This is Part 2. You won't get Part 2 if you haven't read Part 1 yet. For Part 1, click here. ___________
the action of ruining your own life for no apparent reason
Let me start by saying that I've had just about enough of the irony of battling through crippling procrastination while trying to write posts on procrastination and how to beat it. I've spent the last two weeks beingthis guy, who shoots himself in the foot while talking about gun safety, and I look forward to getting back irony-free procrastination following this post.
A few notes before we begin:
- I'm not a professional at any of this, just a lifelong procrastinator who thinks about this topic all the time. I'm still in a total battle with my own habits, but I have made some progress in the last few years, and I'm drawing my thoughts from what's worked for me.
- In this post, I'm referring to both ADD and non-ADD procrastinators (and the line is often pretty hazy between the two), but not those with severe ADD/ADHD, who need something different than anything in this post can provide.
- This post was posted late, not only because it took me 2,000 years to do, but also because I decided that Monday night was an urgent time to open Google Earth, hover a few hundred feet above the Southern tip of India, and scroll all the way up India to the top of the country, to "get a better feel for India." I have problems.
- I'm gonna be kind of extra serious in this post, because as much as people joke about procrastination, it's a pretty serious problem for a lot of people and it really affects happiness.
Alright, so last week we dove into the everyday inner struggle of the procrastinator to examine the underlying psychology going on. But this week, when we're actually trying to do something about it, we need to dig even deeper. Let's begin by trying to unwrap the procrastinator's psychology and see what's really at the core of things:
We know about the Instant Gratification Monkey (the part of your brain that makes you procrastinate) and his dominion over the Rational Decision Maker, but what's really happening there?
The procrastinator is in the bad habit, bordering on addiction, of letting the monkey win. He continues to have the intention to control the monkey, but he puts forth a hapless effort, using the same proven-not-to-work methods he's used for years, and deep down, he knows the monkey will win. He vows to change, but the patterns just stay the same. So why would an otherwise capable person put forth such a lame and uncreative effort again and again?
The answer is that he has incredibly low confidence when it comes to this part of his life, allowing himself to become enslaved by a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's call this self-fulfilling prophecy his Storyline. The procrastinator's Storyline goes something like this:
For the Have-To-Dos in my life, I'll end up waiting until the last minute, panicking, and then either doing less than my best work or shutting down and not doing anything at all. For the Want-To-Dos in my life, let's be honest—I'll either start one and quit or more likely, I just won't ever get around to it.
The procrastinator's problems run deep, and it takes something more than "being more self-disciplined" or "changing his bad habits" for him to change his ways—the root of the problem is embedded in his Storyline, and his Storyline is what must change.
* * *
Before we talk about how Storylines change, let's examine, concretely, what the procrastinator even wants to change into. What do the right habits even look like, and where exactly will the procrastinator run into trouble?
There are two components of being able to achieve things in a healthy and effective manner—planning and doing. Let's start with the easy one:
Procrastinators love planning, quite simply because planning does not involvedoing, and doing is the procrastinator's Kryptonite.
But when procrastinators plan, they like to do it in a vague way that doesn't consider details or reality too closely, and their planning leaves them perfectly set up to not actually accomplish anything. A procrastinator's planning session leaves him with a doer's nightmare:
A big list of icky, daunting tasks and undertakings.
A big list of vague and daunting things makes the Instant Gratification Monkey laugh. When you make a list like that, the monkey says, "Oh perfect, this is easy." Even if your gullible conscious mind believes it intends to accomplish the items on that list in an efficient manner, the monkey knows that in your subconscious, you have no intention of doing so.
Effective planning, on the other hand, sets you up for success. Its purpose is to do the exact opposite of everything in that sentence:
Effective planning takes abig list and selects awinner:
A big list is perhaps an early phase of planning, but planning must end with rigorous prioritizing and one item that emerges as the winner—the item you're going to make first priority. And the item that wins should be the one that means the most to you—the item that'smost importantfor your happiness. If urgent items are involved, those will have to come first and should be knocked out as quickly as possible in order to make way for the important items (procrastinators love to use unimportant but urgent items as an excuse to forever put off the important ones).
Effective planning makes an icky item un-icky:
We all know what an icky item is. An icky item is vague and hazy, and you're not really sure where'd you'd start, how you'd go about doing it, or where you'd get answers to your questions about it.
So let's say your dream is to make your own app, and you know that if you build a successful app you could quit your job and become a full-time developer. You also think that programming ability is the literacy of the 21st century, and you don't have money to spend outsourcing development anyway, so you decide to anoint "Learn how to code" the winning item on your list—the number one priority. Exciting, right?
