unk music emerges largely from the social conflicts and derives its spirit to defend freedom against social norms. Hailed as “The Godmother of Punk,” Patti Smith has disrupted the stereotypes of women’s gender roles through music with her countercultural innovations including the application of poetry. Patti Smith and later punk generations have not only influenced singers and songwriters in musical styles, but also inspired them to carry out a spiritual revolution.
With the spread of punk music in a global sphere, Cui Jian, later labeled as “The Father of Chinese Rock”, fell under punk’s influence and became the voice of China’s “angry youth” in the 1980s. Cui gained esteem when other musicians were still recovering from the serious defeat from the Chinese Ten-year Great Cultural Revolution, which greatly stifled the thoughts of Chinese people. Cui has been committed to creating his own music against mainstream culture and his firm belief in rebellion has also awakened numerous teenagers’ rock ‘n’ roll dreams in China. Although Patti Smith and Cui Jian have completely different backgrounds and works, leading to their culturally different lives, they both became pioneers to represent punk spirits in their own countries. They both share the same culture of rebellion against conventional social norms, and they both have significant influences on future generations.
Different Backgrounds of Smith and Cui
Born in 1946, Smith had a strong religious upbringing in a working-class family. After Smith found it confining, she left organized religion as a teenager. At first working in a factory after graduating from high school in 1964, Smith moved to New York from New Jersey in search of her adventures in arts and music in 1967. Although Smith’s initial dream was to become a poet, after combining music with her poems, her attempt to sing her emotions turned out to be a huge success. In contrast, born into a musical family in Beijing in 1961, Cui began his training as a trumpet player when he was fourteen. Influenced by Western rock musicians such as John Denver, Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel, Cui formed his first band, Seven Plywood, with six other classically trained musicians in 1984. In 1987, Cui worked with ADO, an innovative Beijing band, including one Hungarian bassist and one Malagasy guitarist, whose exotic styles brought new rhythms and dynamism to Cui’s tunes. Cui’s creative ideas to merge the strong beat of Western music into the local folk music of North Shanxi Province on the Huangtu Plateau harmoniously stirred excitement among his audience in China.
Consciousness of Rebellion against Conventional Social Norms Embodied in Smith’s and Cui’s Musical Pieces
Despite the different backgrounds of Smith and Cui, they both developed their own musical styles against mainstream culture. When there are oppressions, there are likely rebellions against them accordingly. Social controversies can arouse drastic movements, and those great changes can become the trigger of the emergence of punk music as well as punk spirits to pursue freedom. After experiencing the second wave of Feminism Movement that lasted from the 1960s to the 1970s, women in America were aware of the necessity to fight for their personal lives and break the social constraints, which hampered their pursuit of equality and freedom. As a young woman growing up during the feminist movement influenced by the social environment, Smith refused to fulfill the role that other people from the society expected her to.
Similarly, Cui wrote songs during the period after China had just endured the Ten-year Great Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. After nearly ten years of oppression, people were numb and needed guidance to realize the importance of freedom, and this is when Cui started his rebellious music journey. At the same time, according to Jonathan Matusitz, an associate professor in the Nicholson School of Communication, “Cui has been an uncomfortable reminder to the authorities of the power that popular figures can wield” (Matusitz 160). Although Smith and Cui both risked their reputations in defying mainstream culture, such risk to embrace freedom was worth taking. As Smith once said, “Freedom is the right to write the wrong words”. The “wrong words” here can be interpreted as the ideas against authorities and societal norms as expressed through the musical works of Smith and Cui.
When it comes to Smith’s and Cui’s music, their respective first works, the album Horses and the single “Nothing to My Name,” both are revolutionary compared to popular music and creates a great sensation among their audience. By looking at the album and the single, their covers are found worth elaborating upon, for they convey Smith’s and Cui’s musical styles respectively. Photographed by her closest friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, the cover of Horses presents Smith wearing a white shirt and suspenders. Journalist Hermione Hoby describes “their crisp elegance at odds with the scruffy thatch of her hair” (Hoby). Smith holds her jacket and slings it over her bony shoulder, expressing her nonchalant attitude. Hoby describes, “There are her fragile-looking hands gathered effeminately, self-protectively at her heart” (Hoby). This detail is easily ignored, but yet it vividly reveals that Smith looks simultaneously defiant and vulnerable. Smith’s dressing style may be incompatible with the social female dress code, which might expect women to wear dresses and fine jewelry to show their femininity. However, the fundamental key here is that Smith acts against the conventional female role that has been set by the society. It seems that Smith is looking deep into the eyes of her audience and asking them to join her rebellion and the fight for their own interests.
