By John Hancock, in Beijing
The Wild East
While China changes so fast the facts blur, one habit that remains is audiences sitting politely in their seats during rock concerts as if they were listening to political speeches at the National People’s Congress.
Beyonce’s “I Am” world tour touched down at Wukesong Indoor Stadium, Beijing, at the end of October. It was an entertaining concert, in which Beyonce appeared to channel Tina Turner and burnish her credentials as the world’s top female singer.
But the points is this: When Beyonce was working the crowd and hollered, “Get on your feet and dance,” anywhere else in the world it would have done as it was told and shaken its collective butt for her benefit. It’s a ritual. Here, security officers moved in and immediately pushed fans back down onto their seats, if they had the temerity to rise up.
Some Beyonce fans were traumatized by the experience. One young American couple in the audience was so obviously conflicted between devotion for their idol and doing what they were told they didn’t know whether to dance or cry. Finally, the girl complied while the guy stood tall in an audience of 19,999 seated people. Meanwhile, the guards looked on, reluctant to use force because he was a foreigner.
It was like a pantomime, as “Sasha” fell on her knees, gyrated and whipped her hair and the crowd into a frenzy, while security officers in black combat fatigues urged restraint. This carried on to the end of the show and perhaps fears that the crowd would be uncontrollably happy was the reason for the absence of an encore at the end, despite lengthy calls for the star’s return to the stage.
Funniest of all was the VIP section immediately in front of the stage where punters had laid down up to 1,688 yuan ($250) to be told to sit still, as if they were at school. This section of the crowd had security officers in smart suits to police them. They were richer and more used to having their own way and were the most difficult to control.
It has to be said, that none of this fazed our Beyonce, who carried on doing her “thang”. She even told everyone present, “Wow, you all know how to party!”
Presumably this didn’t include the security detail, who, as we all know, was just doing its job.
It was the same cat-and-mouse game for Kylie Minogue at Beijing Worker’s Stadium earlier in the year. The crowd was smaller and the flash points a little brighter but basically it involved foreigners going “crazy” and dancing, the locals copying them, and then everyone was forced to sit down.
One plausible explanation for this is “cultural differences”. Like classical concerts in the West, or the State TV megaproductions that are obvious propaganda tools (everyone’s waving red flags), the audience sits passively throughout the performance. It would be bad form not to do so.
It is only since Wham! in 1985 that large-scale concerts by foreign bands have been allowed in China so a learning curve is to be expected. Audience reactions are changing but the heavy-handed control remains. It is not that Chinese people don’t dance, they do so at clubs and other venues. Just not at large-scale rock concerts.
A Chinese State-owned newspaper journalist gave two reasons for this. Firstly, the promoters and owners of the venue are worried about health and safety. (Fair enough, but you have to weigh this up with the fact that thousands of concerts go ahead every night of the year, around the world, without incident).
Secondly, the journalist said: “The authorities are used to the need for control and are frightened about what will happen (to them) if it no longer exists. Security officers at a concert are a reminder to people that it is always there.”
This fear was sown in 1989, he added, when students challenged the Communist Party in Tiananmen — and were heavily punished for making their voices known. “The seed of State control must always be present. This way everyone knows where they stand.”
While classical music festivals get the green light, youth events like rock and dance music festivals are notoriously difficult to arrange. First, organizers require a license from the government. Second, even if the event has a permit it may be closed down for little or no reason.
This happened most recently to the Modern Sky Music Festival, in October. At the last moment it had to cancel all 14 foreign bands scheduled to play because the government feared any hiccups in the bubbles of its 60th anniversary celebrations.
Elsewhere, young rock fans at concerts wave glow sticks and shakes their bodies; in China they sit passively, wave their glow sticks, and shake their heads.
So, you wanna dance?