Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
Since the late 1970s, Chinese music has bloomed from a monochromatic array of traditional operas and communist anthems into a soundscape as diverse as the country’s 1.3 billion people. Pop divas vie for airspace with classical pianists, hip-hop artists and underground rock bands. Yet in China, just as anywhere, cash is king – and the most popular music, blaring from taxicab radios and department store speakers, is distinctly ringtone- and karaoke-friendly. Mainstream songs are synthy, saccharine, easy to sing; less established artists take pride in pushing the envelope, undaunted by the financial consequences.
Tang Zhi-kei, better known as GEM, is one of Hong Kong’s most popular young stars. GEM (“Get Everybody Moving,”) is Britney Spears to Peng Liyuan’s Barbra Streisand. She represents new wave of young Mickey Mouse Club-style pop icons, groomed from a young age to top the Cantonese pop (or “Canto-pop”) charts. The 21-year-old, often praised for writing her own material, sings immaculately produced love songs accompanied by drum machines and sweeping synth strings.
Formed in 1997, the three-piece indie-rock band unofficially preside over Beijing’s underground rock scene – over the past decade, they’ve climbed from the city’s smoky clubs into the raggedest edges of its mainstream youth culture. Described as post-punk, post-folk and DIY; they sport Chuck Taylors and tattoos. PK14 come across as more Brooklyn than Beijing, their sound a melange of distorted guitars, tortured vocals and driving drums, heavy and dissonant.
Aside from being one of the most famous classical pianists in the world, Lang Lang is also a stock role model in China, where his early-childhood piano lessons have become a symbol of unbridled middle-class ambition. The 30-year-old studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia – perhaps the world’s most prestigious conservatory – and lives in New York. Fans praise his ebullient style (head thrown back, fingers arched above the keys), while critics deride his playing as maudlin and immature.
Beijing native Wang Feng, 41, is a protege of Cui Jian, a 1980s rock star who found inspiration in earthy folk songs from the country’s arid northwest. Wang’s voice is gruff and his lyrics tend towards nostalgia. “I still remember the long gone spring days, when I still hadn’t cut my long hair,” he sings in 2009 ballad In Spring. “I didn’t have a credit card, I didn’t have her/ I didn’t have a home with hot water running 24 hours a day/ and yet, those days, I was so happy.”