China's 'Battle of the Bands'

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. China came late to Western-style pop music, but young Chinese are making up for lost time. �American Idol� type shows have been the rage there in recent years. Most have focused on individual pop singers. Now comes the �Battle of the Bands,� a nationally-televised show that's giving Chinese groups a chance to �show their stuff.� The World's Mary Kay Magistad had recently caught one of the final rounds of competition in Shanghai. She sent us this report.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The venue for Battle of the Bands is an old factory district on the outskirts of Shanghai. Inside a cavernous shell where workers once toiled, fans of the young and tragically-hip are embracing everything their parents missed�and then some. There are tattoos and body piercings; mini skirts and thigh-high boots; boy-bands with bleach blond hair, and even some real musical talent!


MAGISTAD: [MUSIC-OUT] This is Sweet Journey, a band from the central Chinese city of Xian. It has a drummer from Inner Mongolia; a guitarist who looks like a Chinese version of Roy Orbison, and a waiflike singer, who sounds like she's �channeling� Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries. (Sweet Journey playing in background.) This band is one of ten finalists in a competition that started with 6,000 bands six months ago. The former head of MTV for North Asia, Harry Hui, was part of a team at Pepsi that first came up with the idea.

HARRY HUI: We do a lot of monitoring--a lot of research for young people around the country, and we realized that there were more than 20,000 bands, underground bands), in China that very few people knew about. We started to notice that there were a lot of live concerts going on in China. And then we started to talk to some folks in the guitar business, and they told us that China sells more than a million guitars a year. And so, finally, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it was time for a big, national platform for young people to really get together and show their creative side in the form of a band.

MAGISTAD: The winner of the Pepsi-sponsored contest gets a recording contract with a label created by Pepsi, which might sound pretty commercial and self-serving, and some critics of the contest have dismissed it as such; but, at least it's one way a local rock band can break on to the national scene and make some money touring. Jay Caplan is an independent music blogger who's been following the Battle of the Bands.

JAY CAPLAN: There's no way for bands to tour right now. Records sales aren't even, like, a source of revenues. Having like any labels behind you really does very little in terms of distribution and publicity. So yeah, whichever band wins will probably be one of the first rock bands to have somewhat of a broad based national audience here in China.

MAGISTAD: Caplan says these aren't necessarily the best bands in China, but some like the band, Focus 5, are serious musicians, even if they say they're willing to �do what it takes� to appeal to the masses.

YEE SHING SCHUEN: (Lead singer for Focus 5, speaks in Chinese about his band.)

MAGISTAD: The lead singer, Ye Xing Xuan is a lean guy with shaggy, dyed-red hair and black, oblong glasses. He's studied opera. He says it's helped him in this competition. (Focus 5's Ye Xing Xuan is heard singing in the background with his band.) Focus 5 is in the lead going into the last couple of weeks of the Battle of the Bands, but Sweet Journey is �hard on their heels.� When I met the Sweet Journey band members the day before the competition, they were all in black and slumped on the couch, but they shed some of the attitude when they started talking about their music.

ZHENG LE: (Speaking in Chinese, Sweet Journey drummer, speaking about his band's music.)

MAGISTAD: The drurmmer, Zheng Le, says the band got together because they liked the same music: Pink Floyd, Oasis, RadioHead. They started playing for fun, and soon began making a living at it. Zheng Le says, �For this competition, we've added a few mainstream elements so we can win; and then, once we've hooked our audience, we'll go back to doing what we really like.�

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: (Female announcer, speaking in background in Chinese, and the sound of cheering fans.)

MAGISTAD: The competition itself is full of Pepsi promos, bubbly announcers, and a talking whale (the symbol of the local Zhejiang Satellite station that's sponsoring the competition). But the Battle of the Bands has also brought in guest artists that include some of the legends of Chinese Rock's short history. At the top of that is Cui Jian, known as the �Grandfather of Chinese Rock,� even though he's just 48. This past weekend, he ripped into his tune, �Rock �n Roll on the New Long March.� [MUSIC-IN] Songs like this made Cui Jian famous in the 1980's. One of his anthems was even taken-up by the pro-democracy Tienaminn student demonstrators in 1989. That got him banned from giving public performances for most of the 1990's. That he was here, on a Pepsi-sponsored stage, on National Television, could be seen as ironic. It may also say something about how he's trying to encourage a new generation of serious musicians. Harry Hui says China's popular music scene could use more of them to use what he calls, �China's predominant Karaoke Culture.�

HUI: Songwriters will say to you that the biggest hits that they can write are often the songs that you can easily sing in karaoke. That means that they tend to write simpler, melodic, easy-to-sing � Because why? When you sing a karaoke song, and you sing a famous karaoke song, you feel like a big star yourself; you love that song; you love that artist. But I can't imagine anybody doing a ColdPlay karaoke, or trying to do Elevation from U-2. [MUSIC-IN]

MAGISTAD: [MUSIC-OUT] But Harry Hui says he is impressed with the originality of bands he's seen here. And he says the aim of the competition was always to find a �new sound� Pepsi can promote (band playing in background), which may be why he was smiling broadly last weekend in the judges booth when he heard Sweet Journey's Yuan Man belt out this original song, and why he smiled again when this band won the latest round of competition. It didn't seem to matter that most of the studio audience had wandered away by the time the band was handed its victory and the glittering red, white and blue guitar. The cameras could compensate for that. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Shanghai.

WERMAN: [MUSIC-IN] I've got my �Devil Horns� in the air. Chinese Rock closes our program today. The World is always online at From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. We'll be back tomorrow. [MUSIC-OUT]