Cui’s cover for his single presents a complete contrast to the black and white style of Smith’s. Cui uses Chinese red, a sharply bright color, serving as a foil to his disappointments and doubts towards society. From the cover, it’s impossible for the audience to make eye contact with Cui, as he is blindfolded with a bandana over his eyes. Just as Matusitz argues, “The red bandana, in itself, is a symbol of communism. It is a manifest political allusion” (Matusitz 163). Cui himself does not deny its connection with politics. Professor of University of Miami Sharon Hom considers this cover as “invoking a powerful subversive critique of Communist Party imposed regimes of meaning, this song is subversive” (Hom 1014). One possible interpretation is that Cui is implying that it is the government that deceives him on the way to pursue his true self. Cui’s mouth is slightly opening with one of his shoulders shrugging，which seems to express Cui’s eagerness for truth and his needs to surrender under the despotic power.
In addition, tones of both covers are consistent with the respective styles that Smith and Cui perform on the stage. As shown in the video of “Patti Smith ‘Gloria’ LIVE 1976”, Smith still wears black and white and adopts a masculine appearance; and Cui closes his eyes during his first public show and wears his red bandana in some of his live shows. At the same time, the audience is encouraged to interact with Smith’s powerful and tense performance. And likewise, even though Cui has his eyes covered, he still expects the audience’s’ feedback and he treats every show as a celebration of freedom.
These covers not only set the tones of these two singer-songwriters’ performance styles, but also manifest their music themes. Horses, Smith’s debut album released in 1975, was viewed by BBC Music’s Chris Jones as “the first punk music album and a shock to the system” (Jones). As a female singer, Smith rebels against social conventions through her original music thus standing out in rock music. Acting as a catalyst for punk, Horses shows Smith’s conscious attempt to make people similar to her feel less lonely. “Horses is an iconoclastic record; the songs are full of the violence of things being shattered in order to be remade” (Hoby). In “Gloria: Excelsis Deo”, Smith uses aggressive lines, for example, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” to proclaim her belief in music as a free soul breaking the religious or any other constraints.
Moreover, there is a sharp contrast of weariness in the first part of the song with ecstatic vocalization in the later part. Through such strong and instinctual singing skills, Smith exaggerates her challenges to gender stereotypes and the societal norms that need altering and reforming. As Jones states, “Horses can remain a towering masterpiece of bile and beat. At the time it was a shock to the system – it retains its power to this day” (Jones). Both the music style and the spirit rendered by Smith have shed light on the possibility of tearing up the labels imposed by the society and fostering self-determination.
As shown in the video, Cui Jian, he first shot to stardom at Beijing Worker’s Stadium in 1986 , when he performed “Nothing to My Name” on the 100-Singer Concert of the Year. Isabel Quan, a music critic, argues, “Cui’s ‘Nothing to My Name’, which was once sung all over China, is considered the first rock song in China” (Quan). Thirty years after Cui first sang this song in public, nearly everyone who loves music in China still knows about it and considers it as an emotional disclosure. Matusitz argues, “‘Nothing to My Name’ written by Cui Jian, not only symbolized China’s rebellious youth, which reached its peak during the Tiananmen Square tragedy when the government forcibly suppressed student-led popular demonstrations, but also signaled the birth of postmodernism in Chinese pop music” (Matusitz 156). The significance of the song lies in its revolutionary innovation in both musical style and meaning. According to Dennis Rea, a guitarist and writer, the lyrics, “But you always laugh at me/For I have nothing to my name,” are statements of China’s lack of freedom (Rea 15). People at that time were not used to listening to songs about individual perspectives or freedom. This song provides a new vision and reminds people that music can tell their own stories. Moreover, as Matusitz concludes, “Cui’s style is a parody expressed through deliberate aggravation of identity searching and authenticity, while the power of his vocal chords flaunts a superficiality that is clever” (Matusitz 168). By using the rhyme of language and exaggerated vocalization, Cui creates his own musical consciousness thus infecting his audience. In this way, many Chinese youths might consider “Nothing to My Name” as an incentive to rebel against authorities.