Well, no, because "Learn how to code" is an intensely icky item—and every time you decide it's time to get started, you will coincidentally also decide your inbox needs to be cleaned out and your kitchen floor needs to be mopped, ASAP. It'll never end up happening.
To un-icky the item, you need to read, research, and ask questions to find out exactly how one learns how to code, the specific means necessary for each step along the way, and how long each one should take. Un-ickying a list item turns it from this:
Effective planning turns a daunting item into a series of small, clear, manageable tasks:
Icky combines with Daunting into an Instant Gratification Monkey steroid potion. And just because you un-icky an item, it doesn't mean it's still not horribly big and daunting. The key to de-dauntifying an item is to absorb this fact:
A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.
No one "builds a house." They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion the will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.
Nearly every big undertaking can be boiled down to a core unit of progress—its brick. A 45-minute gym visit is the brick of getting in great shape. A 30-minute practice session is the brick of becoming a great guitarist.
The average day in a wannabe author's week and a real author's week looks almost the same. The real author writes a couple pages, laying a brick, and the wannabe author writes nothing. 98% of their day is otherwise identical. But a year later, the real author has a completed first draft of a book and the wannabe author has...nothing.
It's all about the bricks.
And the good news is, laying one brick isn't daunting. But bricks do require scheduling. So the final step in planning is to make a Brick Timeline, which slots bricks into the calendar. The slots are non-negotiable and non-cancelable—after all, it's your first priority and the thing that matters most to you, isn't it? The most important date is the first one. You can't start learning to code "in November." But you can start learning to code on November 21st from 6:00 - 7:00pm.
Now you're effectively planned—just follow the schedule and you'll be a programmer. Only thing left is to do...
The procrastinators reading this were with me up to this point. But they've now suddenly gone tense. They're shielding their procrastinator children's eyes from the screen.
I said the D word.
Now procrastinators are fine with the concept of doing. They look at the bricks on their calendar and they think, "Great, this will be fun." And that's because when they picture the moment in the future when they sit down and knock out a work session, they picture things without the presence of the Instant Gratification Monkey. Procrastinators' visions of future scenarios never seem to include the monkey.
But when the actual moment arrives to begin that scheduled brick-laying, the procrastinator does what the procrastinator does best—he lets the monkey take over and ruin everything.
And since we just stressed above that all achievement boils down to the ability to lay that one brick during that slot when it's on your schedule, we seem to have isolated the core struggle here. Let's examine this specific challenge of laying a single brick:
So this diagram represents the challenge at hand anytime you take on a task, whether it's making a PowerPoint for work, going on a jog, working on a script, or anything else you do in your life. The Critical Entrance is where you go to officially start work on the task, the Dark Woods are the process of actually doing the work, and once you finish, you're rewarded by ending up in The Happy Playground—a place where you feel satisfaction and where leisure time is pleasant and rewarding because you got something hard done. You occasionally even end up super-engaged with what you're working on and enter a state of Flow, where you're so blissfully immersed in the task that you lose track of time.
Those paths look something like this:
Sounds pretty simple, right?
Well unfortunately for procrastinators, they tend to miss out on both The Happy Playground and Flow.
For example, here's a procrastinator that never even gets started on the task he's supposed to do, because he never makes it through the Critical Entrance. Instead, he spends hours wallowing in The Dark Playground, hating himself:
Here's a procrastinator who gets started on the task, but she can't stay focused, and she keeps taking long breaks to play on the internet and make food. She doesn't end up finishing the task:
Here's a procrastinator who couldn't bring himself to get started, even though a work deadline was approaching, and he spent hours in The Dark Playground, knowing the looming deadline was drawing near and he was only making his life harder by not starting. Eventually, the deadline got so close, the Panic Monster suddenly came roaring into the room, freaking him out and causing him to fly through the task to hit the deadline.
After he finishes, he feels decent because he accomplished something, but he's also not that pleased because he knows he did an underwhelming job on the project because he had to rush so much, and he feels like he wasted most of his day procrastinating for no reason. This lands him in Mixed Feelings Park.
So if you're a procrastinator, let's look at what you need to do to get on the right path, one that will leave you much happier.
The first thing youmust do is make it through the Critical Entrance. This means stopping whatever you're doing when it's time to begin the task, putting away all distractions, and getting started. It sounds simple, but this is the hardest part. This is where the Instant Gratification Monkey puts up his fiercest resistance:
The monkey absolutely hates stopping something fun to start something hard, and this is where you need to be the strongest. If you can get started and force the monkey into the Dark Woods, you've broken a bit of his will.
