Chinese New Rock:Omnipotent Youth Society

Abstract

This paper serves to discuss and analyze a new pop rock band, Omnipotent Youth Society (OYS), a representative of new Chinese pop rock band after 1990’s. OYS’s songs, especially its lyrics, reflect depression, confusion and helplessness, which is widely adopted among Chinese new pop rock style. To analyze the Chinese new pop rock, OYS’s performance will be studied. Video will be included in order to give readers a visual impression of OYS. The Chinese term Yixiang, which is usually translated as mental image, will be introduced to help to understand OYS’s lyrics. Also the difference and similarity between OYS and Beijing rock will be examined.

Performance of OYS:

 

History of Omnipotent Youth Society

Omnipotent Youth Society (OYS) is a pop rock band that founded in late 90’s in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, which is a declining industrial city in North China. OYS released its first self-titled album in November 2010, almost 10 years after the foundation. There are five members in OYS, including the singer Dong, bass player Ji, the drummer Geng, the trumpet player Shi and the saxophone player Lee. The first album brings a heated discussion of Chinese new pop rock because, since the time of Cui Jian, there hasn’t really been a band or musician who has made a major splash in some time[i]. The OYS made audience moved with their unique theme and simple melody, which is unlike the love theme in current mandopop.

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Figure 1: Member of OYS

Term of Yixiang

In order to discuss their performance, a Chinese term Yixiang will be introduced. Yixiang plays a very important role in analyzing poem and lyrics. Yixiang can be translated by the word “feeling, the mental image, the inner vision or the artistic conception that is communicated”[ii]. It is an inner vision about something seen vividly in the imagination of the human mind and is often very abstract. Yixiang is widely used in ancient Chinese poetry and lyrics. The certain object was assigned with certain meaning and used to reflect certain feeling in the author. For instance, the branch of willow tree usually represents the leave of some friends or beloved persons. The combination of certain object could reflect the poet’s thoughts and feeling.

Analysis of Lyrics

The poetic and meaningful lyrics contributes a lot to OYS’s infectious performance. Most of OYS’s songs didn’t depicted the love theme as other mandopop songs did, instead, they depicted their authentic life in the declining industrial city- Shijiazhuang. Along with the melody, we can feel a deep depression and helplessness from the lyrics. Here we choose three of them to explain illustrate why they reflect the deep depression without even mentioning the word depression.

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Figure 2: Band Members in Shijiazhuang

Kill the One from Shijiazhuang (杀死那个石家庄人)

We first start from their most popular song- Kill the One from Shijiazhuang. As was mentioned before, Shijiazhuang is the place where most of the band members spend their childhood and youth. At that time, due to the Reform and Opening Up suggested by Dun Xiaoping, a lot of state-owned enterprises were broken at that point, which caused millions of worker lost their jobs. The first time you saw the title of this song, you may doubt it may be something concerned about the territory. However, the song Kill the One from Shijiazhuang depicted a family in which the father just lost his job due to the impact by market economy. The lyrics is divided into three parts, and present the insight feeling from the view of father, mother and child individually. Although not clearly identified in the lyrics, we can assign the three part to the three family member by the place and object mentioned.

The lyrics does not directly point out that father lost job, instead, it uses the term “building collapsed” (大厦崩塌) to ambiguously the fact. In the first part we can see the typical daily life of father: “work until six”, “drink bottles of beer”. However, after “repeating this life for 30 years”, one day, the “building collapsed”. Here, the lyricist uses the term Yixiang as we mentioned before. The lyric does not directly say how father feels but mention the darkness at the deepest of clouds submerge something in the heart. Although they do not mention the word depression, we can feel and image that the father may by drown by the pressure of cruel life and the fact that he lost his job.

The second part describe the mother’s daily life: “At crazy People mall, use fake money to buy a fake gun, protect her life, until one day, the building collapsed”. People mall is the biggest shopping mall in Shijiazhuang according to the interview with the band. Again, here the lyric use the power of Yixiang, however, in a more sophisticated way.  Weapons are illegal since the foundation of PRC and definitely cannot be bought at the biggest shopping mall. The lyric emphasizes the word “fake” in describing the money and gun. By mixing up the impossible gun and the real existing shopping mall, the lyric actually present us a sense of irony and preposterousness. We cannot helping questioning, but at the meantime, believing, the authenticity after heard it. This kind of sophisticated feeling is actually what the mother feels after the “building collapsed”. We can feel how the mother felt when she have lived a same routine for almost 30 years, and suddenly encounter such a big change in her life.

The third part depicted the life of teenager, which we could tell by the “Heibei Shida High School”. Unlike his father and mother, when the “building collapsed”, there are “ten thousands’ of horses running in his mind”. The horse usually represented a sense of freedom in the usage of Yixiang. Here we can see, instead of feeling depressed and stressed, the teenager felt free of not living the same routine as his parents.

This song, although not mentions what has exactly happened to the family, depicted the feeling of three family members individually. Different objects were used in reflecting the insights of them without point out directly. This poetic lyrics is an excellent example of using Yixiang.

