Sub(gum) Pop!

It’s like pre-grunge America circa 1987, except with much higher stakes:

Marxists once referred to religion as the opium of the people, but in today’s China it is the music promoted on state-monopolized radio that increasingly claims that role. China’s leader, Hu Jintao, has talked since he assumed power five years ago about “building a harmonious society,” an ambiguous phrase subject to countless interpretations.

But Chinese musicians, cultural critics and fans say that in entertainment, the government’s thrust seems clear: Harmonious means blandly homogeneous, with virtually all contemporary music on the radio consisting of gentle love songs and uplifting ballads.

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Even without resorting to direct censorship, the state has formidable powers for controlling popular music and shaping tastes. They include state ownership of all broadcast media, the screening of lyrics for all commercial music and strict control of performance sites.

Many say one result has been the dumbing down and deadening of popular music culture. Fu Guoyong, an independent cultural critic in Hangzhou, likened today’s pop music culture to the politically enforced conformity of the Cultural Revolution, when only eight highly idealized Socialist “model operas” could be performed in China.

“Nowadays singers can sing many songs, but in the end, they’re all singing the same song, the core of which is, ‘Have fun,’” Mr. Fu said. “Culture has become an empty vessel.”

Nowhere is conformity enforced more vigorously than on broadcast radio, where pop music programs are saturated with the Chinese equivalent of the kind of easy listening often associated in other countries with elevators and dentists’ offices.

Rock ’n’ roll is mostly limited to special programs that are allowed brief windows of airtime during the graveyard shift, and even then there are few hints of angst, alienation or any but the very mildest expressions of teenage rebellion.

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Liu Sijia, the bass player and a vocalist for an underground Shanghai band called Three Yellow Chicken, said alternative music in China today is much like Western rock in the 1960s, with its frequent references to social issues like war, poverty, civil rights and generational conflict. But alternative rock is rarely heard on the radio.

“What prevails here is worse than garbage,” he said. “Because China emphasizes stability and harmony, the greatest utility of these pop songs is that they aren’t dangerous to the system. If people could hear underground music, it would make them feel the problems in their lives and want to change things.”

Chinese cultural officials and radio D.J.’s insist that the overwhelming prevalence of easy-listening pop merely reflects popular tastes. Many point to a commonly invoked generational shift in China, with today’s young people too caught up in the country’s economic boom to dwell on social problems or ponder life’s bigger questions.

“It’s whether you’re happy or not that counts, and not the substance,” said Zheng Yang, a veteran D.J. on Music Radio in Beijing. “Life is smooth, and so music is more about soothing things. Anyone can criticize or blame. What we need right now is guidance.”