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March 3, 2011

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Female rockers rock

FEMALE rockers in the West are wild and sexy, they're bad girls and proud of it. But in Shanghai the females who call themselves "rockers" are kinder and gentler. Nie Xin reports.

Rock music everywhere is generally a macho man's world and that's especially true in China where raging, outspoken music and its stereotypically rough lifestyle are off-bounds to the gentler sex.

Cultural expectations about women - as well as young women's yearning to be stars - make gentle, girly pop-rock about as edgy as it gets. There are rare exceptions. There is the occasional flash of anger about animal abuse, a fouled environment and social unfairness. But there's no rebellion.

And forget about the hallmark drinking, drugging and associated rude male behavior.

"Female rock in Shanghai has a strong characteristic of haipai (Shanghai style), not that heavy-metal, rage or decadence," says Zhang Haisheng, owner of Yuyintang, a major live house in Shanghai.

"Western female rockers are mostly sexy and wild. Rockers from Beijing show more rage and strong attitudes in their music, performing style and even lifestyle," he says.

Haipai can refer to many things, including food and art, and it suggests gentleness, subtlety and a bit of Western influence.

The few female musicians in Shanghai who call themselves "rockers" (yaogun geshou) deliver a kinder, gentler rock that reflects a haipai style that's fresh, healthy and a bit spunky.

In addition to love, they sing about peace, animal protection, caring for the environment and social issues such as the huge gap between rich and the poor, greed and materialism, corruption and unfair treatment of migrant workers. But social issues usually don't take center stage.

Shanghai Daily talks to three female rockers, two of them defy the girly stereotype, and one says she's glad her girly pop contract ended so she can be herself and write more meaningful songs.

Powerful voice

One of the least girly is Shanghai-born solo rocker Luo Dan, aged 29, who made a name at 2006 Super Girls, a nationally televised talent show.

"There are very few female rockers in China," says Luo who is known for her powerful voice and passionate stage performance. She typically wears jeans and a leather jacket and usually has a cigarette in hand. She rides a motorcycle.

She talks fast and very straightforward; but she is also polite.

Despite her popularity, she steers clear of most commercial performances to which she is invited.

"I don't like commercial shows or crowded night clubs," Luo says, "and I don't like working for a recording company, which makes me feel like a singing robot."

Of late she only performs on some TV entertainment programs, for charity events and at a few venues she likes, such as the Melting Pot Bar near Tian Zi Fang.

A Taiwanese music company is organizing a China concert tour for independent Chinese mainland singers, including Luo.

"I am labeled as a rock singer and rock is my favorite - straightforward lyrics with a strong rhythm. But it's just a music style," she says.

The singer-songwriter listens to jazz, folk, pop, B-box and classic music.

"Music is a fusion and there are no gaps or limitations," she says, adding that she also likes classical musical instruments, such as the shuqin (harp).

"As a singer and songwriter, I should absorb nutrition of music all the time," says Luo who was married last year to Li Lin, a 2007 Happy Boys participant.

Luo studied drama and film at the Shanghai Theater Academy and started her career in 2001.

She has written around 10 songs, mostly about her independent attitude toward life and social issues.

"My songs are mainly about animal protection, world peace, conservation of resources, injustice and social reality," she says. "Releasing the emotions and anger about social unfairness is one of the functions of music, especially rock. When I am singing on stage, I feel like another person, relaxing and ploughing into the music 100 percent."

But she is quick to emphasize that it is "release," not "vent."

"Rage has to be expressed when you really see unfairness. As a musician, especially a rocker, you meed more passion, like rage. But in fact nobody can maintain this emotion all the time," she explains.

While many male rockers are identified with drugs, alcohol and violence, Luo says her life is "pure" and she is happily married.

Off stage, Luo is reserved and often quiet, rather unlike the persona she presents on stage. She seldom socializes with musicians and likes reading (biography and history) and watching movies (horror and disaster).

"I'm turning 30 years old this year, an important age. Something should be changed. I should be more mature and clear about life," she says.

Three months ago, Luo and her husband opened a store called Pink and Black, selling motorcycle gear - decorations, jackets, helmets and locks. She says it's "a new start of life."

"Riding motorcycles has been a dream since I was young," says Luo. "I am realizing my dream step by step and trying to live a life besides singing."

Skull jewelry

Rocker Lin Di is alternative both in dressing and attitude - skeleton necklaces, strange earrings and ragged jeans.

