China's YouTube: How a New Kind of Chinese Pop Star Gets Made

Much of Chinese popular music is highly manufactured and produced—like it is elsewhere, but to an even greater extent in China. If you think getting caught lip syncing is embarrassing in the U.S., that's fairly common practice among Chinese pop stars (admittedly, I am not a Chinese pop music expert). The "Do-It-Yourself" rock n' roll ethos gets short thrift in China. And so this story now making splashes across the Chinese web and media bears highlighting. It is DIY at its best. Not to mention I have a personal affinity toward good ol' independent music. I have bemoaned the slow pace of rock, grunge, and other alternative music development in China, though it is improving.

The story goes something like this: Two migrant workers separated by 15 years in age recently found themselves as Youku (China's version of YouTube) darlings. They have lived and worked in Beijing for years at odd jobs, but both have an immense passion for rock music. The younger guy, Liu Gang (29), had been busking in Beijing subway stations, when he encountered 44-year-old Wang Xu and struck up a duo. After several shots of Chinese "baijiu"—horribly, harsh alcohol—one night in their migrant hovel, they busted out an impromptu cover of a Chinese rock ballad called "In Spring."

Shirt-less, cigarette dangling in hand, obvious low-budget video, and genuine earnestness—all elements that made the video quickly viral, touching off a storm. It went so far that the Hunan party secretary Zhou Qiang (a young rising political star who will likely be an important player in China's sixth generation of leaders around 2022), in a speech to college students, broke down in tears when mentioning this video and urged the students to see it. Zhou has reportedly committed the lyrics* to memory and has hummed the tune frequently. For Chinese netizens, the song's lyrics somehow took on extraordinary resonance when they were belted out by society's unsung heroes—the ones who toiled to build the cities so that urban yuppies can watch Youku. That blue-collar, DIY authenticity, so much of it lacking in today's Chinese popular culture, struck a chord and made an otherwise maudlin song somehow more meaningful.

Liu and Wang have since become a sensation, and have emerged from subways and shoebox apartments to perform on national TV. Yet watching their performance below, they haven't lost that earnestness. Particularly striking is Wang's raspy, cigarette-smothered vocal chords that form a formidable rocker voice. And how about his ironic nationalist t-shirt that says "Go China!"—or more literally, "add fuel, China." (I suspect that shirt could be a best-seller in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.) Still a cheerleader of China, even though he has been a "loser" in the country's development!

A few broader points on this story. The Internet again proves an effective tool to generate and quickly disseminate not only self-promotion but rare and obscure talent. This kind of bottom-up process is especially important in China as so much non-mainstream culture is unknown to most people (for instance, China's growing underground punk rock scene). Second, the fact that this duo managed such a meteoric rise suggests that not all is lost in the Chinese music scene! Scrupulously studio-bred and sugar-coated lip-synchers take note! And finally, as I wrote in a previous post about China's aspirations to produce a robust culture industry and enhance soft power through strategic plans, I would argue this type of organic product from individuals engaged in all sorts of interesting and creative enterprises is what sustains culture. Government policy simply needs to ensure that the appropriate environment, where such "bottom-up, accidental creativity" is encouraged rather than suppressed, is in place.

I sincerely hope Liu and Wang will have a promising future in original music in China. "Add fuel" Liu and Wang!

*In case interested, I did some basic translation of the lyrics to "In Spring", though it may not be terribly faithful to the original Chinese, which is more effective to Chinese ears.

Verse 1
I still recall many springs ago
When I still haven't chopped off my long hair
When I didn't have a credit card and didn't have her
When I didn't have a home with 24-hour hot water
Yet back then I was still so happy
Though I only had myself a broken guitar
On the street, under the bridge, and in the wilderness
Singing the song that no one cared about

If one day when I'm old with no one to rely on
Leave me behind in that time of happiness
If one day I quietly leave this world
Bury me in this spring

Verse 2:

Still remember that lonesome spring
When I haven't yet grown a goatee
Didn't have a valentine's day nor a gift
Didn't have that princess
Yet I felt everything was all right
Though love was only my imagination
In the winds at dawn and dusk
Singing the song that no one cared about

Verse 3:

Gazing at this moment's brilliant spring
Feeling that same old warmth again
I chopped off my hair and grew a goatee
Past pains swept by the wind
Yet now I feel so down
Ever confused by the passing of time
Under this parching spring sun
My tears unstoppably flow