From karaoke to grindcore, I experienced the extremes of Chinese music yesterday.
I started out by visiting a KTV (Karaoke Television) club with a Chinese student I know and seven of her friends. KTVs are popular hangouts where you rent a room with karaoke equipment and sing along with music videos that play on a large TV screen. But it’s really just an excuse for friends to get together and have a good time.
Our room had a purple wraparound sofa, two large black tables, a flat-screen TV with overhead speakers, two microphones and a touch-screen karaoke machine, where you select the music videos you want to play. There were also flashing lights and neon walls that gave the room a ‘70s disco feel. We ate sunflower seeds and drank chrysanthemum tea as we chatted and listened to the songs.
The playlist included thousands of Chinese, Korean and English music videos, complete with scrolled lyrics to help you sing along. The English songs covered the gamut from the Beatles and Michael Jackson to Frank Sinatra and the Jonas Brothers. All eras and styles were represented, including classic rock (the Kinks), heavy metal (Black Sabbath), soul (Stevie Wonder), folk rock (The Mamas & the Papas), country (Willie Nelson), Latin fusion (Santana), boy band (News Kids on the Block) and girl group (Spice Girls). There were also lots of bands that geezers like me never heard of, such as Neon Trees, Snow Patrol, McFly and Garbage.
I had two big problems with KTV. First, the volume on the videos was so loud that you couldn’t hear anyone sing. (Although, in my case, that was a blessing.) Second, at least with the English songs, they were all horrible cover versions accompanied by amateurish videos that had virtually nothing to do with the music. A video of the Beatles’ “Yesterday’’ was sung by an off-key lookalike band. I don’t know who was singing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,’’ but he sounded like he had just learned the words. Some of the scrolled lyrics were clearly translated by someone with limited English skills. In “House of the Rising Sun,’’ the line “She sewed my new blue jeans’’ became “She sew my new blue gene.’’ In “Hey Jude,’’ “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders’’ was transformed into “Don’t cavy the world in your shoulders.’’
As for the Chinese tunes, they were almost all sappy romantic songs performed by baby-faced singers who seemed too young to even know what love is.
Speaking of love, many KTVs in China are also in the prostitution business.
Men can rent rooms where they are served drinks and food by pretty “hostesses’’ who also play games with them that can involve physical contact. At the end of the night, if both parties agree, the hostess and client may go to a hotel room for a more intimate encounter. Obviously, I’ve only heard and read about this.
After spending the afternoon at a KTV, I met Damian and three of his teaching friends – two Spanish women and a 24-year-old guy from San Francisco — and we all went to the 7Livehouse nightclub to see a grindcore concert.
For those not familiar with grindcore, it’s an ear-shattering offshoot of death metal music that features distorted guitar chords, growling vocals, ferocious drumming and indecipherable lyrics, all played at warp speed. Imagine standing next to a roaring jumbo jet and you’ll have some idea of the decibel level.
The featured bands were Delirious, Sudden Death and Black Invocation. The lead singer for Sudden Death is known as Scar, a nickname that’s easily explained by his mutilated left arm. His right arm is covered by tattoos, which also makes perfect sense since he’s a local tattoo artist.
I have no idea what the bands were singing about, but everyone seemed to be having a good time. Fans stood by the stage, furiously shaking their heads up and down to the music and occasionally slamming into each other. I stood in the back, nursing a Chinese beer and feeling old.