A brief review of the rise of a brutally straightforward and depressing musical style in the Chinese-speaking world
In November 2022, the constitutional referendum in Taiwan resulted in a firm negative, meaning suffrage will remain illegal for 18-year-olds in Taiwan who at the same time expect a document in their mail notifying them to register for mandatory military service and taxation. The idea of serving a country but having no right to choose who dictates their future remains the greatest irony to young adults in Taiwan before they can finally vote at the age of 20. Several generations of youth have yearned for their voices to be heard on the island after its successful democratization, but democracy remains an illusion even after turning 20. Entrenched virtues of obedience deem the younger generation as unreliable and unsophisticated. In July 2015, zealous high school students occupied the Ministry of Education to protest for social and historical justice in their curriculum—a student took her own life during the movement—but their aspiration for their future was met with disheartening bureaucracy. Simultaneously, a demo circulating online gradually incites an aural revolution that would resonate with not only the restless youth of the uneasy summer but remains relevant for generations afterward.
No Party for Cao Dong (colloquially Cao Dong) is the Taiwanese indie rock band that defined the zeitgeist with the children’s game-turned-generational anthem Simon Says.
“People who follow what Simon Says live a miserable life,
Everyone wants to be Simon, but they’re equally despicable.
Cry and shout to get your mom to buy a toy for you,
Hurry up and show off your new toy at school.
‘Ha, look at what you’re holding in your hands,
That’s an outdated toy we treat with only disdain.’
Still feeling drunk, still crying,
Still feeling ashamed, still feeling the same.
Blame it on time, time started everything.
Blame it on time, time ended everything.”(Simon Says by No Party for Cao Dong from the album The Servile, 2016)
The candidly straightforward lyrics and the melancholic shouts analogously reflect the painful realization accompanying adolescence: adulthood for most people is a Sisyphean pursuit of cheap fame, and the monolithic definition of success is pre-written and indoctrinated upon the younger generation in preparation for the next vicious cycle. Helpless of inevitable social constructs, young adults and teenagers quickly fell for the mentality the band exerts. They’ve had enough inspirational lessons and moral obligations inciting guilt and discrediting other emotions. Their complaints to adults are mere trivial whines but they also realised that they don’t always have to live in the fantasies of adults. The extrication of exhaustion and discontent is nevertheless not a sign of giving up, but an attempt to reclaim their dignity in such an oppressive reality, essentially accepting their mediocrity but not willing to reconcile with a lack of voice. The album name The Servile is alluding to a Song Dynasty poet Xin Qiji’s work illustrating a naive self trying to be profound, but in fact, has too much emotion with nowhere to let them out. Young adults 800 years ago share similar mentalities not because history repeats itself, but because nothing has ever changed. Cao Dong became the first indie band to host their own concert at the Taipei Arena, the largest musical venue in Taiwan that accommodates 15,000 listeners at a time.
“Oh, what a beautiful heart,
How did it become a pile of slimy mud?
Oh what an innocent poem,
How did it become a harsh satire?
Old people have already said everything I want to say,
Rich people have already done everything I want to do.
The justice I pursue is written by injustice.”(Wimpish by No Party for Cao Dong from the album The Servile, 2016)
Depression, however, is not exclusive to the younger generation. It started as a youthful rebellion but the contagious tones rapidly diffused across generations of people who have or are still experiencing the same emotional oppression; while also transcending geographical locations to everyone in the mandarin-speaking world, though the vain rage is a universal language.
Quite literally, what Cao Dong had to say has already been told.
At the beginning of the century, when China was prospering under crony capitalism, the stagnantly industrial northern city of Shijiazhuang was emotionally, economically, and physically gloomy. A subculture gradually congregated on the banks of the misty Minxin River, in a house nicknamed The Omnipotent Youth Society, which is homonymous with the band that played there and their debut album that took a decade to produce.
Got home at 6 in the evening,
Removed my factory uniform.
My wife is cooking porridge,
I’ll grab a few cans of beer.
Been living this life for the past 30 years,
Until the building collapsed.
The darkness deep in the clouds,
Has drowned the scenery deep in my mind.”(Kill The Guy From Shijiazhuang by Omnipotent Youth Society, 2010)
Their jazzy blues symphonizing with brutal yet poetic Chinese vocals was unlike any music in China back then. The sanctuary they created for the working-class youth is the urban utopia offering escapism from despair. From the economic reform in the 70s and onwards, the working class in industrial cities lived in an abyss that forced upon their decades of seemingly promising education and told them after decades of working as cheap labor that their education meant nothing.
“The building is a metaphor,” the band’s lyricist and bassist Ji Geng said in an interview, “what the building represents differs from person to person, it’s not a specific building, it is personal, or something universal, could be faith, could be believed, could be hope.” Indeed, the melancholic violin and gentle guitar chords build up into a devastating trumpet concerto with explosive riffs, reminding those who grew up believing in the happily ever after middle-class myth that all buildings collapse.
Omnipotent Youth Society manufactured their own music to escape the city’s manufactured fantasies. No Party for Cao Dong doesn’t need anyone to tell them when and where they can host a party. They aren’t a big fan of revolutionary sentiments yearning for change, they acknowledge that change is impractical but they crave a sense of self-esteem. They are not incarnations of each other, but they each voice for a population of youth trying to liberate themselves.
Looking back at the online comments criticizing the high school protestors for “faking their tears on television” would explain how bands like them continue to remain relevant. No Party for Cao Dong has ceased its activity after its drummer took her own life in 2021, but more and more musicians in the Mandarin-speaking countries that share the same mentalities are on the rise to shape new waves of rebellion.