China, despite the censorship and the huge pressure of maketisation, has for the past twenty years been stumbling towards the status of a cultural power. Chinese films are well received at festivals, and some even enjoy commercial success, while Chinese art now sells for stratospheric prices. Even some of the country’s authors, such as Su Tong and Yu Hua, to name two, are widely available in the West, if only when sold as ‘voices of conscience’, rarely an adequate description (Western marketing of Chinese ‘dissident’ literature is a topic for another day, though).

One artistic sphere in which the Chinese have soundly failed to spread beyond their own borders is music. This isn’t without some reason – syrupy, melancholy ballads make up more or less the entirety of the music played on the radio, television and sung in karaoke, which counts for a pretty substantial slice of musical consumption as a whole, especially given how huge an institution karaoke is (I am sitting, as I write this, within five minutes of at least six different such establishments).

This isn’t an elitist rant about the (in)ability of the Chinese to write a decent song – in any case, there is a sizeable crop of Chinese bands plying relatively original sounds (well represented on edge.neocha.com, if you’re interested), in genres ranging from folk to electronica. Instead, what is interesting is the vast gulf between the identikit pop ballads produced by mainstream labels and the more niche bands. What China completely lacks is the ‘mainstream alternative’ bracket – popular bands that are not pop, which tend to spread abroad most effectively.

Much of this can be put down to a hostile music market. Only a tiny minority of music is ever paid for, generally bought on pirate discs, or downloaded for free off Baidu, the state-backed equivalent of Google. Under such conditions, bands struggle to make an income, and companies would be mad to invest any large sum in promoting any one of them. Even well known stars rely heavily on televised shows and promotions to make a living. The money is tied up not so much in appealing to a large number of individuals as in collectively appealing to a large audience, so sticking to the familiar is the only safe bet. Latent official paranoia plays its part in keeping creativity off the airwaves as well – it was only twenty years ago that rock was designated a ‘spiritual pollutant’.

Tough a business as music is in China, something else is at work. Music does just not seem to play the same social role among young people that it does in the West. Dress, lifestyle, and above all friendships are fairly closely intimately linked to musical tastes among Occidental youths. I’m not suggesting that, as a rule, people are friends because they like the same music, or that people force themselves to listen to a particular brand of music to fit in socially, although neither is particularly implausible. Even so, for many people, for a part of their lives, music takes centre stage in social interaction in a way that no other art form does – leaving the realm of pop and whatever your parents play is almost as a coming-of-age rite.

The same isn’t true in China – even at relatively ‘niche’ festivals or gigs, it’s impossible to pick out a coherent scene. Sure, Chinese who listen to original music tend to dress more originally, but the fans of any one genre are more or less interchangeable with any other. The vast majority, though, seem completely oblivious to the idea of a link between music and social identity. This is probably because most Western music of the past fifty years was introduced to China within the space of a barely two decades, arriving as a chaotic mix of curiosities rather than discrete genres with almost historical significance. The reactions and influences that make up the relationship between new and old music never made it here, only the finished product. The overload of genres deprives each individual one of some of its significance, so that none define or dominate a particular era.

Music’s lack of social significance is something of a double edged sword. People seem to tend towards a passive appreciation of whatever music is available, feeling little drive to define their own preferences. Original bands struggle to develop a strong, lasting following, and rarely claim to speak for a particular group or generation. At the same time, the fact that listening to a band never implies investing yourself in a genre allows for a refreshing open-mindedness. Unmuddied by questions of coolness, music is enjoyed with a measure unselfconscious exuberance rare in the West, and the idea of being embarrassed about preferring shamelessly shallow pop to something more subtle is rarely entertained.

Such exuberance extends beyond karaoke as well – it is far from uncommon to encounter passers-by just singing to themselves, on the street, on the bus, even in lifts. Not just murmuring a melody to themselves either, but full-throated singing, from more saccharine ballads, to age-old, somewhat atonal folk tunes. Age is no boundary here – I have seen teenagers, office workers, and the elderly all sing with the same mix of passion and dreamy detachment, as if they neither know nor care whether anyone might be listening.

Even politicians feel no embarrassment –  Bo Xilai, the mayor of Chongqing, a metropolis in south China, recently ordered all official staff, schools, and universities in the city to participate in daily renditions of revolutionary hymns, supposedly to improve the city’s character, though more likely to reaffirm his credentials as a die-hard nationalist in the run up to next year’s changes to the Politburo. There was even a video floating around on the Internet of Hu Jintao, while President of the largest country in the world, serenading a group of fellow officials after dinner with a rendition of a Russian folk song.

Yet that completely unselfconscious love of the pleasure of music, perversely, leaves little incentive to stray from the straightforward satisfaction of the mainstream. Again, this is not to say that alternative music is popular purely because it is alternative, but rather that a latent, self-conscious disdain for the mainstream is what pushes many to search for new sounds, and that link between music and social identity, though generally confined to one’s teenage years, leaves imprinted on us the feeling that music is something important, not just an idle pleasure.

Whether this attitude towards music is peculiar to China is an open question, as is whether a patchwork of scenes will ever emerge out of such an environment. For now though, I am tempted to believe that social centrality of music in the West is unique, not a natural consequence of growth in the amount of music available. Enjoying music in China is a pure pleasure, and though that fact may leave China’s more creative artists without much of a future, most people seem to be having too much fun to care.