China Welcomes Musical Hegemony

Musical Hegemony in China

Musical Hegemony

Forgive me for the phrase “musical hegemony”–I’m not sure exactly what to call it. The fact is, foreigners in China routinely affronted with horrible pop music (and I’m talking more about the Western variety than the Chinese variety) desperately want to control the music of the Chinese locales they frequent. The good news is that it’s remarkably easy to do so, and you may even earn the eternal gratitude of a store manager by imposing your musical taste on her.

Brad used to be quite the musical hegemon. He would find a small bar he liked and make it his own. By “make it his own” I don’t just mean he would hang out there a lot and get to know the manager and staff, I also mean that he would make mix CDs for the bar, and the bar would happily play his musical selections (almost) all the time.

It doesn’t work only at bars, though. The last time I went for a haircut, I took a mix CD with me. The staff were thrilled to get it, and yanked their own CD mid-song so they could start playing my offering immediately. I amused myself by creating a ridiculous eclectic mix for the CD, a hodge-podge of classic pop (the decent stuff, i.e. not “Right Here Waiting” etc.) and semi-obscure stuff that most Chinese people wouldn’t know, but all with Chinese musical sensibilities in mind. Some selections:

Out Hud – It’s for You
– Concrete Blonde – Joey
Chromeo – Mercury Tears
– Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl
– Lisa Loeb – Stay (I think this one was a hit)
– Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69 (his only good song)
– Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
– Sublime – Santeria
– Gin Blossoms – Hey Jealousy (sadly, I think this song was “too heavy”)
John Frusciante – Murderers (you can’t not like this song)
– ABBA – Dancing Queen dance remix (this was my idea of a joke that I believe will be misinterpreted as “good music”)

I also took The Album Leaf’s “In a Safe Place” album to SPR Coffee, where the staff was happy to add it to their Winamp playlist. Oh yes, my tiny sphere of musical influence in Shanghai is growing (but I still cower before the might of, say, Brad and Aric).

So if you’re in China, start burning CDs and give musical hegemony a try with one of your local hangouts. You have nothing to lose, and quite possibly the prolonged sanity of many expat neighbors to gain.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I also had luck with this. Grandaddy, Tortoise, and Mr. Lif did well, Wilco didn’t. Good to see Out Hud on your list.

  2. Two years ago I tried bringing a mix CD to a bar I used to go to once a week with U2, Miles Davis, REM and 10,000 Maniacs on it. The owner played a few songs and then took it off, saying it wasn’t the right kind of music for his bar. His selection of music was Eric Clapton, The Eagles, and the usual Chinese favorites – Right Here Waiting, Say You Say Me, etc.

    I went to that bar again the other day, and guess what I heard, U2 and some Miles Davis-like jazz. Apparently I wasn’t the only person to recommend a break with the usual.

  3. I’m curious how the reaction would have been to something more varied than a bunch of pop songs, most of what you hear in Shanghai is pop music after all. Perhaps people running out of the room, screaming! Or more likely just a curious befuddlement? It sounds like a good project for a PhD!

  4. how does “high fidelity” translate in Chinese, I wonder…

    There was a cd store near my old apartment that played the same cd 24/7 for about 5 months. They had that “Wusuowei” song and that silly (french, i think) “de de de doo doo da de de doo doo” song as well. It drove me nuts…

    I asked the lady, “don’t you have any other cds?”
    and she’s like “But I like this one.”


  5. Do I sense virgin territory for my Rush evangelism? Maybe I can start them off with Dreamline…

  6. Love it. A much more constructive way of influencing the music scene than say, grumbling to every foreigner you meet. I’ll be trying this at the gym… really getting sick of the one CD of dance music they’ve decided to play for the last 6 months (yes, it’s better than Westlife, but still!) Think they’ll play Thunderstruck?

