When the capital city of the world’s largest authoritarian police state hosts a rock concert with headliners Public Enemy and Nine Inch Nails, how does it prevent mayhem from breaking out? Answer: police. Lots of em. The Beijing Pop Festival was an impressive contradiction of rock-fueled mayhem that brought performers and audience together, and rigid military discipline that kept them apart.
The festival was a two-day weekend event that took place in the northern section of the sprawling Chaoyang Park on the eastern side of the city. One entered the southern gate of the park and passed through a seemingly endless child-oriented amusement park before reaching the grounds of the event. The open grounds offered precious little in the way of shade, and on both days the hot Beijing sun rained its harsh light upon us. Thankfully, a generous supply of cold beers and mojitos (thank god for those mojitos) kept us cool and buzzed throughout the event.
There were two stages. The first stage, sponsored by HIT FM, was the teaser stage--people could enter for free. The main stage was located further north beyond a hillock that kept the two stages from interfering with each other, though there was some bleeding between the two stages, only audible when one stage was silent. Before entering the main stage, one passed through a colonnade of stalls selling rock-oriented products: t-shirts, CDs, and other paraphernalia--packaged cool for the Chinese masses. After paying 200 RMB in advance or 250 at the gate (or less if you wanted to risk buying from a local “yellow cow” or scalper) you walked in and made your way past another set of stalls to the hillside where the stage was located. It was an impressive stage all right. Unfortunately, between the stage and the bulk of the audience was a fenced-off “VIP” area with seats reserved for those who didn’t want to get their hands dirtied partying with the great unwashed. A team of Beijing’s finest Bao’an policemen was arrayed along the inner side of the metal fence to keep the masses from jumping over. This was an accident just waiting to happen.
Well, I suppose you could say it was a fair compromise on the part of the festival organizers. Word has it that the man behind the pop festival, Jason Magnus, who runs a company called RockinChina, is engaged to the granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, the man who carried China into the “opening and reforms” era. I cannot confirm this rumor but I’ve heard it enough times to feel comfortable blogging this bit of gossip. Hence the relative lack of resistance on the part of our wonderful police state to the very idea of a rock concert on their back yard. Yet the constant, nagging police presence made it very clear that this was a grudging concession on the part of the Beijing authorities.
The symbolic gist of the VIP setup was the Orwellian message: “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Especially if those some are China’s highest level party cadres or their scions.
The physical and psychological rift between audience and performers that the VIP area created was challenged repeatedly by the more raucous members of the great unwashed. A crowd of young punks, both men and women, Chinese and foreign, gathered just behind the fence near center stage, sporting their mohawks and bearing their chests in defiance of the cage made just for them. When the more energetic bands came on, they moshed and crowd-surfed with great violent relish, occasionally sending a crowd-surfer over the fence, only to be repelled back by the hands of policemen. This happened repeatedly during the Public Enemy concert on Saturday night, and again during the Marky Ramone concert on Sunday afternoon. At one point, a young punk must have grabbed a policeman’s hat off his head, which the crowd then flung repeatedly in the air in a ritual taunting gesture reminiscent of a caged monkey in a zoo. Some people in the audience--foreigners mainly--even tried to talk with the police and get them on their side. At one point, Marky Ramone asked the audience to calm down so that they could hold the event again next year. How ironic: one of the members of the godfather family of New York-style punk speaking out against his youngest followers on behalf of the world’s biggest police state. But I see the point: in the world of rock in China, concessions are a necessity.
The only performer who overtly challenged this control-oriented setup was the lead singer and guitarist of the Japanese rock band Rize, who performed on the main stage on Saturday afternoon. At one point in their concert, he tore off his shirt, revealing a seriously cut body that Brad Pitt would envy and an impressive tattoo with the letters R.I.P. prominently splayed across his chest. At another point he leapt off the stage (quite a leap, it was a high stage) and while still strumming his guitar madly, he ran through the mostly-empty VIP area to the edge of the fence to commune with his fans. The crowd went wild. But after a few moments the police coaxed him back to the stage. This was the only major break-out moment in my recollection in which the performer attempted to connect physically with his main audience.
There were far too many performances to relate here in any detail, but I’ll recap some of the highlights. On Saturday, the New York Dolls gave a bravura performance. We skipped out for Brett Anderson but returned for P.E., who gave a great show. Sunday I got there bright and early with four Dartmouth students in tow. We caught the lineup of Beijing punk bands: Hedgehog, The Scoff, and Brain Failure. Hedgehog were up to their usual antics. The lead singer of the Scoff impressed me with his stage presence. Brain Failure had a sizeable crowd of fans who rocked and moshed to their ska-fueled hits. This was also the only band whose lyrics the crowd knew well enough to sing along to. The other two bands are pretty young, while Brain Failure is more established, so that might help explain it. But there’s something about their song “Coming Down to Beijing” that has that anthemesque quality to it. It just begs you to sing along.
Marky Ramone’s band played all the great Ramones hits, bringing us back to the pure energy and essence of rock-n-roll. Cui Jian, reputed godfather of Chinese rock, came on next and played a selection of old and new tunes, but to our general surprise, few of his classics. The Nine Inch Nails capped off the festival with a light-and-sound extravaganza unmatched by any other band. Lead singer Trent Reznor had an amazing stage presence and a voice to match. The lead guitarist jumped and pranced about the entire stage, handling his guitar like a ninja or a kung fu fighter. They played a long set of old and new tunes from nearly all of their albums. One of the highlights was a set that involved only computers and a backlit screen reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s Minimum-Maximum concert.
For some reason, Reznor’s performance and songs made me think of the Phantom of the Opera--a goulish fiend, half human, of great musical genius, hiding in the lower recesses of the stage--though of course Reznor’s tunes are much more explicit and up-front than Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lyrics. By that time of the night the audience was too jaded to mosh or crowd-surf. As Trent Reznor belted out such memorable lines as “I want to fuck you like an animal--you bring me closer to God” the audience just danced around, mesmerized by the astounding light show, and the police paraded on in ignorance of the lyrical import.