Usually my posts have a bit of levity, but today I have a more serious cultural question to pose. China is known for its knock-offs. We joke about that long and often. But how is it that world music is not protected?

The Chinese have a long history of creating music in a unique style that appeals to many. Even to those to whom it does not appeal, music from China’s long history is still seen at the very least as interesting and a special testament to Chinese culture. But, of late, Chinese pop music seems to lack this special flavor. In fact, I cannot recount the number of times I have been listening to Chinese radio and heard music, lyrics, or both taken directly from former pop hits of Western origin. My problem is not that the Chinese are, in this sense, being unoriginal. It is not even that I think the remakes (usually recorded by Chinese pop artists) are nowhere near as good as the originals. My problem is that the original hits do not get Chinese airtime.

The history of Western pop music and rock ‘n roll is well developed. I can see how much of it would appeal to the Chinese populace. But re-recording a song which enjoyed popularity (usually, at least in part, a result of being sung by the singer who recorded it) is not just silly. To my mind, it is essentially copyright infringement. The rightful owner(s) of the songs are not given attribution. Not only does it depreciate the quality of the original piece, but it also prevents China from becoming part of the world music scene.

 While I will admit that the United States does not necessarily know all the European artists and vice-versa, there is at least some modicum of exchange and an opportunity for success on both sides of the pond. Where is this opportunity in China if artists’ original recordings are re-recorded before being given airplay? Is it not already bad enough that many singers are not allowed to perform live in China?

As a bit of an experiment, I asked five Chinese friends about ten songs that were remade by Chinese artists. Not a single one of my Chinese counterparts could tell me who the original artist to record the song was. The hit songs ranged from the Temptations in the 1960s to Don Henley in the 1990s. The Chinese are familiar only with the biggest names (not taking into account quality, of course). Artists like Britney Spears, Madonna, and Mariah Carey are the only ones that slide through the cracks. I’ve met only one Chinese who knew his stuff when it came to world music and he studied one year in the U.S. and one year in England.

Who is to blame for this? If the Chinese artists are remaking the songs in their entirety, it surely cannot be censorship. Is this some sort of international music protectionism?

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About Rachel

Once a great traveling-bard-slash-philosopher, Rachel lost her mandolin to a migrant kiwi picker in a roadside dice match in the Yangtze River Valley. Penniless, mandolin-less, and blindly wandering the spit-laden streets of Beijing, she's now subjugated by the man and wants to know if the NAACP will grant her official permission to sing the blues.

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  1. At first, I thought it was the whole “mainland Chinese aren’t creative because their minds are held back by communist teaching methods”. Then I realized that there are very few original artists in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I agree with Ryan, it’s record companies that don’t care about music, but only care about money who sell the same products to the ignorant masses.

    Another obstacle is how the music industry here is definitely held down by censorship. I don’t think there is a single heavy metal radio station in all of China, and not likely to be one soon.

  2. I’ve been wondring about the copyright thing and what artists in “the West” would have to say when it finally comes out in the wash.

    Agree with the others, it seems HK labels control mainland Chinese music and make it difficult for independent and/or alternative (ie: not sugar-coated pop) bands to make it.

    On a different note. Zhejiang Radio “The Travellers Voice” (ahem) was playing a pretty raunchy rap track in English the other day. I don’t know who the artist was, but I’m guessing the station had no idea of the lyrics…or maybe they did ????

  3. The only Chinese singers I hear, usually in passing, and very quickly passing I might add, really shouldn’t give up the day job.

    And the hairstyles!

    Sorry – old codger drivelling on as usual. Youth of today harrumph etc…

  4. There was an article in the New York Times on punk in Beijing that mentioned that the government tries to keep only saccharine pop on the radio because it seems less subversive. If you have 19-year-old students (or 40-year-old cabbies driving around) listening to some 16-year-old girl repeating “wo ai ni” a bunch of times over a recycled beat, they’re not going to get dangerous ideas like dancing or whatever the government is afraid of. You would think the country that gave us the Red Guards wouldn’t be scared of someone with a guitar who could yell.

  5. Pingback: In Search of Musical Cheesecake

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