Music 2.0 - Exploring Chaos in Digital Music

March 25, 2008

The Irresponsibility of Bjork in China

Filed under: Music Industry — maths @ 4:04 am

Throwing Stones

“Bjork was irresponsible. She made it harder for guys like me who are actually over there working inside the community.” - Brian Hardgroove, Public Enemy bassist (interview with Beta Blog)

On 2 Mar 2008, Bjork performed at a concert in Shanghai, including a song called “Declare Independence”, allegedly unauthorized by the Ministry of Culture, and once done, uttered a few controversial words meant to incite, and then probably collected her cash before making the hell out of there.
In fact, speaking for the first time about the incident on The Lipster, she said,

“When I said ‘Tibet, Tibet’, I whispered it three times. There was no fuss in the room. It happened afterwards on websites.”

It is interesting to note how Bjork cunningly turned an oh so quiet whisper to a scream, hypocritically using the very media channels that she claims to hate in order to amplify her own agendas. This is the very same person who laid down draconian media conditions for playing in Shanghai and in her own immature and byzantine way, threatened to cancel her show if any reporter was present at the airport in Shanghai, not to mention that she’s violently happy to use fear and intimidation to keep reporters at bay at the threat of bodily harm. Touche…Army of Me in repressive regime impersonation?

Anyway those ‘whispered’ words then spawned the many subsequent reports in the Western media supporting Bjork’s stand, which were diametrically opposed by the Chinese viewpoint on the street which is best summed up by a commenter named Adam on the Global Voices Online website as he called her out:

“When Bjork declare(d) Tibet in her Shanghai Concert - Yeah, it is pretty good for her edgy image. But have (has) this singer thought any consequence that might be caused to those who invited her to China? Has she thought anything about the feeling of her Chinese fans? I believe they are in support of a united Tibet with China.
Tibet is a complicated issue, behavior like Bjork did nothing to solve the whole situation. In retrospect, the only consequence might be that any singer with similar style will be more difficult to be invited to sing in China in the future. Of course, this is not the business of Bjork.”

Bjork is certainly entitled to her political views but by airing them in China upon invitation of her hosts and the paying Chinese fans, her conduct was tantamount to biting the hand that feeds. Not only did it flout clearly spelt out rules and laws but it was also a betrayal of the very people she used, who had strived to pave her way into China in the first place. Her concert promoter Emma Ticketmaster and the licensing agent, the Shanghai Municipal Performance Company (SMPC) now await their fate while Bjork continues smugly on her merry jaunt on her high horse, oblivious to the fact that the SMPC might even possibly lose its license for a few years. John Siegel from China West Entertainment pointed out,

“It is unfortunate that this has happened. I know artists have to stand up for their beliefs, but she can’t expect to accomplish any good in doing what she did.”

Now, it is going to be harder for foreign acts to perform in China now, with promoters “concerned that tougher restrictions will apply, when it was finally getting a little more relaxed. Also, artists may not want to comply with tougher restrictions and choose not to come to China altogether.”

As Vice Minister of Culture, Zhou Heping stated in a media conference soon after,

“Foreign artistic troupes and artists should voluntarily observe relevant laws and regulations of China when they come to perform on Chinese soil.”

The Ministry of Culture also stated that Bjork’s performance “not only broke Chinese laws and regulations and hurt the feelings of Chinese people, but also went against the professional code of an artist. We will further tighten controls on foreign artists performing in China in order to prevent similar cases from happening in the future”

There will be those who feel that Bjork was brave with her three-worded middle finger to her hosts and that the end justifies the means. But it is still unclear what objectives Bjork has achieved with this, as by appealing to a Western media using a Chinese soapbox, it seemed more misguidedly provocative than constructive. Like a cowardly kid throwing stones to break the window of a neighbour’s house after the kid and her friends have gorged at the neighbour’s dinner table, she has then run away all Nero-like leaving the friends to take the rap for her actions.

And to this effect, the Chinese blogosphere has voiced an overwhelming level of outrage to Bjork’s presence in China and subsequent utterances. A constant refrain amongst the Chinese has been the abuse of hospitality displayed by her in using the platform to further her image and her greed in the earning of what she would call blood money off those she claims to detest. The following comments were duly highlighted by Times Online with a couple of viewers on YouTube stating:

“So Bjork comes to China to earn Chinese people’s money and then insult their hospitality? Fabulous.”

“If you and your expat friends come to work in China and make Chinese people’s money and still want to separate a piece of our country, then get the f*** out of China!”

She tried to justify her actions on her website in a “garbled, typo-ridden statement” somewhat unconvincingly that it was human behaviour and emotion rather than political,

“I have been asked by many for a statement after dedicating my song ‘Declare Independence’ to both Kosovo and Tibet on different occasions. I would like to put importance on that I am not a politician, I am first and last a musician and as such I feel my duty to try to express the whole range of human emotions. The urge for declaring independence is just one of them but an important one we all feel at some times in our lives. This song was written more with the personal in mind but the fact that it has translated to its broadest meaning, the struggle of a suppressed nation, gives me much pleasure. I would like to wish all individuals and nations good luck in their battle for independence.

