “noise” for “low culture, but also as a musical pollution that challenges the mainstream aesthetics and ideologies.” 63 Punk rock music was introduced as one type of noise music in 70s America. In this genre, passion and energy, rather than talent and skill, are often valued. Meanwhile, artistic failure in this genre, for instance, the chaos and loss of control during the noise musicians’ performances, is generally acceptable for its representing a departure from the celebration of musical achievement in a traditional sense. While Attali points out that the sound, whether regarded as noise, silence or music, is negotiated in society rather than being an inherent quality,64 whereas punk music with its aggressive emotions and its similarity to angry protests in its vocal style65 has become “noise” and thus appears threatening to the mainstream aesthetics in China. More importantly, the “noise” not only challenges the established territory but also produces a space of its own. To be specific, with loud volume, aggressive emotion, dirty lyrics and sonic power, and political motivations, punk music conflicts with the typical popular music scene, and constructs a new space for alternative expression. The utterances of speakers (i.e. the musicians in this case) open up spaces for diverse ways of being through their anticipation of a response. Punk musicians’ identification with political rebellion thus locates them in the opposite, resistant but powerful position to the government.
Unlike the above two musicians’ experiences of being restricted, the performance successfully proceeded in Mr. Ma’s story. Similarly, his band performed in a university with pop music bands:
The audience sat still when the first two bands performed. We encouraged people to stand up and pogo while we performed [. . .] we said, “Fuck, we will lead you to smash the academic administration center and hit the lecturers” [. . .] I poured beer when I finished. The audience copied my style and poured beer everywhere [. . .] This threatened the lecturers and made the university very unhappy.
The key to the above transformation through physical participation, from the scene of performers’ orthodox style and audience’s posture of sitting still to a more active scene of pouring beer from the performers and audience, is affect. From a political angle, Deborah Gould defines affect as “non-conscious and untamed, but nevertheless registered, experiences of bodily energy and intensity that arise in response to stimuli impinging on the body.”66 In Mr. Ma’s case, the elements of intervention—loud music, the bodily experience of jumping and pouring beer, fear of the authorities and the desire of being free from the students—influence the body directly and become emotion, making itself significant and recognizable. As Attali points out, “A network can be destroyed by noises that attack and transform it”.67 More importantly, noise carries order, and can create new meanings and free a listener’s imagination. In a sense, the musicians break the control through shouting and acting out on the stage, thus intervening in the former power relation established by the institutional authorities and the government officials. Through an embodied communication with the audience, the power structure in that space is temporarily replaced by the domination of the musicians as well as the audience—the students who violate the university rules. Meanwhile, the violators often have a symbolic relationship with a supportive audience, and the larger number of spectators can hinder the police in their attempts to operate crowd control and even encourage the deviance.68 The sudden unexpected forms of non-conformity—the shouting of phrases, such as “smash the academic administration”—also make the deficiencies of the controlling agents obvious that in this case, the power of gaze fails to exert on the punk musicians a feeling of dominance, Deborah Gould and this failure provides the opportunity for the musicians to restructure the situation. Thus, it is the new power from the musicians that creates this alternative form of space, in contrast to the authority-controlled space. Moreover, the punk style of emotional performance creates spaces of intimacy for strangers in “public” settings, which is one of the many pursuits for punk musicians. In this sense, the punk musicians and the audience collaborate with each other to create a “noise” experience. As Silva and Paula point out, “Where there are young people, there can be punk.”69 Taking the example of youth in New York and London, Dunn notes that punk can offer the possibility of disalienation to resist the various forms of alienation from the social, economic and political forces around it.70 Aiming at delimiting the distance between audience and performers, the punk style of performance also provides access and participation in the alienating process of professionalism. For the Chinese youngsters, this performance can thus be called one of those “utopian moments” in Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau’s analysis.71 In those moments, youth can temporarily construct alternative spaces, interrupt and unbundle the web of power woven by the various authoritative parties, in this case, the university and the government.
As performance is an exercise of power, punk performance in particular constructs a space with potential subversive power that can reshape the power relations within the music events, or with intensive emotions that can encourage expressions from the musicians, thus intervening in the power structure through performance. While cases similar to Mr. Ma’s exist where performances are successfully made without being stopped and even revert the situation, most of the time the punk musicians are experiencing the gaze, the interventions or violence from the authorities. At those times, the momentary feelings of conducting successful political interventions, nevertheless, are prevalent among the punk musicians despite the unsatisfying consequences. For instance, their interpretation of “being cut off” is not interpreted as a failure but as behavior that proves its political meanings. Whereas the analysis of “self-politics” from Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernshiem in a way that enables “individuals [to] feel themselves to be originators of political intervention” can possibly apply in the rock phenomenon,72 the above stories have shown both the sense of self-politics from punk individuals as well as the political values mediated by direct confrontations.
CONCLUSION: PERFORMANCE, POWER AND MUSIC
In a post-Tiananmen Square period, not only has “soft authoritarianism” emerged in China as individuals began to gain freedom in expression to some extent, but also the resistant pattern has changed from a more direct and confrontational approach to an indirect and non-violent one. Thus this article illustrates the processes used by punk musicians in China to create alternative spaces within this restricted environment, often associated with authoritarian control, and making their agency clear through musical production and performance. They employ daily but confrontational gestures, punk instruments, loud volume, a chaotic and rude singing style, and angry attitudes or sounds to intervene in the particular Chinese political context and reshape the meanings of the formerly dominated space by the authorities.
Power is discussed in this article from three dimensions: first, how gaze at a performance is used as a strategy of social control for the political authorities in China. This is revealed in the process of gathering information on the musicians and connoting an internalization of the thoughts from the authorities or a submission to them; it can become powerful when exerting direct violence or interruption on the violators. Second, how this force of gaze can invoke resistance from the musicians in such a way that they are conscious of being watched and respond by demonstrating their deliberate non-conformity to the scene through an alternative sonic style or an anti-authoritarian stance, accordingly pursuing punk authenticity and realizing their punk identities. Third, how the musicians empower themselves through creating an alternative space for their expression and identity, either by employing daily tactics to use “the space of the other” or by producing “noise”.
As music serves as a political and social force to establish relationships between sounds/voice and space/place,73 punk music that figures as a social practice in this scenario sets up relationships between the sounds of anti-authority and the spaces controlled by authorities. In David Matless’s words, “The sounds of a region find themselves within relations of power which may allow for their difference, reshape their substance, move them to one side, or call for their silence.”74 Meanwhile, punk is an international movement with local varieties.75 The global influence on the Chinese punk scene can be seen from its attitude of appropriation of cultural signs from other places with nuanced differences. In the Chinese context, punk musicians can often make unauthorized sounds that are regarded as noise. To be specific, the use of banned “dirty words” in public shows, political talk, or songs with controversial lyrics, have all become challenging in specific contexts or moments. Since the performing space is either dominated by the state or is supposedly controlled by different authoritarian parties, the sociopolitical mechanism of enforcing silence can be encountered in punk performance. George Revill points out that as the practices of making music engage social and political practices in dynamic networks embedded with cultural meaning, sounds can usually experience the taking on of meaning from their performed location.76 In this sense, the subversive role of sounds from the punk musicians, which, in Revill’s words, speaks to us directly and cuts through symbolic boundaries by using musical immediacy as a communicative practice and produces alternative spaces for expression and identity.77 In this process, they empower themselves in resisting the authority figures and actualize their political visions to some extent.