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Tomarken.com > Research > Repetition in China: Part 1Kenny G: Cultural Revolutionary of the New Millennium (03-02-05)
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Repetition in China: Part 1
Kenny G: Cultural Revolutionary of the New Millennium
Nels Frye
02.09.05-CHINA

“Oh Ava Gardner, My Prima Donna” and then some fast words in Cantonese, and then again “Oh Ava Gardner, My Prima Donna” and then the Cantonese again. Every single time I entered Seven Eleven I heard this. I heard it playing in every clothing store, too. It was blaring on the sidewalks.

It was 1999, and I was in Hong Kong. I had never heard of Ava Gardner, and neither had any of the Hong Kongers that I asked. The other ubiquitous song that summer was off the same album, Leon Now, and it was called “Sugar in the Marmalade.” Leon was the English name of Li Ming, a nasally - voiced but cute fellow who had come from Beijing. This album like most of his previous ones occupied the #1 billboard spot for months. Soon I could hear his works in my own headphones and after I returned to America. I brought home tailor-made suits, hello kitties, and books but I knew none of those would remind of being in Hong Kong more fully than Prima Donna and Sugar in the Marmalade.

No one is new to pop songs being overplayed. 1999 was the height of the awful Boy Bands, Brittany Spears, and other similar manure. It was only the summer before, while I was in Taiwan, that I was informed that the Backstreet were back. I had the good fortune of not knowing that those arrogant bad boys had arrived and then gone in the first place. We play our pop too much in America. “Oops…I did again” is certainly no less irksome than “Sugar in the Marmalade” and it lacks any redeeming cheekiness. Still, I have never felt as constantly surrounded by “Oops,” “Bye-Bye-Bye,” or “Backstreets Back” the way I did by “Ava Gardner” that summer.

The vocals in all pop is second-rate, the music and words banal, and the sentiments vapid. But I guess I’m not that offended by Leon, Brittany, or Enrique Inglese. Their melodies and beats can be catchy, and the lyrics are often silly enough to be humorous. The first couple of times I hear these songs, it’s not too horrible. After fifteen times, it is. When there’s no escape from the same turd blasting, no matter where I go, I go a bit mad. Music sets a mood; music can create new feelings in an individual and incite a mob to insurrection. To have an identical undesired mood forced upon you every time you leave your home is to be in jail. That never happens to me in America, and Hong Kong was too fashion conscious to stay on the same songs for more than a few months, but in Red China I was cast into an aural prison cell. I say Red China here because, though the country is now the most capitalist place on the globe, the approach to music is still communistic. The same songs have been played everywhere , for years.

Sometimes, one song is played on repeat-like a broken record-for hours in one place. These are the two types of music repetition in China.

The Fixation on the Same Six Songs
Each time the same song plays again, the Chinese greet it just like a long lost friend. The music they’ve been repeating here for the last two decades is usually not Chinese in origin. It is middle-of-the-road, mellow stuff from the West. If you ask somebody �particularly a young person- what music they like, they normally say either “light music” or “pop music”. Within each of these two categories there are about three songs that are played everywhere, all the time. “Light music” means Kenny G. I was first introduced to Kenny G. by a friend from Hong Kong, while I was a sophomore in high school. I really didn’t feel any kind of reaction to Mr. G, either positive or negative. It seemed bland - unmemorable background music. Had I only known then what feelings of wrath this “light jazz” would later inspire in me, I would have stuffed my ears shut and never got on the plane to Shanghai. They always say the music a person listens to is the soundtrack to his life and that it defines him to some degree. I mold the moods and sentiments a person has. The soundtrack to Chinese society is this curly blond-haired demon. Every restaurant in China plays the same Kenny G. CD. A decent number of restaurants play it on repeat, every day. Go to any loungy sort of environment to relax- what do you hear? Every radio station belts out that one Kenny G. sax piece as if were the latest hit � so I hear it every time riding in a taxi. It is constantly piped through the loudspeakers on a elementary school playground next to where I work. On any train ride there is no escape � speakers next to each seat ooze G’s slop all through the night and day. One falls asleep and wakes up to smooth sax.

Every time I stand in line at the post office or bank, a man, middle-aged, young or old, stands behind me humming one of the two “classic” Kenny G. pieces. Swimming in a public pool, I maximize my time under water to avoid more hearing those two pieces. To be fair, Kenny G. plays more than these two pieces. Following them often comes his saxophone version of the Titanic anthem. It could be China’s national anthem, and it is every person here’s favorite western song, and has been since the movie first came out. Several times, I’ve heard people say that the United States is an evil country, and they hate Bush, etc., but they do love Celine Dion. Once I heard a businesswoman say that this talented singer was America’s lone saving grace. Imagine if you told an Englishman that without having produced U2, his country would be worthless.

