Issue 2, September 1998 - Jeroen de Kloet, To seek beautiful dreams; Rock in China

3. Subcultural Theory

The term `subculture' has been coined in the 1940s and has since then be used to describe and analyze all kinds of social groups (like punks, football-hooligans, male-prostitutes and queers, for an overview see: Gelder and Thornton 1997). The Birmingham Centre of Cultural Studies has set the agenda in the 1970s with two major publications: Resistance Through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson 1976) and Subculture, The Meaning of Style (Hebdige 1979). Whereas the first predominantly used class as the key to discover subcultural meanings, the latter used style and race as their organising principles (McRobbie 1991). Subcultures were seen as symbolical forms of resistance against a dominant culture. Through the development of specific styles (said to 'be pregnant with significance', full of symbols from the dominant culture, that were transformed, given new `fresh' meanings (Hebdige 1979:18)), subcultures were thought to subvert dominant values and challenge mainstream culture. This `semiotic guerrilla warfare' (Hebdige 1979:101 quotes Eco here) is doomed to fail, mainstream culture will either incorporate (and thus destroy) a subculture or the subculture will conveniently be labelled as being too exotic to be taken seriously.

The subcultural response is seen as an, albeit imaginative, solution on a perceived problem. This is a functionalist explanation, we might wonder whether there is anything that needs to be solved (as I once remarked 'maybe the one and only reason is fun fun fun...' (Kloet 1994)). The argument is also too much based on a rigid hegemony-model. Culture is conveniently categorized, the emphasis is solely on difference, on deviance. A fixed dichotomy `mainstream culture' versus `subculture', in which each cultural domain is treated as homogenous and sharply bounded, is problematic. The terms `mainstream' and `dominant', which are so often used in these dichotomies, are problematic in itself, as they overemphasize contrasts and differences.

Rather than incorporating and destroying a subculture, commercial institutions from the wider cultural milieu often facilitate the development of a subculture. Broadcasting of Chinese rock on MTV-Asia and Channel V (another music-channel, part of Rupert Murdoch's Star-TV system), has stimulated rather than hindered the development of Chinese rock. Through Channel V, Chinese rock gained considerable recognition in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. Furthermore, both domains are intertwined and overlap each other. 'The relation is subtle, complex and sometimes devious. A subculture will rarely be simply oppositional, precisely because it exists within a wider cultural milieu which affects it and which it in turn affects.' (Bakken 1994: 273). This symbiotic relation between subcultures and its wider cultural milieu as well as the internal dynamics of both cultural domains should be taken into account while discussing any specific subculture.

Finally, the idea of a monolithic subculture creates the myth of a uniform identity for its members. Rather the contrary is the case. People's involvement in the rock culture differ. Some will play in the weekends and go to university during the week, whereas others might be deeper or less involved. Thus, the rock culture of Beijing is a highly fragmented subculture, with multiple relations to its wider cultural milieu and with constantly shifting, permeable boundaries. It is a fragmented cultural practice, both concerning the styles as well as the involvement of musicians and audiences. Before I will elaborate on the music and the musicians, I will briefly touch on some important developments of the wider cultural milieu that have stimulated the growth of rock.