There are those who use their music platform to embrace and further political and social causes for the common good by offering more than cheap lip service to the cause, and then there are those who use scandal, sex, politics and controversial views to embellish their image and further their careers – an interesting article in the Showbiz blog and first highlighted on p2pnet here seems to suggest that Bjork belongs to the latter.

In her stated capacity as “first and last a musician”, the self-promotion and ‘pleasure is all mine’ values that she has derived from her Army of Me antics has already done more harm than good to the music scene in China as Harry Connick Jr experienced first hand in the immediate aftermath.

For his concert in Shanghai on 13 Mar 2008, he was forced to play off an old song list consisting of solo jazz piano standards mistakenly submitted by the concert promoters to Chinese authorities. And in the wake of Bjork’s shenanigans, the authorities as expected insisted that Connick play off the approved set list - and it has to be realized that it would have taken a very brave Chinese man to have allowed a last minute change to the set list and risk his whole career. But the only problem was that Connick’s band did not seem to have the scores ready for the approved set, and as reported by Associated Press quoting J.T. Whitcomb a musician living in Shanghai, it was indeed a bizarre sight with “Connick playing piano by himself, with the band sitting on stage doing nothing”.
In a statement issued by Connick, he explained,

“Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to give my fans in China the show I intended.”

In addition to that, in a new development as reported by the music promoter-focused Chinese Music Radar blog, based on a behind-closed-doors discussion on March 18 by officials, additional measures to be imposed as proposed (but as yet not finalized) by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau with regards to foreign performers in China include the following:

  1. Organizers must sign additional guarantees that performers will not comment on political issues from stage, etc.
  2. A 50% of the total potential box office must be paid as a deposit on the show to the Cultural Bureau. Should performers break the law, this deposit will be retained by the government. Additional fines may be levied.
  3. Artist performances will be closely monitored to conform to the government pre-approved set-lists.
  4. Artists will not be allowed an unapproved encore.

“This will make it a whole lot harder for us, particularly number 2. For bigger shows, this may be near to impossible…”

In retrospect, the local reaction to Bjork’s behaviour in China might possibly, maybe serve as a lesson to other foreign performers on the boundaries they have to adhere to, but more significantly, what positive role can they play in China? China Music Radar gives some sound advice:

“As to Bjork, my view is simple. As music promoters in one of the most closely monitored societies in the world, we have a duty to ensure that international artists buy into the belief that the long term benefits to this country are better served by increasing exposure to external influences, rather than soapboxing and risking complete shutdown. One of the things that we do here is bring real diversity and choice to young people. Artists coming into China will leave a longer lasting legacy to their fans and newcomers alike by encouraging the Chinese kids to embrace creative thinking, diversity and individuality within the confines of both positive thinking and rhetoric. Having the chance to see role models week in, week out, from dubstep DJ’s to self funded Belgian turbo folksters can only be good for a youth obsessed with money, celebrity and materialism.”

Promoters like Emma Entertainment, SplitWorks, China West, Syndicate, YGTwo, BaiCai, Rock For China, Red T Music, Midi Festival, Modern Sky Festival and the many clubs that bring in foreign performers and DJs are working within known and well observed parameters but at the same time, they are striving to introduce and feed foreign music to the Chinese. Last year, Rock For China’s Beijing Pop Festival successfully brought in potentially controversial acts like Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and uber punk legends New York Dolls and Marky Ramone - who would qualify as political and social banana skins in a lot of other countries and not just China - but all exhibited mutual respect and maturity in return for the opportunity to perform in China.

For foreign artists, digital music revenues from China will remain nascent unless more efforts at marketing are embarked upon including concert performances, which remain one of the few revenue sources and publicity vehicles for them to reap the greater benefits.

One can only hope that foreign performers will continue to spread the universal language of music with fans in China without tainting it in any way, and even Bjork herself claimed in her Lipster interview that she “was desperate to point out that she wasn’t a political spokesperson.”
But unfortunately, controversy and contradictions define Bjork and while on the one hand she says,

“Perhaps after what’s happened, people will find that difficult to believe. But I’m still working from an emotional core, and my songs come from private and personal experiences.”

she goes off the other end with,

“It shows more than anything that China has become the next superpower in the world. And the issue is: how are they going to deal with Western moral issues like freedom of speech?”

And this is where it gets tricky - for a musician to demand of another sovereign state to placate Western ideologies not only moves it into the political sphere, but as an outsider, it also borders on arrogance. Instead, it is the right and responsibility of the government in power to, in practice, limit unbridled speech - within reasonable grounds - that can be a murderous weapon used to incite hatred, disturbance of peace and other acts that could possibly make governance an impossibility.

It is a complex world we live in that cannot be summed up in sound bites but China Music Radar gives it some perspective with regards to the music promotion business in China:

“In short, there are problems in China as there are in all countries, but especially so in one undergoing such an enormous development in such a short time. Problems are not sorted (or even helped) by high profile rants that frighten a government whose primary concern is an orderly society. This causes renewed repression and a reversal of many of the positive changes that we have seen recently in our industry. Change has to initiate from the ground up, with China’s citizens starting to understand the problems they face and taking account for these themselves. Change comes from education and increased enlightenment. Shouts of Tibet at a concert for the privileged (tickets were US$50 - $250) will turn back the clocks on our industry and make it harder to facilitate this change, which would be tragic in its own way.”

