How Is Ai Weiwei’s Musicality? We Asked Chinese Music Experts

Ai Weiwei Dumbass

By now, you’re probably familiar with Ai Weiwei’s “Dumbass,” the Beijing-born artist-cum-activist’s widely-publicized collaborative heavy metal music video with Zuoxiao Zuzhou that was unveiled last week to promote the pair’s upcoming full-length effort, The Divine Comedy.

Directed by well-known Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle — you may recognize his work with Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai — the highly-polished video offers a surrealistic interpretation of the 81 days that Ai, 55, reportedly spent in detention in mid-2011 for tax evasion.

In the five-minute flick, a disheveled and closely-guarded Ai goes through the mundane details of everyday prison life — slurping down noodles, showering, getting interrogated — before dissolving into expletive-laden fantasy sequences featuring blow-up dolls, strutting lingerie-clad models and a shearing given by a pint-sized prison protégé.

The video ends with a made-up Ai preening as he’s led to an unknown fate by a pair of guards, painting a speculative portrait of how we imagine the offspring of Uncle Fester, Chairman Mao and Divine would look if you combined their DNA, fertilized a turtle’s egg and hatched it in a subterranean mauve-colored incubation pod.

Ai says that this — the closely-guarded mundane activities, not the cross-dressing — reflects his detention experience.

While it’s become fashionable to bash the outspoken artist that the contemporary art magazine ArtReview has coronated the most powerful in the world for being a spotlight-seeking attention hound, we presume his decisions follow his own internal stream of logic, and we aren’t going to bash them here.

His creative choices, however, are fair game. It’s easy to forget that despite his status as a fawned-over global brand and perennial thorn in the Party’s side, he still is, first and foremost, an artist whose creative output requires public criticism in order to remain valid.

As discussion of the video continued to ripple online over the weekend, we reached out to members of the country’s independent music community to judge the song purely on its artistic merits.

Here’s what they said.

Josh FeolaSmart Beijing/pangbianr

I guess it could charitably be described as nü-metal with subtle trip hop influences. But that’s not really the point, is it? As with that ridiculous “Gangnam Style” parody video he did, Ai proves he can at this point just phone it in, record that phoning in on his iPhone, post it online, and get it written about by the New York Times. Dude can make a haircut newsworthy.

This song is a real stinker. It was presumably written by formerly-awesome avant-rock star Zuoxiao Zuzhou (Weiwei’s pink-clad co-star in his Gangnam parody). For me, the sad part is that this will be the most internationally covered music to come out of China this year. Western journalists just love that dissident angle. All media wonks love writing about everything Ai does, like shooting a music video featuring himself taking a shit. Hey, look: I just fell into the same trap!

Xie YugangWang Wen

This is typical Zuoxiao Zuzhou: Dark, nervous and tight. It’s a cool song. And while the singer isn’t Zuoxiao but rather Ai himself (although Zuoxiao does sing some background vocals at the end), I think that the music in itself would be better if Zuoxiao sang for the duration: his off-tune and eccentric voice would strengthen it as a whole. However, Ai’s offbeat and Chinese karaoke-style vocal does makes the song more interesting…

Nevin DomerGenjing Records

This harkens back to nineties-era rock in China and early performers like Dou WeiTongue and No (Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s band), which makes sense as this is a collaboration with Zuoxiao. While the track might not be winning any awards in the international sphere, it does capture the essence of early Chinese rock — it’s an eclectic mix of ideas and styles jumbled together in a faux-innocent and naive way conveying raw emotion without sophistication.

From a Western perspective, the mixing of classical Chinese sounds with elements of metal and electronic music creates an ahistorical feel to the song. In a Chinese context, however, it heavily connotes a period of opening up and dizzying explosion of change that was China in the 1990s. This musical confusion is echoed by the confusion represented in the lyrics and works to support Ai’s critique of modern China.

Will GriffithLive Beijing Music:

The elements are there: a heavy metallic beat with an emphasis on trip hop. Drums take the lead, a flute brings the chorus around again and again, and Ai’s voice and lyrics bombard the song without the slightest bit of subtlety.

Does it add up to much? Aesthetically, it’s kind of a mess: none of said elements really mesh together into something cohesive and far-reaching. Granted, perhaps that’s the intent — and in fact, after a few listens, it has a kind of a ramshackle charm about it. But vocally, the man sounds terrible: he’s basically taken Zuoxiao’s signature off-key singing and made it jarring instead of intriguing. It’s in no way a train wreck, but with the talent involved, one would expect something that’s doesn’t feel forced, overproduced and overbearing.

Tim DoddsHu Jia Hu Wei

I like this song, but probably not enough to listen to it that many times. I find the oddness of it pleasing. I like how unpredictable it is. It’s not particularly menacing or unnerving, and doesn’t evoke the sensations of horror and savagery that the industrial-tinged instrumental may have been aiming for, but it does convey what (I believe) Ai is trying to get across: a dominant impression of a man in distress.