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Chinese people don’t only like music from the nineties like Dion and G. Though no one has heard of the Beatles or the Stones, every single person from Urumqi to Taibei loves the Carpenters. Or at least they recognize and can sing one Carpenter song that is praised, played, and performed everywhere. “Every shalalalalala and I’m starting to sing” � Karen Carpenter’s haunting voice is hard to mock. Who chose this particular for one point five billion people to hear on repeat for three decades? Its slightly dark lyrics make it a bit of an aberration from the rest of the repertoire the propaganda ministry deemed acceptable. Every night in every performance bar in China, there is a girl singing this song. A singer said she was tired of it and wished she could sing other songs, but was the only one that brings applause every time. Needless to say, on street corners, in English classes, everywhere, you can hear people chanting “shalalalala” and then humming the rest of the melody.

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There are two other pop songs that are repeated everywhere. One is by Bryan Adams and the other by Michael Bolton. Enough said. If you are staying in Hangzhou and by a miracle you forget the tune to one of these songs, just go to West Lake. West Lake is China’s most famous lake and the reason why Hangzhou has been described as paradise on earth. It has been the inspiration for China’s most exquisite landscape paintings and the muse for poets since the Tang Dynasty. There are tombs of national heroes, ancient pagodas, and causeways surrounded by water and willow trees. Complementing these scenes are loudspeakers placed every twenty-five feet that play non-stop saxophone and synthesized version of Kenny G., Bryan Adams, Titanic, and the shalalala. Those strolling by the lake enjoy the music. It puts them in a relaxed mood, they say. When I asked people they said that this type of music is perfectly well suited to the lake.

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Muzack plays everywhere all the time � and people like it. Everyone I have asked expresses no discontent with the inescapability of the same six songs that have been playing for years and years. I see great pleasure on faces each time the “every shalalala” comes on again.

Broken Records
No one expects to hear a symphony when they enter Mcdonalds. The music they play there is recognizable pop or muzack most of the time. I’ve heard everything from Eurythmics to Simon and Garfunkl being played in Mcdonalds in the States. This is music that everybody recognizes and not particularly interesting faire. Still, when someone enters the golden arches they don’t know precisely which song they are going to be hearing. In China, they do. Mcdonald’s only plays one song: a promotional song. This song, “lovin’ it”, is forty seconds long and it refers to the various Mcdonalds foods that can be tasted in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing. Across the noisy street from Mcdonalds one can hear this song blasting, and inside the restaurant it prohibits conversation. At first it might not be clear that the same song is being repeated and repeated and repeated. It just sounds like one song with the same chorus. After about ten minutes the fact that there is only one forty second song being played in Mcdonalds becomes undeniable. When half an hour has passed, the fervor with which Mcdonalds wants to promote this new campaign becomes evident. Two visits to Mcdonalds later will convince anyone that Mcdonalds is the place to go for making oneself into a lunatic. With “lovin’ it, lovin’ it” pounding my eardrums, I asked the girls at the front counter if they ever grow tired of hearing the same song again and again all day long. They said that they didn’t because: “It’s a good song.” Fair enough, she would lose her job if she criticized the policies of the company. When I asked other customers if it bothered them, they acted like they hadn’t even noticed. Then they said that it was fine and went on eating. It was not background music; it was blasting. Perhaps we can attribute that response to shock at being spoken to by a foreigner. Suffice to say “lovin’ it” was not hated, the way it seemed like it should be.

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This may be because most urban Chinese hear songs on repeat from not long after they leave the womb. On Sunday mornings I teach a three-hour long English course in a room overlooking a Nursery School. The kids are out there playing for the whole three hours. The kids and my class and I have to listen to the same midi song blasting from loudspeakers for the entire three hours. This song is a cheesy patriotic ditty that sounds like it could be from the Cultural Revolution period. It has no words, but the message being rammed into the heads of the kids by the not so subtle melody is clear. “Be cheerful, continually work your hardest, and be proud of your country.” This very wholesome message has been infused into the heart of nearly every person I have met in China. The salubrious sentiments that are drummed into the ears of children, are reinforced by repetition of music on the basketball courts once the kids reach high school. Who do you think they listen to? No one but Kenny G. could have the desired effect on their psyches.

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Perhaps some readers have never listened to this saxophone player with long curly locks and an innocent smile. His music never surprises and it never soars. It operates within a highly predictable and limited space. The listener is to be calmed, comforted, and lulled. Every transition between notes is smooth and there are no threats. His songs progress methodically and surely forward without any note of doubt. The progress is docile. No voices dissent. There is total agreement. This bland harmony suits the modern China perfectly.


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