Update - 31 Aug 2008
Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove in an extensive interview by Andy Beta took Bjork to task for her irresponsible behaviour and I would highly recommend a full reading of the interview - below are some choice comments by Hardgroove:

Bjork made a big mistake. That was a big mistake for Bjork to make. I don’t think the position that Kid Rock took regarding Pres. Bush - I’m paraphrasing now - but his general sentiment was: “Musicians should stay out of politics; I support George Bush.” Well, he just made a political statement. To relegate musicians to be western citizens that was ridiculous on his part. That said, Bjork wasn’t talking to an American audience, an Icelandic audience, she was talking to an audience that she clearly didn’t understand. There’s a process in place…let me not say she didn’t understand, maybe she just didn’t care. But what she did was damaging, not only to herself, but to people who can influence and make a change in a more gradual (and gradual may be too slow for some people) and effective way. Her statement was ineffective.

She offended people who were into her music…..Bjork didn’t utilize her time wisely. She offended the very people that would fight possibly to change what’s going on in Tibet. Why? First of all, they’re even open enough to go see an artist from the West. They might be open enough to look at their government’s control over that region as not necessarily the best thing to do. That didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. Bjork was irresponsible. She made it harder for guys like me who are actually over there working inside the community. She’s not working inside the Chinese community.

As Andy Beta stated succintly, “She just played and left”
Bjork’s irresponsibility paired with stupidity and ignorance was a potent mix, and Hardgroove certainly wants that highlighted,

She wasn’t smart. I hope you print that….if she’d done a little bit of research (which I don’t think she did) or whatever, she would realize that the Chinese government is loosening the screws on that society ever so slightly every once in awhile. And there’s progress being made, but you only see it if you know what you’re looking at. She didn’t know what she was looking at.

Recommended Reading:
Bjork Backlash on China Music Radar
Public Enemy Interview on Beta Blog

Credits: Image Courtesy of Spiked Humour


  1. Bjork doesnt kill Tibetan, China does.

    Comment by Seymour — March 30, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  2. Tibetans have been killing Chinese too, but on reading the article, I don’t think it was killing that was being discussed.
    Bjork went to play music, but disingeniously claimed to be apolitical and yet got involved in a reckless manner which seems to have affected both the structured music promotion and political platforms that others had been building. And I think the stone throwing analogy seems quite fitting.

    Comment by Music Lover — March 30, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  3. The average citizen of the western world probably had no clue what the hell Tibet was, let alone its location. Many people do now.
    I would like to thank Bjork and others like her, on her bravery and courage. When has it become irresponsible
    to speak out agaisnt repression in this world? No matter what the circumstances along with the terrible consequences
    of freedom of speech in many parts of the world, WE MUST NOT SHUT UP!!! Many people aound the world feel the same way Bjork felt, and even so, leaders from around the globe were all too afraid to condemn the mighty dragon known as China. Burma, Somalia, Belarus, North Korea are among the many nations where freedom of speech is a dream, if the people of these nations are even allowed to dream at all.

    Comment by Get a life!!! — April 1, 2008 @ 5:58 am

  4. So a guest to your country has misbehaved by mentioning Tibet in public. And apparently this is a colossal sin!

    Exactly who are the Chinese to think the world should turn a blind eye to their forced subjugation of the Tibetan people? The skeleton is out of the closet for everyone to see and looks sure to spoil your Olympic coming out party.

    Sometimes in life you get exactly what you deserve. Freedom of speech whether you like it or not.

    Three Tibetan cheers for Bjork!

    Comment by HelloWorld — April 1, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  5. It is very simple:

    Bjork hates China for occupying Tibet etc…

    But Bjork decides to accept the invitation to come to China anyway. And then proceed to lecture her hosts.

    I love Bjork. But I think this is a very under-handed move. I would respect her if she scolds China from the outside and openly declare that she would NEVER ever perform in China.

    Comment by Grover — April 3, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  6. @HelloWorld & @Get a life,
    Both of you are obviously in agreement with the politics of Bjork’s actions but Bjork herself claims thus with regards to her actions in China, “I would like to put importance on that I am not This does smack of hypocrisy - she arrived in China as a musician but yet engaged in political activity that broke the law in China. One can’t just simply go to any sovereign state and speak one’s mind at will and break laws no matter how much one disagrees with that country’s policies unless one is willing to stand up and face the consequences. Instead, to paraphrase the article, Bjork seems to have thrown stones and ran away…and left others to face the consequences of her actions. I’m inclined to call her out on this one…to quote another comment here, it was an “underhanded move”

    Comment by The Law — April 4, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  7. […] Then all of a sudden the market is almost totally ruined by the incident in Shanghai on March 2nd 2008. […]

    Pingback by Outdustry — The Rough Ride For International Live Music In China — April 10, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

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