  7. CDs are like sp 1990’s. Now adays you carry your MP3 player and download the tunez or DJ right there !

    I live next to a Chinese Hair Style place which thinks that blasting Eminem 24/7 is somehow cool

  8. How about exporting decent music. What type of bands/music from over there should I be giving to my coffee shop here in the states?

    Oh, and you better not own a Lisa Loeb cd, John. Same goes for Bryan Adams.

  9. Mark,

    Ugh, no. No one likes Rush.

  10. Frank,

    Haven’t you noticed that in many ways, China is still in the 1990’s?

  11. Steve,

    Don’t worry, I don’t. I have the Lisa Loeb MP3 because I once used it for an English class (the lyrics in that song are exceptionally clear). And I just have the one Bryan Adams MP3.

  12. Some of Rush’s stuff is pretty good, actually. And Neal Peart’s a great drummer…. Admittedly not cafe music though.

  13. Bah, John. With nineteen platinums and eight golds, it’s clear that a lot of people appreciate them. Actually, I’d argue that their huge sales and concert figures over four decades actually understate their appeal. Compared to fans of other bands, an exceptionally high number of Rush fans are zealots… like me ๐Ÿ™‚

    Travelyan, that must be the understatement of the decade! Neil Peart won the drummer of the year 6 years in a row and they eventually made a hall of fame to put him in just so he couldn’t win it anymore.

    What I really love most about Rush, though, is the lyrics. Neil Peart’s words reach me in a way that no other lyrics ever have, and that’s why I can overlook Geddy Lee’s screeching voice.

  14. Mark,

    Actually, the only problem I have with Rush is the vocals. After about one song, I can’t stand to listen to that voice anymore.

  15. Heaven is an awesome song!!!! Screw you guys! Bryan Adams forever!!

    (Okay. That was a bit much… but I still liked Heaven)

  16. “Cuts like a Knife” is another good one, Stuart.

    In any event, looks like next time I’m down in Shanghai I’ll have to bring a couple of CDs with dance remixes of “Roll the Bones” and “Nobody’s Hero”. You’ll know who to thank the next time you get your hair cut.

  17. I blasted 2112 on the speakers while I mopped the other day. I think the neighbors like it. Sure beats the lovey dovey crap they have here they think is metal in this country. Although I have to admit abslute shock when I saw a grandma wearing a Pantera t-shirt last month, maybe her grandson listens to em? Anywho, that’s my kind of grandma.

  18. Oh my god. Fucking Rush. Who do you think you’re kidding? I’d listen to Abba any day over that shit. Who doesn’t enjoy “Dancing Queen” on some level? Only a horrible cynic for whom life holds no pleasure.

  19. Rush is ok, but I’m more of a punk rocker. As far as retro goes, I’ve been listening to a lot of X, MDC and the Crucifucks recently. Ugh, Bryan Adams. He is amazingly (and unfathomably) popular in India. I quit my gym there because they wouldn’t stop playing his crap.

  20. I used to hate rush, until I started listening to…coheed and cambria. (i know, they recieve the same kind of “dear god” reaction as rush) and for that very reason, I kind of appreciate rush now. It’s an acquired taste though, that much is for sure.

  21. Can’t say I enjoy all of the stuff mentioned above, but Just almost anything will always beat the cheesy HK pops. By the way, is cheesy somewhat equivalent to the Chinese word “่‚‰้บปโ€œ ?

  22. What I want to know is how Richard Marx acheived his place in the pantheon of western music in China. I may just be too young to remember, but it doesn’t seem like Right here waiting for you was that popular back home. I’m sure I’ve heard the song more times in 3 years here in Taiwan than I heard it in my entire life up to that point.

  23. Hey, didn’t we have a booze-fueled argument about which foreign schlock ballad was biger in China the other year? Between “Big Big Girl” and “Yesterday Once More,” as I recall.ย 

  24. Mark, Right Here Waiting For You was way popular when it came out in the late 80’s. I think my school even had some cheesy dance with that as its theme. Oh, how I hated my ASB student council.

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