In 2001 vocalist and bassist Lin, then a website editor, founded Cold Fairyland, one of today's most popular rock bands in Shanghai. Eight years later she married Finnish bass and guitar player Seppo M. Lehto.

"Life is somewhat meaningless, so you should find something meaningful to do. For me, music is just that 'something'," says the long-haired rocker.

The six-member band, which is comprised of three married couples, combines traditional Eastern musical instruments, such as the pipa (Chinese lute) with Western guitar, drums and keyboard.

Born in Shanghai, Lin plays the pipa and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music majoring in folk music.

"Music is fragile, because human's heart is fragile; but it can also be powerful," says 30-something Lin. Her works are mainly about nature and tranquillity.

Given her training in traditional music, Lin's pursuit of rock shocked many people, but she says by combining rock and traditional elements she hopes to deliver a sound that really appeals to the young generation.

"Compared with other rockers who often focus on more critical topics, what I care about most is the music itself," Lin says, calling her style "independent" and not influenced by anyone.

As a freelance photographer, writer and web designer, Lin's music is varied in style - from the dark and dreamy pop rock to the world music.

As one of the best-known female rockers in China, Lin says Chinese female rockers still don't have strong feminism in their music.

"Female rockers can't be as outspoken as their Western counterparts in a male-dominated field, so their strongest words are usually about social issues," she says.

Lin disagrees with the view that there's little room today for rock in China, which seems to go for softer pop.

"Among all the things we do, music is what makes us happy, helps us explore this amazing world and let us see our inner souls through our bodies," says Lin.

Girl band

Compared with Luo and Lin, girl rock band Momo's vocalist and guitarist Tang Yiqun (Maya) strikes a very different and girly note.

The three-piece girl rock band is one of Shanghai's few female rock bands and has been around for eight years, making one of the oldest girl bands in the city. They are frequent performers in live houses and at music festivals.

Tang, 25, is a fan of Japanese and Taiwanese rock - "sweet, fresh, girly and light."

The soft rock band is named after a Japanese animation figure, Magical Princess Minky Momo. "Momo is a lovely, brave and innocent girl. She matches the spirit of our band," says Tang.

Their cute, upbeat favorites include "Little Monster," "Sunny Dolls," "My Momo" and "Don't Tell Mom and Dad That I Broke Up." Their fans, mostly girls, scream with delight.

Compared with their Beijing counterparts, female rockers in Shanghai focus more on local girls, their moods and sensitivities. Their sound is sweet and punk.

"Sometimes this is considered 'artificial'," says Tang. "But girls can be both gentle and independent and tough and powerful. Our rock music is very sweet. It's totally different from music from the north or the West."

The song "Little Monster" refers to sassy Shanghai girls who can playfully punch their boyfriends, tease, talk back and make jokes. They sing about girls going shopping together, having afternoon tea and loving the color pink - pink cars, pink fashion, pink cell phones and pink furniture.

Momo has just ended a three-year contract with a local music company. Tang sees it as a release. "Thank god, we finally have freedom again - freedom in ideas and performance choices."

Tang says she doesn't want to be "sweet and cute" any more, which was part of the recording company's strategy.

"I am what I am, not that cute, sexy or wild," says Tang, who says she smokes, drinks and has a tattoo, a religious totem - it's on the back of her hand.

As the band matures, it writes more songs about society and social issues. "We don't have to please the market," says Tang.

Her parents used to be shocked at her music, the tattoo and other aspects of her lifestyle.

"Like most people who are biased against rockers, they thought I had become a bad girl and they were very worried," she says.

But they changed their mind and now give her full support; her mother is especially proud to see her perform on TV.

Tang has a day job as an office administration worker, mostly to get social insurance and reassure her parents.

"We can find more fresh feelings in the music of local female rockers, like Momo. One of the reasons is their families," says Zhang from Yuyintang live house.

Most of the young women, the post-1980s generation, were born in stable loving families, at a time when China was free of social turmoil and life was getting better.

"That's why they have a healthier lifestyle and positive attitude toward their music - all their creations come from real life," says Zhang.

The winged rocker

In "Black Wing," Lin Di from Cold Fairyland sings of death, flying, failing dreams and indifferent crowds.

"I'm dreaming of myself flying/

At the edge of the 40th floor/

Black wings on my shoulder open/

My hand cannot hold any dream/


I see the light from heaven/

My darkness is no longer dark/

My death will become endless/

On the people-less street/

I hear sound from heaven/

Sound from heaven ..."


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