Most music barely has a dominant impression. Most music just leaves me thinking, “I just heard a song.” Ai’s foray into music is pretty good in this regard: it has power and resonance and that deserves some credit.

Jennifer Conrad, writer, blogger and publicist

I really did not like listening to this song. Maybe this is supposed to sound tortured to evoke Ai’s detention experience? It starts out like it could be a decent, kind of industrial song, and then Ai starts caterwauling over it — he sounds like he’s in the middle of a different song! And the overdubs near the end‽ Everyone has the right to make bad music, but I’m not sure he’s doing much to further his cause here.

Kat Velayo, nightlife editor, City Weekend Shanghai

“Dumbass” kicks off with strident guitar chords, airy synth and drumbeats that could easily be the opening strains of a random nü-metal number from a random band from anywhere. But then the vocals kick in and we’re thinking, ”Ai Weiwei is kind of a terrible vocalist.” That probably gives the song more of an edge because the words become such a focal point, and this really is all about the message, isn’t it? Zuoxiao Zuzhou actually does a great job putting together the medium through which this message is transmitted and his composition keeps your ear interested long enough to sit through Ai’s painful wailings. Is the comedic aspect of his singing deliberate? We think he might just be winking at us on this one.

Anonymous, Beijing-based writer/musician

People’s sentiments for Ai might be conflicting with their capacity for aesthetic analysis. (We could call it the “AWW Effect.”) While I sympathize with what I feel was his wrongful detention, I feel that Ai frequently reveals himself as a narcissistic bully. I take his works and opinions on a case-by-case basis, and in this case, the emperor of Chinese art appears to be naked.

The only good thing I have to say about the video is that the cinematography is mostly high-quality (to be expected, since it’s Chris Doyle). Other than that, I personally find nothing interesting, exciting, enjoyable or relevant about this “punk” song. This isn’t even punk music. It sounds like a glam rock parody. I can’t stand the voice or the thoughtless lyrics. We see images depicting detention, but there’s no real story in those images. But you never know with Ai. Maybe his purpose was to torture us.

Jon Campbell, author, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll

Anyone who thought this was going to be an actual heavy metal album a) Doesn’t comprehend the idea of metal and b) Doesn’t care what, musically, the song and/or album sounds like. For these folks, the value of this project is the idea, not the execution, and it seems to me that Ai is also of this camp.

It’s disheartening that he shows no respect for music as an art form in the way he respects sculpture, photography, installation and other mediums. The whole thing, for me, comes off as a joke. And that’s a shame because if he put his mind to it, Ai could’ve come up with something truly interesting: Not music, per se, but at least an approach involving music.

Zuoxiao Zuzhou is the musical brains behind the operation here, and for me, the song is a perfectly fine Zuoxiao tune that’s ruined by the context out of which it comes. I’m no Zuoxiao fan, but I recognize the value of his work, here and throughout his career. But in this case, the lyrics, video and the Ai element ruin it.

As challenging, artistically, as Zuoxiao’s music is, it’s not challenging in a come-right-out-and-say-”fuck-you-the-Man” way. Like the best yaogun, it challenges authority anyway, because it makes people think, which is what great music — and art — is supposed to do. Ai has created some amazing art. But you wouldn’t know it in this case.

The Divine Comedy will be released on June 22. Pete DeMola is a writer and creative consultant in Hong Kong. He tweets @pmdemola.

18 Responses to “How Is Ai Weiwei’s Musicality? We Asked Chinese Music Experts”

  1. holyshit

    Is Ai Wei Wei the only Chinese artist doing anything in China? I’m not that familiar with BJC, but has this website ever written about other Chinese artists? I saw his documentary “Never Sorry,” and after listening to his “metal” song he should apologize.

    Maybe you could get him to do a an episode of 3 Shots?

    Reply
        • Jonathan Alpart

          I agree pretty much exactly with what Josh Feola said.

          For someone who “doesn’t listen to music” as Ai said, I think it’s an enormously inconsiderate disservice to the thousands of serious musicians in China who are continuously shadowed under Ai’s domineering celebrity. The song basically starts unlistenable and then gets worse. He is a terrible singer (not even a singer, just a man singing), and even the song’s production sounds thin and cheap. The lyrics are juvenile and just abstract enough for any critic to be afraid to say anything for fear of “not getting it.”

          What I find interesting is how no one has pointed out how odd it is that a supposed dissident artist who has been in jail – the song being about him being in jail, no less – is allowed to produce an album.

          Another interesting thing is that the song sounds excessively “Chinese” or “Oriental.” This can be great if done well – PK14 being an excellent example of the lead singer using Chinese styles and cadence in a pure rock format – but here it sounds like a Beijing Opera melody was simply injected in, or “phoned in” as Feola put it. Again, the western press that fawns over everything Ai does will probably profess to enjoy and praise the singing as something exotic – while having zero understanding of Chinese rock music – when in reality there are many other bands that sound equally “Chinese” while still being listenable, original and beautiful.

