Today's sentiment: Trapped in logic.

If you'll allow me a few moments of self-indulgence, I'd like to say a few words about the essay I published last week, where I gushed at length about the band New Pants (新裤子). While there are parts of the essay I'm proud of — and I'm certainly relieved to have finished it, having spent most of the last month working on it — I'm a bit disappointed in the end result. Very little of what I hoped to do with that essay really made it through to the final product.

There’s a line from an interview with Haruki Murakami in Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima (thanks to Mallet Under Heaven for the recommendation!) where he states that, as a professional writer, you can’t just stop at a handful of works. To form a world that stretches across your oeuvre, you need to always be writing. I imagine that when Murakami said this, he had novelists like Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler in mind, and it's clear how their work has influenced the structure of his. If you've read more than two or three of his novels, it's hard not to think of them as belonging to some Haruki Murakami Extended Universe.

When listening to New Pants, I felt a massive world sitting just behind the surface of their music, not unlike the world of Murakami’s fiction. To simplify as much as possible, that's why I wanted to write about them. I hoped that through my writing, I could more directly exist in that world, at least temporarily. If possible, I imagined I could also take a few strangers with me to explore it. It's precisely this is that I failed at.

I mentioned in my essay how I first learned about The Great Gatsby from Norwegian Wood. (I was a freshman in highschool. I'd certainly have found out about the book sooner or later if I hadn't read Norwegian Wood.) It’s also where I learned about Thelonius Monk, whose music filled the background of the cafes and restaurants fading in and out of the book. I remembering typed his name into Google and listening to the first album of his I could find, Monk’s Dream, as I read the book. I’m sure I’m nowhere near being alone in this. There are countless playlists on Youtube collecting all the songs and musicians referenced in Murakami novels.

One might think this music as a kind of accompaniment to Murakami’s books, much like the soundtrack of a movie — that's certainly how I approached it back in high school — but in many ways, these songs and pieces are more like the incidental music found in, say, Jia Zhangke’s movies. We’re not hearing this music emanating from the void — the characters are listening to it with us, they’re reacting to it. You can almost imagine Murakami using his novels as an excuse to write about whatever music happens to feel important to him at the moment.

In Novelist as a Vocation (as well as a long follow-up interview with Mieko Kawakami, which I’ve been reading lately in Chinese), Murakami talked about fiction as being a way to explore ideas in a non-logical way. When it comes to writing music, one can see how having access to a form of “non-logical analysis” would be liberating. Music is the art medium that lends itself least to words. When writing about music, less creative writers often resorting to relating the history of the musicians, analyzing the lyrics, or bringing up connections to earlier music. That's precisely what I ended up doing in my essay, despite consciously trying not to. It's quite difficult to talk about the music itself though, without resorting to discussions of music theory or breaking each song down to its chord progression, drum beats, and sample packs.

In Murakami's novels, he writes about music in other ways. Most frequently, the characters talk about a musician or song. In one sense, music from the real world serves to give life to fictional characters. In another sense, these made up personalities we've been spending time with in the novel reveal something about very real music. For instance, Reiko taking her guitar out and playing Norwegian Wood -- the John Lennon song that gives the book its name -- late at night to Watanabe and Naoko. This image contrasts with the haunting story Reiko tells Watanabe of how she gave up the piano and ended up in this insane asylum. At the same time, whenever I listen to Rubber Soul, the setting I imagine is that cabin shared by Rieko and Naoko, even if I'd listened to the album dozens of times before reading the book. In Kafka on the Shore, we watch the truck driver Hoshino slowly fall in love with Beethoven's Archduke Trio, the way a real life person might. In 1Q84 on the other hand, Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta takes on a mystical quality, pulsing through the fibers that build up this two-mooned alternate dimension we find ourselves in.

Maybe if Murakami had been born twenty years later, the famous double at the Yakult Swallows game that inspired him to write his first novel would have instead inspired him to start a music blog. Of course, after he found success as a novelist, he effectively had free rein to do write about music in any way he pleased, contributing countless columns to magazines and hosting a radio show. After the mid-80s, there was no need for him to fill his novels with music anymore -- he had other avenues to write about music directly. The fact his novels continued to revolve so heavily around music speaks to the power of fiction as a medium for meditations on music.

I went into writing about New Pants hoping to find my own form of "non-logical analysis". Yet I'm nowhere near as strong of a writer as Murakami. So many of the other examples of music writing I have ready access to in my "mental filing cabinet" (another metaphor from Murakami's Novelist as a Vocation) proceed in a much more logical fashion. As I wrote the essay, I kept building an edifice that felt readable, trying to express the main arguments I wanted to get across about the band. Then I'd look at what I was writing and be filled with regret. For example, I originally had a lot more biographical information about the band as well as a small list of some of their influences -- but when enumerated so clearly, the sensation I got reading my draft was that this music was merely a synthesis of those earlier bands tinted by Peng Lei and Pang Kuan's personal experiences. From a strictly logical point of view, it's hard to argue with this. That's what all music is. Yet, for me, when I listen to this music, I feel something far more organic and whole -- and it's that complete object lying just at the edge of tangibility that I wanted to communicate. So I kept finding myself sabotaging what would otherwise be a coherent essay introducing newcomers to the band. The result isn't quite a story, yet it's also very far away from a music review.

