Music, Masculinity, and Melancholic Mania: Performing Nationalism in Post-Socialist China

by Melanie Xu

Introduction

June 2010: The day is getting darker as dusk approaches. But the presence of the pop rock band, GALA—consisting of four Chinese young men born in the 1980s who aspire to be the “Linkin Park” of China—still manages to instantly ignite the crowd of this outdoor musical festival. The lead singer, Su Duo, is in unusual drag for a rocker, wearing what seems to be a knock-off version of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) military hat and a plain white t-shirt. The prelude to GALA’s first hit released in the early 2000s, “Young for You,” begins, and the crowd appears restless. But the scene will not reach its apogee until the band starts their most recent sensational piece, “The Pure (Vermillion) Heart of a Dream Catcher”.1 The space lights up at once with an overwhelming enthusiasm from the audience, whose appearance, too, hardly fits the expectations one would have for rock fans: their cheeks are colored in yellow and red, the color of the Chinese flag, and they wave flag poles and sing along to the rhythm of drum beats, not unlike the way athletes pay homage to the national anthem during an award ceremony.2

I argue that at its core, GALA’s performance, like others, approximates an ambivalent, traumatic self-recognition through the (historical and contemporary) melancholic formation of Chinese masculinity, an existential riddle that underscores the artist’s, however incoherent, performance of and appeal to nationalism.

Sonic Travels from the Body-less Past to Eroticized Present: Trauma, Desire, the Abject Grammar of (Self-)Recognition

On the face of it, “Young for You” reads like a mad man’s diary of a blissful love story, raw, crass, and unmitigated. The lyrics, unsurprisingly, are loaded with phallic metaphors and sexual fantasies stereotypical of young teenage dreams. In the morning, Su Duo sings, “I dress my jeans and feed my monkey banana.” He contemplates on being young in this world—“my age how old and skyline how far”—only to realize that “we need each other in California.” Yet no matter how closely the lyrics approximate the carefree vibe of American pop-rock, something in the sonic experience immediately gives away that something is lacking. The sharp breaks in the lyrical syntax, which is easily disguised by the singer’s phonetics, missing consonants, distorted vowels, and word-by-word pronunciation, puts the origin of this erotic flight to California unambiguously in a racialized imagination. The vocal breaks, often off-pitch, doubly highlight the displacement of GALA and their musical exile—always distant, out of place, neither here nor there. It is in the uncanny relationship with its own performance that GALA begins to articulate, consciously or unconsciously, a narrative of incoherence and an aesthetics of disorientation: they want to be there (in California) but are not quite there. Through the voice of a teen, GALA asks a profoundly confounding question on the condition of post-socialist China: where do Chinese (young) men fit, both in post-socialist China and in the current world order?

Gala’s “Young for You”

Such a question, however, is not a new formation. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Chinese male elites and literati found themselves in a moment of (forced) encounter with the West and the imperialist world order, experiences of ambivalence, confusion, and fear were common. Amidst the whirlpool of affective reactions to the impending danger “of enslavement, of dismemberment of the country and of being at the lower end of the socialist Darwinist table,” Chinese male intellectuals turned inward, soul-searching and diagnosing their own selves for possible explanations for the “weakness” of China (Bai 2008). Those who were in pursuit of Chinese Enlightenment vehemently attacked the “feudal” Confucianism, accusing the ideological tradition of being yumei (ignorant) and therefore in need of change to better align with the principle of this new world—lixing (reason) (Zhong 200:27). As literary scholar Xueping Zhong observes, such a reordering and “ascendency to (European Enlightenment-style) reason” requires reimagining and making abject not only particular political ideologies but also the self. In other words, when the Chinese male subject searches for an identity of reason he evokes an unsettling grammar of negation, disavowal, and exclusion in his effort to reinvent and modernize. Gender ideologies of post-1949 (Maoist) China, including the erasure of gender through presumed gender egalitarianism, the body-less and self-less mode of revolution demanded by socialist modernity and urgent nation building, and the construction of the male (working) body as not of flesh and blood but of invulnerable steel, pushed Chinese masculinity to the brisk of its meaning (Yang 1999:44; Zhong 2000:40).

Dreaming of a Pure Self: Lack, Nationalist Renarrativization, and Melancholic (Be-)Longing

Returning to where I began, I ask: how did the sonic and performative elements of the scene appear to kindle a nationalist crowd? The song itself, “the Pure Heart of a Dream Catcher” (PHDC), is unclear and implicit in its nationalist call. On the one hand, the cover of the PHDC album sends a clear message of patriotism. It features a muscular young man gripping firmly onto a javelin and ready to throw—his red and yellow athletic suit alluding to the imagery of the Five-Starred Red Flag, that is, the Chinese national flag as designated by the communist party (Fig. 1). Scripted onto his body is the album title written in Chines calligraphy in an echoing star color. A closer look into PHDC’s lyrical content, however, might disappoint patriotic followers: the lyrics adhere closely to the song’s title, depicting the turbulent idealism that “I” persistently hold onto in pursuit of the dream of “my” pure heart.

