2019 is a big year for anniversaries in China, not least the birth of the Chinese nation itself 70 years ago. Completely unpublicised, however, is the fact that it is also 30 years since the New York Times ran a story on the music industry in China, predicting that the day may come when Americans will all be able to sing Chinese songs to their visitors from the Middle Kingdom.
Well NYT, that obviously has not happened, and the reason for such is largely rooted in that which fires the Chinese auditory sense as regards tastes in music.
In the book “The Power of Music”, Elena Mannes says, “Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function”, while composer, singer, pianist and all-round genius Billy Joel expressed, “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music”.
Billy Joel, however, is also a synesthete, so he probably sees the music as well as hears it. Yet, it also goes without saying that there are regional differences. In China, as usual, that means big differences.
So it is with music. Political events of the second half of 20th century China played a more significant role in shaping how the Chinese hear music than many would first imagine. Music was a political tool, intended to assist with meeting revolutionary goals and building solidarity among the masses.
When western pop music first started to enter China, also 30 years ago, it were the songs with the most melody that held the biggest appeal. Number 1 of the time was American saxophonist Kenny G, followed by The Carpenters; their iconic hit “Yesterday Once More” being by far and away the most requested song to radio stations of the time. Latterly, the likes of Michael Bolton, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey all became firm favourites.
Uniting each artist was their ear for melody, particularly melody tinged with a hint of sadness; think the aforementioned and the likes of “Said I loved You, but I Lied” and you get the picture.
Of course it is not all gloom and doom, and China loves the aspirational; that may be the Chinese Dream, to buy a car or own a house, to overcome adversity, to be seen as a success or to gain “face” by other means. One piece of music does all this, and the Chinese knew it as soon as they heard it. They have not let it go since.
The theme from The Magnificent Seven is dragged out for almost every event of any importance in China. Most often heard as the music for the ribbon cutting at any major shindig attended by government officials, or the announce the latters’ ascension to the stage, the strident rhythm pumps us full of faith in the powers that be, or just about. That is, until we’ve heard it for the 135th time.
Composer James Horner, who we also have to thank for “Titanic”, another delight for the Chinese, started work on the new theme for The Magnificent Seven’s second incarnation in 2010, tragically dying before completing it. Yet, his analysis of the piece tells us a lot; “Most composers are looking for action-oriented, pulse-oriented. …rhythm-oriented scores that propel the movie, and the whole thing is about propulsion. And, as an afterthought, there’s love, and there’s emotion, and there’s other things, but the main thing is pure adrenaline. And a lot of movies are made like that now. If you look at all of the Marvel comic movies or the tentpole movies that are made, how many of them are made with the same formula”.
The latter’s latest blockbuster, “Avengers: Endgame” hit Chinese big screens on 24 April and took in half a billion renminbi in 24 hours. The movie’s score played a significant role therein.
It was composer Elmer Bernstein, also responsible for Ten Commandments and The Great Escape, who scored the original theme, acknowledged as his best and regarded as one of the most popular movie themes of all time. The piece also became associated with Marlboro cigarettes, being used for quite some time on the brand’s TV commercials.
There you have it. The theme to The Magnificent Seven has in common both China and cigarettes. The double irony is that while the theme is exactly that which heroes would want to hear when going off into battle, its buoyancy guaranteed to fill every patriotic Chinese nationalist’s heart with pride, the theme to The Magnificent Seven remains unashamedly American.