          The Aimperor wears no headphones!

          Reply
          • Jonathan Alpart

            [may be a double post] Thanks, man, that means a lot. By the way, all would be forgiven from my end if AWW used his clout to give a shout out to some Chinese musicians, but AFAIK that hasn’t happened.

          • P.

            I can’t reply to your latest comment — there’s no reply button — so I’ll put my response here:

            I agree that the country’s struggling artists could use a boost from high-profile creatives and it’s a question that you should raise with future interview subjects:

            “If Ai Weiwei were to offer an endorsement or other forms of support, would you accept?”

            My instincts say no — “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” and all.

            Why willingly associate yourself with a lightning rod? The independent music scene is wobbly enough already without guilt by association from outspoken political activists (numerous live music venues in Shanghai were reportedly raided by SWAT teams over the weekend, for example) and a heavily-publicized endorsement and the resulting media coverage may result in intensified scrutiny from the authorities — especially in this current political climate when Party flacks are still jockeying for primo positions in the new administration.

            And on a broader level, I’m sure not if endorsements from domestic celebs would do any good, anyways, unless they came with the strong financial support and dedicated commitment that is necessary to sustain a grassroots organic network designed to support a robust creative community.

            What the scene *really* needs are GONGOs, the “government organized non-governmental organizations” that helped usher in this country’s fledgling environmental NGOs a generation ago, but that’s food for another discussion.

    • SeaHorse

      Far from it. In terms of fine arts, people say Sui Jianguo is the most active artist in all of China. Most known probably for his neon colour Mao suits. Ai is not even the most valuable artist in China, I think Zhang Xiaogang and Min Yuejun would probably be much more expensive at Sotheby’s. And those are just the big Damien-Hirst-esque names.

      The thing is Ai gots the best media appeal. He knows English so he can tweet, he’s a dissident who’s been to jail, and he has foreign contacts. Not saying he’s not a good artist, but saying English is a pretty big freakin’ deal for a Chinese artist if you’re gonna schmooze with western critics. Once read an article where a Chinese art critic complained about an article he read by a western counterpart who called a certain artist the leader of the Chinese Avant-Garde when his greatest skill is speaking English really well and pretending his work is a profound declaration against the totalitarian system of the state.

      Reply
      • RhZ

        He’s a confrontational person, he likes to push boundries. Most others are not or cannot afford to be because they will be quickly repressed or imprisoned. Ai has his famous father which provides some protections, others are not so lucky.

        Pls do not forget what he was imprisoned / kidnapped for, he was trying to document and count all the children killed during the wenchuan earthquake, and if memory serves he ended up getting illegally detained like a bunch of rights lawyers, all around the same time and clearly part of a campaign to send a message to the community. Although again his family connections provide some protections, not much maybe, but some, so he is better treated in some ways than many. But afaik he still has a bunch of cameras surrounding his house so better treated is not particularly well treated.

        Reply
        • Principal Alfred F. Connard

          “He’s a confrontational person, he likes to push boundries.”

          Wow, have you met him? Oh, and it’s “boundaries.”

          Reply
          • RhZ

            Umm…thanks? I don’t need to meet him to know this, its fairly obvious from his public persona…oh did you just arrive here from Jupiter perhaps?

  2. goldshowerforjesus

    Maybe the fat guy with the goattee and speech impediment from that CRI show and Ai Wei Wei could make a video together? A gay porn film called Two Pigs in a Blanket.

    Where’s the latest 3 Shots episode? I miss railing on laowais who think they’re the bomb.

    Reply
  3. P.

    @Jonathan:

    I can’t reply to your latest comment — there’s no reply button — so I’ll put my response here:

    I agree that the country’s struggling artists could use a boost from high-profile creatives and it’s a question that you should raise with future interview subjects:

    “If Ai Weiwei were to offer an endorsement or other forms of support, would you accept?”

    My instincts say no — “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” and all.

    Why willingly associate yourself with a lightning rod? The independent music scene is wobbly enough already without guilt by association from outspoken political activists (numerous live music venues in Shanghai were reportedly raided by SWAT teams over the weekend, for example) and a heavily-publicized endorsement and the resulting media coverage may result in intensified scrutiny from the authorities — especially in this current political climate when Party flacks are still jockeying for primo positions in the new administration.

    And on a broader level, I’m sure not if endorsements from domestic celebs would do any good, anyways, unless they came with the strong financial support and dedicated commitment that is necessary to sustain a grassroots organic network designed to support a robust creative community.

    What the scene *really* needs are GONGOs, the “government organized non-governmental organizations” that helped usher in this country’s fledgling environmental NGOs a generation ago, but that’s food for another discussion.

    Reply

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