November 9, 2008

Sonic Clatter, Sonic Harmony

Before I moved to Beijing, I spent three months in Shandong Province. Jinan is the most backwards village of 6 million people you can imagine. This was before the days of digital music players, so I had to make do with a few cd's and the mixed tapes I brought to play on my walkman.

My first foray into a music store uncovered more or less what I expected. Cantopop was everywhere. From the West, you could find lots of Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys. Britney Spears was popular. Yanni and Kenny G were played incessantly in every mall, on every bus, and from every cell phone. The biggest surprises were the Carpenters and John Denver. But they were little consolation for me in this musical wasteland.

Soon thereafter I learned that in addition to the pop drivel, there was a thriving underground rock scene in China. But before you get too excited for me, you have to understand that this consisted of the most hardcore thrash metal you can imagine. Almost every serious CD store had a section devoted to this kind of music, lined with names such as Rammstein, Sepultera, Testament, and Onslaught. I like a wide variety of music, but this was pushing beyond my limits.

There was one saving grace. Among all the Pop and Thrash, one of my all time favorites could be found. For some obscure reason, there seemed to be a huge following for Sonic Youth. And not just the most popular albums, like Dirty and Washing Machine. You could find their newest album, one I had not even realized had been realeased, as well as their earliest albums that were no longer available in the States.

I have no idea why Sonic Youth is so popular in China, except possibly because they are totally awesome. It is hard for me to explain even to my friends what appeals to me about them. With Sonic Youth you get the bare essentials of the most beautiful pop songs you can imagine, and they infuse and surround those three minutes of magic with 5 minutes of feedback and clatter.
For an example of how their songs gorgeously combine melody and noise, listen to them cover Superstar by the Carpenters.

I had the good fortune to see Sonic Youth play in Beijing last year. They were fantastic, and their latest album, Rather Ripped, is one of their best yet. I do not get to see many live shows here, and I miss having a thriving, vibrant, eclectic music scene. But the one concert I go to every year usually turns out to be worth the wait.

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