Significant Influences on Future Generations
Both Smith’s and Cui’s epoch-making works have had great influences on future generations and even have been spread internationally. With its significant rebellion spirits conveyed by Smith, her revolutionary musical pieces inspire other singers like Shirley Manson of Garbage, R.E.M. and even Madonna to add rebellious elements into their works. In 2004, Manson spoke of Smith’s influences on her in Rolling Stone’s issue “The Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, in which Patti Smith was at Number 47. Manson said after listening to Horses, “I believe individuals are important and one person can make a difference. I can only imagine there are millions of people out there whom she is singing to, who feel like me. And when you add up those millions of people, it’s worthwhile” (Manson). Whenever Smith sings about her feelings honestly, people with similar insights will admire and follow her. In the interview with Patti, she gave advice for her young audiences. It is Smith’s fearless rebellious spirits that encourage more creative singers to make their own modern music, which contributes to the colorful and multi-coexistent western music culture, furthermore, widens its influences on singers in a global sphere. Cui is one of the singers who have come to comprehend the rebellious themes reflected in the western counterculture.
Influenced by modern western music, Cui considers music as an ideology instead of a set of musical form as he expressed in the interview. Cui tries to understand and interpret such ideology of freedom by absorbing Western rock. According to Sharon Hom, “Rock, an infiltration of the West, closely tied to the huge multinational record industries, has been now played back, used, reinvented and appropriated by Cui Jian and other Chinese rock musicians like him” (Hom 1016). Even if rock music is the product of Western culture, Cui’s unique and refreshing styles that combine rock and Chinese folk music have won him a large audience. Such bold but effective approach urges other musicians to develop their styles based on Cui’s musical pieces. For example, there is a popular Chinese singing competition reality show called “I Am a Singer”, on which seven talented, veteran singers perform for a selected audience. The most interesting rule for this competition is that all those singers are encouraged to select and recompose other singers’ songs to embody their own musical styles. Cui’s “Nothing to My Name” is the song that has been revised for the most times: there were three singers who sang totally different versions of Cui’s greatest hits shown in the video. As Cui is viewed as an “authority in rock”, these singers challenged his style by bringing new and unique elements. These rearrangements of songs manifest how singers today pay respects to “The Father of Chinese Rock” and how they try to overturn classic works in their own ways. Such inheritance and development of legend should be advocated, and thus, the spirit of punk can be carried forward. Stephen Duncombe, the editor of White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, argues international punk musicians “do do something; they make punk their own. Like all culture, punk, in order to be meaningful to its participants, adapts to local conditions and is transformed in the process” (Duncombe 296). Undoubtedly, Punk (and rock) can really live on through such a process and such development is exactly a part of punk culture.
Punk, or rock, musicians are never alone when punk culture is spread globally with no national, geographical, cultural and political limits. Music can be magically brought to those who have a thirst for freedom. Just as Patti Smith and Cui Jian, they might never actually meet, but they are sharing the same culture of rebellion to fight for the position they deserve. Moreover, their influences on future generations are crucial contributions to the establishment and variety of punk culture. As leading figures of punk music in different countries, Smith and Cui are inviting more talented singers to join their caravan of rebellion.
Duncombe, Stephen, and Tremblay, Maxwell. “I’m So Bored with the USA”White Riot. Verso, July 2011. Print.
Hoby, Hermione. “Patti Smith: how she rocks our world”, Theguardian. May 2012.
Hom, Sharon K. “Lexicon Dreams and Chinese Rock and Roll: Thoughts on Culture, Language, and Translation as Strategies of Resistance and Reconstuction.” University of Miami Law Review (1999): 1003-1018.
Jones, Chris. “Patti Smith Horses Review”, BBC Music. Retrieved January 2010.
Manson, Shirley (April 15, 2004). “The Immortals: The First Fifty”. Issue 946. Rolling Stone. Retrieved February 4, 2008.
Matusitz, Jonathan. “Semiotics of Music: Analysis of Cui Jian’s ‘Nothing to My Name,’ the Anthem for the Chinese Youths in the Post-Cultural Revolution Era.” The Journal of Popular Culture (2010): 156-175.
Quan, Isabel. “China rocker Cui Jian quits CCTV New Year gala due to censors”, Shanghaiist. January 2014.
Rea, Dennis. “Balls under the Red Flag: Cui Jian Makes His U.S. Debut in Seattle.” Chime 8 (1995): 10–21.
The featured picture: Created by Lexi Brener on October 26, 2014.
Smith’s first photo: Created by Beni Köhler on June 16, 2007.
Smith’s second photo: Created by MOJO STAFF, August 20, 2015
Cui’s first photo: Created bJanuary 15, 2014.
Cui’s second photo: Created bCRI, May 16, 2010
Both Smith and Cui’s album and singer covers are official.