About a week ago, video game journalist Gita Jackson wrote a response to a collection of personal essays about video games. In an interview with the editors of the collection, they posed the collection as the first instance of this kind of literary writing about video games, which Jackson of course took great issue with. She outlined some of the history of “New Games Journalism”, lamented the disappearance of so much of this sort of writing from the internet, and in particular cited the piece "Bow Nigger" as a massive influence for her.

Two lines at the end of the essay keep reverberating in my head. She says that she’s sure the anthology in question has some good writing, but states “It’s just hard to want to read any more personal essays about video games after twenty years of practice.” In the next paragraph, she asks “Does your book offer me anything better or more vital than “Bow Nigger” was when I first read it?” Despite not writing about video games, I can’t help but pose that question to myself, and more specifically, towards my essay. My only real answer is “Well, this one’s about New Pants.”

As far as I can tell, there’s not that much writing in English about New Pants.

There are plenty of people outside of China aware of the band. That’s clear enough. They’ve been at festivals in the United States and Australia and played with English-language bands touring China. A few of their YouTube videos (the ones with English language titles) have decades-old comments in English by people writing about this as though it were an alien artifact. One imagines at least a few of those people kept listening after all these years.

Yet most of the English language articles I could find were essentially just lists of facts about the band — the kinds of facts that, if you speak Chinese, you could learn in under an hour by watching a few interviews or searching through Peng Lei’s Weibo. There wasn't much writing by people who seemed to actually care about the music — just people whose job it is to tell you about what’s cool in China these days (a profession I can respect). The one exception was the review of 没有理想的人不伤心 linked above, which I appreciate quite a bit, but it's clear the author was just finding out about the band and hadn't yet delved into the full discography when writing it.

Maybe I’m no different from the editors of the book Jackson was talking about. Maybe there’s plenty of older writing about New Pants, made inaccessible through the same mechanism that buried "Bow Nigger" and other influential video game personal essays beneath a haze of dead links and forgotten memories.

I encounter all sorts of Chinese music that feels as fascinating as any of the Japanese bands people in my internet circle seem to love. I want bands like New Pants, Tongue, The Chairman and LTK Commune to show up in English language conversations about rock music at least as effortlessly as Boredoms, Melt-Banana or Number Girl do.

I see this void of writing, and can’t help but want to try contributing my personal shovel full of dirt towards filling it. But am I the right person for that? Why, living in China, do I even still care about what music Americans are talking about?

Well, I still speak English. It’s still primarily through English that I learn about the world beyond my own window. It’s a complete inversion of the past age the narrator in Mori Ogai’s novel Wild Geese reminisced about in the opening passage of the book — a time when news of the world came to him through newspaper stories written in classical Chinese. English is all over my body, like a thousand pimples. I could squeeze any one of them and English-tainted pus would ooze out.

There are so many people out there bilingual in English and Chinese. Despite that, bringing modern Chinese pop culture to the attention of Americans (specifically the idealized cosmopolitan American living in cities like New York, Chicago, or LA) continues to be an uphill battle. Most of my life, when faced with competitions I can’t win, I back out and find something else to do. I suppose that’s how I ended up as an American grad student in mathematics at a Chinese university — by many different criteria, I’m the only person like me in the radius of people I encounter on an everyday basis. So why do I keep coming back to this pointless endeavor of popularizing Chinese rock music? It’s not like this music is the center of my life. Nor is it my job to write about it.

For the English-speaking world, or at least some particular stranger lurking on the English-speaking web, I wanted my essay to act as proof that this music is deep and meaningful. Even if someone came across it and decided not to read it, I hoped that at least seeing another human being write nearly 5000 words (edited down from 7000) about this band might trigger something in their brain. Maybe they’d click on some of the YouTube videos I linked, poisoning their YouTube suggestion algorithm. Maybe more New Pants would show up in their life days or weeks later, at random — and maybe then they’d give the band a chance. Even if they didn’t read the article, maybe they could come back and consult my (very sloppy) translations if they were ever curious about what these guys were singing about.

That’s all well and good, but the final essay I ended up with falls so far short of the oceans of feelings I’ve found in this music. As a source of factual information, it doesn’t do much justice to the band either. I only really talked about two albums, and I mostly just focused on Peng Lei. The other members all have stories too, stories that it’s not at all difficult to learn about if you speak Chinese. If you don't though, those people are nothing but faceless strangers -- which is what's so heart-breaking for me.

So, having finished the essay and put it out into the world, I feel a certain kind of emptiness. I hope people can make use of it, yet I also hope that I can someday do something better.