Tiananmen Square Massacre

I heard a lot about the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on the radio while I was driving today. It got me thinking of my experiences in China last summer.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

I think I remember walking along the sidewalk shown in the image above. I could be wrong, because Tiananmen Square is so big. I think that a few of my study abroad friends and I went through the tunnel in the middle of the sidewalk while we were walking around one night after eating at a well-regarded dumpling restaurant. We spent a lot of time in a big candy store and in one of the countless “Beijing 2008” stores in prominent locations of the city.

It’s hard to believe that hundreds, maybe thousands of people died there. When I was in China, I never felt frightened or oppressed, and the Chinese people didn’t seem to either. With the Olympics approaching, Beijing felt peaceful and safe. I would probably have felt frightened if I had chosen to stage a protest somewhere, though.

The reports I heard today said the Chinese people have chosen economic growth over freedom in the twenty years since the Tiananmen massacre. That may be true, but saying it that way sounds too harsh. It’s hard to blame the Chinese for cherishing economic success after a half century of Communist rule. The growth that I witnessed while I was there was inspiring. My friends and I loved to visit a cute, but very dirty neighborhood close to our school that was smelly, with piles of trash festering in the streets. They obviously received few government services. But a lot of Beijing was shiny and new, and there was an incredible amount of construction. It was clear that the new developments were overtaking the old ones. This progress improves lives. Frankly, it’s more valuable than freedom of speech.

Anyway, I’ll admit my knowledge of this is a little stale, but in a Modern China class I took a few years ago we learned that the Tiananmen Square protests weren’t primarily about freedom and democracy. Instead, students and workers were angry because the government was cancelling benefits to them (such as guaranteed jobs after college) as it loosened its hold on the economy. The calls for democracy were real, but I think they came later. So in a way, they were protesting liberalization.

Best American Band: the Velvet Underground

There’s a saying about the Velvet Underground: they only sold a thousand records, but for every record they sold a band was formed.

the Velvet Underground

the Velvet Underground

I’m not a huge fan of the Velvet Underground. The only song of theirs that has a high rating on my Ipod is the catchy, relaxing “Sunday Morning.” Their influence earns them a place among America’s greatest rock bands, however. Managed by pop artist Andy Warhol, they developed an innovative stripped-down sound that helped lead to punk’s ascendance in the seventies. The crude subject matter of their songs was also proto-punk: “I’m Waiting for My Man” is about waiting for a drug dealer, and “Heroin” is, obviously, also drug-themed. Their most famous album cover, designed by Warhol, featured a banana peel sticker over a suggestive flesh-colored banana. At a time when lots of bands were pushing boundaries, Velvet Underground seemed to be pushing them further.

Allmusic.com, a great music resource website, says it with more authority than I can. “By the 1980s,” the website says, the Velvet Underground “were acknowledged not just as one of the most important rock bands of the ’60s, but one of the best of all time, and one whose immense significance cannot be measured by their relatively modest sales.”

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

The Best American Band: Steely Dan

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

After we started this discussion I mentioned that I think Steely Dan has to be considered in any discussion of great American rock ‘n’ roll bands. In response my friend JV asked — with some incredulity — “Are they really a rock’n’ roll band?” I think it is a fair question, but I also think the answer is yes. The difficulty is that Steely Dan was so different that they are difficult to categorize, with lyrics that were as opaque as you can get and musical styles that varied widely from one album to the next. Nevertheless, the songs clearly fall within the broad spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll, even if they hit different points on that spectrum. Reelin’ In The Years is one of the best guitar songs ever recorded, and Bodhisattva isn’t too shabby, either. Black Friday and Dirty Work are very strong keyboard compositions. Then you have a song like Do It Again, which has an almost jazzy, Afropop feel to it, and The Fez, with its memorable chorus . . . if you were working in a record store in the 1970s, where would you have put the new Steely Dan album, other than in the rock section?

I admire the way Steely Dan kept looking to new musical styles and sounds, all the while staying true to their trademark tight harmonies, catchy melodies, and extraordinarily cryptic lyrics. You had to listen carefully to their songs to try to figure out what the hell was going on, and even then you always felt like you were missing out on the joke or the rest of the story. What was it about Guadalajara that wouldn’t do, and who were Gino and Daddy G? Why was it relevant that people call Alabama The Crimson Tide? Why wouldn’t you do it without the fez on? Was the 19-year-old being plied with Cuervo Gold? These were intriguing questions to ponder on a lazy college afternoon.

Steely Dan easily was one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, and albums like Aja and Can’t Buy A Thrill were played repeatedly on the 101 W. 8th Ave. stereo system. Appropriately, the band’s songs are well represented on the Ipod. The selections include FM, Do It Again, The Fez, Reelin’ In The Years, Black Friday, Dirty Work, My Old School, Deacon Blues, Hey Nineteen, and Only A Fool Would Say That.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

The massacre in Tienanmen Square happened 20 years ago today, and is the subject of a number of interesting articles, like this one. It seems that there are two lessons to be learned from the massacre. First, the victor writes the history — or, in the case of China, quashes the history. Second, if a market is big enough, capitalists (in China and outside of China) will overlook social justice issues when there is significant money to be made. As reprehensible as Tienanmen Square was, it didn’t take long for Chinese nationals and outside businesspeople to forget about the carnage and focus instead on the profits to be realized from exploiting a market with cheap labor and billions of potential consumers.