Live Wire: Where is Taiwan’s “Gangnam style?”

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Fri, Dec 21, 2012 - Page 11

What would a Chthonic (閃靈) show be without a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) flag burning? After the metal band’s sold-out concert at NeoStudio last Sunday, a few fans in the street put flame to a small KMT flag; burning it is basically an act of support for Taiwanese independence.

The concert itself was not so blatantly political. Too much stumping would have taken away from the headbanging, the blast beats and a cool guest slot by metal god guitarist Marty Friedman, who flew to Taipei for a two-song guest slot. Amidst all the raised devil horns in the crowd, there were also Tibetan flags flying. At the entrance was an info booth for Amnesty International, of which Chthonic’s lead singer Freddy Lim (林昶佐) is the Taiwan chapter head.

On stage, there was a cameo appearance by TV political talk show host Zheng Hong-yi (鄭弘儀). In the crowd, fans shouted obscenities at President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and VIP guests included a number of well known political types, most notably the 94-year-old Su Beng (史明), a white-maned, wheelchair-bound democracy activist who once plotted to kill Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and is the author of Taiwan’s 400 Years of History (臺灣人四百年史).

As always, Chthonic exhibited an interesting knack for riding the line between art and politics, supporting Taiwanese independence, but never at the expense of the music. As black metal, they unload the proper orgasm of blasting noise, dark atmosphere, face paint and theatrical chord progressions. There were some especially great moments when lead guitarist Jesse Liu (劉笙彙) traded licks with erhu player Su Nong (趙甦農). Behind the band, projected video images mixed heavy metal spectacle and historical violence: wrathful Taiwanese gods; the Wushe Incident (霧社事件), in which Taiwanese Aborigines slaughtered Japanese colonialists; a cockpit view of a kamikaze plane diving into a ship.

Though in a sense the imagery seemed contradictory — first killing Japanese colonialists is cool, then they’re glorifying kamikazes — the common thread was the fighting spirit of the Taiwanese people, who resisted Japanese colonization but were later conscripted into the Japanese army during World War II. And doesn’t every metal band engage in outrageously violent fantasies as a way of engaging with the dark side of reality, but without truly actualizing them? In this way, Chthonic is a master at having its cake and eating it too. According to reports, 1,200 tickets for the show sold out in less than a day when they went on sale in November.

A week earlier on Dec. 9, the UK space rock band Spiritualized gave a performance in the same venue that was awesomely mind blowing, though failed to make ends meet. Around 700 people paid the NT$2,500 ticket price, but the show still lost around NT$500,000.

A couple of year-end music lists have been released. On IndieVox.com, a fan vote for the best album of 2012 went to the boy-girl indie pop duo Katncandix2 (棉花糖) for the album I’m Myself (不被瞭解的怪人). The Mode Mall (新時代購物中心) in Taichung put out a list of Taiwan’s top 100 bands in late November, based on a fan vote. The top five were Mayday (五月天) Sodagreen (蘇打綠), 831 (八 三夭), Katncandix2 and The Chairmen (董事長樂團).

If the government is looking at these lists, they are probably scratching their heads and asking, “Where is our ‘Gangnam Style?’” From 2009 to 2013, the government allotted a budget of NT$26.2 billion to develop cultural creative industries, including NT$2.1 billion for pop music. In 2012, they gave NT$84 million to large record companies to produce more than 25 albums by major artists, including A-mei (張惠妹), Mayday, S.H.E., Jonathan Lee (李宗盛) and the boy band Lollipop F. They handed out recording grants of NT$300,000 to 40 indie bands, among them P!SCO, OCD Girl (強迫女孩), Fire EX (滅火器) and Bowz Tiger (包子虎). They supported tours by at least 22 Taiwanese bands overseas, including the second Taiwan showcase at SXSW, NT$1.5 million to Chthonic for overseas tours, and NT$500,000 to A Moving Sound (聲動樂團).

Alas, there was no “Gangnam Style” in sight! The problem is that the closest thing Taiwan has to Psy is President Ma, an actual “bumbler.” If only reality could sell as well as parody.

Seriously though, at a recent public discussion on Taiwan’s music industry, Underworld shareholder and Fu Jen University professor Ho Tong-hung (何東洪) remarked, “Production costs for albums used to be undertaken by record companies. Now it’s quite clear that the major source of funding is the government.”

This is obviously a big, multi-faceted issue, but as the government considers renewing this cultural budget, they should realize that in addition to showering money on artists, they need to think about their greatest cultural assets, the real communities of musicians and fans. Creating a proper legal framework for live houses should be a no-brainer. Underworld, Legacy and other top Taiwanese music venues continue to operate in legal gray zones.

Allowing music venues to sell alcohol is politically sticky, and Culture Minister Long Ying-tai (龍應台) and Taipei City culture chief Liu Wei-gong (劉維公) have both dodged the issue. That a country can turn a blind eye to widespread prostitution in karaoke parlors but not legally allow young people to drink beer and listen to rock and roll at the same time, what should we call that? How about Ying-jeou Style!