The album cover of GALA’s second CD release, “The Pure Heart of a Dream Catcher.”

What exactly is igniting the crowd, affective and literally? One cannot help but remember the long history of sonic nationalism from twentieth century China onward, as detailed by Tuohy (2001). GALA, similar to its anti-imperialist and communist predecessors, uses sound and music to successfully cultivate and activate a collective sense of belonging in its audience. In other words, people are not simply drawn to these sonic manifestations of ideology unknowingly or subconsciously; rather, the sounds of hyperbolic nationalist mania mask the lacking that underlies Chinese masculinity and serve as the gravitational force that pulls the audience closer and closer. Nationalism, manifesting as flashy cover art and lyrical references to metamorphosis (vermilion/pure as noted before), disguise lack and abjection and give this performance of Chinese masculinity coherence. Put another way, it is through such a melancholic mania that youths like GALA are able to communicate coherence and meaning in their own masculinity.

Nationalism as masquerade perhaps provides the best context in which GALA’s new single, “Conquering the Pacific” (CTP), can be read. According Su Duo, the rationale the provocative title comes from the band’s wish to “conquer the Pacific by spreading their music to the other side of the coast, the Pacific Northwest,” for “no one in the short twenty-year history of Mandopop (Mandarin Pop Music) has made it that far in the game” (Zhang 2014; Yin Wei Communications 2017). Reading of their dream while hearing the techno beats of CTP, the sense of excessive contradiction and ambivalence resurfaces, as the abject self, injured since birth, not only refuses to let go of its own loss but also survives on the repetition of such inexorable suffering and its unresolvable grief, which ultimately drives him to a state of mania—here, manifested in nationalism. It is such in a hysterical state of being that the Chinese male can finally face his own perceived lack by projecting it onto the external world. “To conquer the pacific,” in other words, maybe the end of the song, but only the beginning of soul-searching by the post-socialist generations of Chinese youth.

 

Melanie Xu is a PhD Student in the UCLA Department of Gender Studies. She was the recipient of the CSW Jean and Irving Stone Recruitment Fellowship in 2017-2018.


References

Bai, L., 2008. “Children as the youthful hope of an old empire: Race, nationalism, and elementary education in China, 1895–1915.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth1(2): 210-231.

Cheng, A.A., 2000. The melancholy of race: Psychoanalysis, assimilation, and hidden grief. Oxford University Press.

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard University Press.

Posocco, Silvia. 2013. “Gender Identity.” Pp. 107-112 in Gender: A Keyword, edited by

Mary Evans and Carolyn H. Williams. New York: Routledge.

Tuohy, Sue. 2001. “The sonic dimensions of nationalism in modern China: musical representation and transformation.” Ethnomusicology, 45(1): 107-131.

Yang, Mayfair. 1999. “From Gender Erasure to Gender Difference: State Feminism,

Consumer Sexuality, and Women’s Public Sphere in China.” Pp. 35-67 in Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China, edited by Mayfair Yang. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yin Wei Communications. 2017. “GALA: We Are Not the Good Kids.” Sohu, January 24. Retrieved November 27, 2017 (http://www.sohu.com/a/125099238_242238).

Zhong, Xueping. 2000. Masculinity besieged?: issues of modernity and male subjectivity in Chinese literature of the late twentieth century. Duke University Press.

Zhang, Lei. 2014. “GALA: If Youth Could Stay.” Southern People’s Daily, June 2. Retrieved November 12, 2017 (http://www.nfpeople.com/story_view.php?id=5433).

  1. If one consults the dictionary, both “vermillion” and “pure” are among the common meanings of the character, Chi, used in the song’s title (in Chinese), Zhuimeng Chizixin. The character then at once signifies the pureness of idealism for a dreamer and the red pigment in the Chinese flag, which, according to the official interpolation, stands for the blood of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Chinese (communist and anti-imperialist) Revolution. For the sake of simplicity, I will delegate the title of the song as “the Pure Heart of a Dream Catcher” or PHDC from now on.
  2. My thick description of the live performance was produced after repeated watching of the same live show of GALA at a Shenzhen outdoor music festival in 2010. The links to these performances can be found here: Young for You, http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTUyNjQ1NjQ2NA==.html?debug=flv; The Pure Heart of a Dream Catcher, http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTUyNjQ1NjMwNA==.html.
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