The Boulder that Crushes the Breast (大石碎胸口)

Although the title of this song may mislead us to think some traditional acrobatic technique, this song actually depicted the helpless compromise of old fisher king to the greedy city. This song is less abstract than Kill the One from Shijiazhuang. “The old fish king still wants to be the king, however, found nowhere for him to fisher” somehow demonstrate a sense of helpless. At the later part of this song, we know the reason that why there are no more bays for the fish king to hunt. The greedy and fat city offers the fish king an option: sell his weapon and throat in trade of food which could keep him alive. The city promised that if the betray would make him free. In this greedy city, some thieves become millionaire. The darkness like a big rock on the breast make everyone cannot breathe. According to the research result in the article Urban Land Expansion and Arable Land Loss in China, the significant economic development in last decade caused the increasing expansion of urban land, in other word, the loss of arable land[iii]. In the song The Boulder that Crushes the Breast, we can clearly see the reflection of urbanization. The fisher king lost the bay area where he can fisher and has to compromise with the city in order to get food.

Through the analysis above, we can see how OYS’s adept technique in using the term Yixiang. Their songs reflect the feeling of character without saying the word or even stating what happened to them. Also, from the analysis above, we have had a general idea of what kinds of theme OYS is focusing on. OYS prefer to depicted ordinary people’s routine life and the sadness, depression, helplessness of these people when they encounter some tremendous changes in their life.

Analysis of Melody and Musical Instruments

Unlike other rock bands, OYS’s melody more simple and involve as little musical instrument as they can. In their songs, we can barely heard a lot of usage of drum as other rock bands did. Instead, they tend to use trumpet and saxophone, which are barely shown in other rock bands. The usage of trumpet and saxophone actually let us feel that we are in the time of 1990’s, considering the situation that these two instruments are widely used and adopted at that time China. What’s more, the usage of trumpet actually brings us a sense of space. When we listen to the song The Boulder that Crushes the Breast, part of the melody was started and lead by the trumpet, and give us a feeling that we are currently in a large empty city, and the sounds of trumpet comes from very far away. Overall, the usage of simple melody and musical instruments makes OYS unique from other rock bands, which brings the audience a sense of remote time and space.

Comparison with Beijing Rock

Lets’ recall the material we have read from the Cries of Joy to find out the difference and similarity between Beijing Rock and new pop rock style. According to the argument by Jeroen de Kloet, the pop rock is literally explained by its name: the pop music stands on the basis of rock culture[iv]. We categorized the OYS as one of new pop rock style mainly because of its large popularity and its theme of rock.

Similarity

According to Cries of Joy, after the Tiananmen era, a cynicism was raised in Beijing Rock about “one’s ability to change anything”, which we could also found in OYS. In Cuijian’s famous song I have nothing left (一无所有), he repeatedly sung that he has nothing, which brings a sense of helpless to audience. This kind of helpless and inability of change anything also appears in OYS’s song as we have already illustrated above. The helpless was generated because of the tremendous social and economic changes the whole Chinese society went through.

Difference

Although both of Beijing Rock and new pop rock demonstrate a sense of helpless, this sense was caused by different social changes. In the 1990’s the Beijing Rock was generated due to the tremendous social change and, was greatly influenced by the Tiananmen protests. Although Beijing rock artists are trying to disassociate themselves from politic, we can still found that their lyrics continue to be “highly nationalistic”. However, the OYS focus more on the economic changes, like the lay-off caused by Reform and Open up, and the urbanization.  Also, as mentioned in Cries of Joy, Beijing rock artists demonstrate more rock’s masculinized identity in their songs comparing to the Gangtai pop. However, in the OYS’s performance, we can rarely heard the usage of rapid beat as that in Beijing Rock. Instead, OYS uses simple orchestration and sole melody. We can see in their performance, Dong, the singer of the band, focus on the singing and expressing his feeling and unlike other rock bands, have a little interaction with audience.

Conclusion

Through the analysis of yixiang in OYS’s lyrics, we have had a general idea of what kind of feelings are involved in their songs: depression and helplessness. We further analyze the difference and similarity between Beijing rock and OYS, and found although both of them expressed some kinds of helplessness, they are generated due to different social changes at that time. Also, Beijing Rock was greatly influenced by the Tiananmen affair, and cannot avoid the effect of idealists. However, in OYS’s songs, we could feel a lot more helplessness generated by the Reform and Open Up policy and the urbanization at that time.

 

 

 

 

Links:

You can further check the Chinese version of OYS’s lyrics at following links:

http://site.douban.com/omnipotent/widget/notes/403937/note/95771724/ lyrics

 


[i] 万能青年旅店_百度百科. 2013. 万能青年旅店_百度百科. [ONLINE] Available at: http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=mtWRWqlBRF8GysCJtOPzlZj7ercuedI6CGEIAfiXnSyvf06ohCdHBgpDpoHIy-ibpO1YCg-4tiXFXKOl35nYZK. [Accessed 16 December 2013].

[ii] Ho, E.H, 1997. Aesthetic considerations in understanding Chinese literati musical behaviour. British Journal of Ethnomusicology, [Online]. 6, 35. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3060829 [Accessed 23 May 2013].

 

[iii] Minghong Tan, Xiubin Li, Hui Xie, Changhe Lu, Urban land expansion and arable land loss in China—a case study of Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei region, Land Use Policy, Volume 22, Issue 3, July 2005, Pages 187-196, ISSN 0264-8377, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2004.03.003.

(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837704000377)

Keywords: China; The BTH region; Urban land expansion; Arable land loss; Different-tier cities

 

[iv] Jeroen de Kloet, 2010. China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music (AUP – IIAS Publications). Edition. Amsterdam University Press.