Of course, he's not going to give up anytime soon.
The Dark Woods is where you are when you're working. It's not a fun place to be, and the Instant Gratification Monkey wants nothing to do with it. To make things harder, the Dark Woods is surrounded by the Dark Playground, one of the monkey's favorite places, and since he can see how close it is, he'll try as hard as he can to leave the Dark Woods.
There will also be times when you bump into a tree—maybe the jog is taking you on an uphill street, maybe you need to use an Excel formula you don't know, maybe that song you're writing just isn't coming together the way you thought it would—and this is when the monkey will make his boldest attempt at an escape.
It makes no sense to leave the Dark Woods in favor of the Dark Playground—they're both dark. They both suck to be in, but the big difference is the Dark Woods leads to happiness and the Dark Playground leads only to more misery. But the Instant Gratification Monkey isn't logical and to him, the Dark Playground seems like much more fun.
The good news is, if you can power through a bit of the Dark Woods, something funny happens. Making progress on a task produces positive feelings of accomplishment and raises your self-esteem. The monkey gains his strength off of low self-esteem, and when you feel a jolt of self-satisfaction, the monkey finds a High Self-Esteem Banana in his path. It doesn't quell his resistance entirely, but it goes a long way to distracting him for awhile, and you'll feel less of an urge to procrastinate suddenly.
Then, if you continue along, something magical happens. Once you get 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through a task, especially if it's going well, you start to feel great about things and suddenly, the end is in site. This is a key tipping point—
The Tipping Point is important because it's not just you who can smell the Happy Playground up ahead—the monkey can smell it too. The monkey doesn't care if his instant gratification comes alongside you or at your expense, he just loves things that are easy and fun. Once you hit the Tipping Point, the monkey becomes more interested in getting to the Happy Playground than the Dark Playground.When this happens, you lose all impulse to procrastinate and suddenly, both you and the monkey are speeding toward the finish.
Before you know it, you're done, and you're in the Happy Playground. Now, for the first time in awhile, you and the monkey are ateam. You both want to have fun, and it feels great because it's earned. When you and the monkey are on a team, you're almost always happy.
The other thing that might happen when you pass the Tipping Point, depending on the type of task and how well it's going, is that you might start feeling fantasticabout what you're working on, so fantastic that continuing to work sounds like much more fun than stopping to do leisure activities. You've become obsessed with the task and you lose interest in basically everything else, including food and time. This is not only a blissful feeling, it's usually when you do great things.
The monkey is just as addicted to the bliss as you are, and you two are again a team.
Fighting through to the Tipping Point is hard, but what makes procrastination so hard to beat is that the Instant Gratification Monkey has a terribly short-term memory—even if you wildly succeed on Monday, when you begin a task on Tuesday, the monkey has forgotten everything and will again resist entering the Dark Woods or working through them.
And that's why persistence is such a critical component of success. Laying each brick yields an inner struggle—and in the end, your ability to win this very specific struggle and lay brick after brick, day after day, is what lies at the core of a procrastinator's struggle to gain control over their world.
So that's what needs to happen—but if procrastination could be solved by reading a blog entry, it wouldn't be such a large problem in so many people's lives. There's only one way to truly beat procrastination:
You need to prove to yourself that you can do it.
You need to show yourself you can do it, not tell yourself. Things will change when you show yourself that they can. Until then, you won’t believe it, and nothing will change. Think of yourself like a basketball player on a cold streak. For basketball players, it's all about confidence, and an ice cold shooter can tell himself 1000 times, "I'm a great shooter, I'm going to hit this next one," but it's not until he physically hits a shot that his confidence goes up and his touch comes back.
So how do you start hitting shots?
1) Try to internalize the fact that everything you do is a choice.
Start by thinking about the terms we've used in these posts, and if they resonated with you, write them down. Part of the reason I assigned terms to so many of these feelings or phenomena—the Instant Gratification Monkey, the Rational Decision-Maker, the Panic Monster, the Dark Playground, Ickiness, Bricks, the Critical Entrance, the Dark Woods, the Tipping Point, the Happy Playground, Flow, your Storyline—is that terms help you clarify the reality of the choices you're making. It helps expose bad choices and highlights when it's most critical to make good ones. 2) Create methods to help you beat the monkey.
Some possible methods:
- Solicit external support by telling one or more friends or family members about a goal you're trying to accomplish and asking them to hold you to it.
- Create a Panic Monster if there's not already one in place—if you're trying to finish an album, schedule a performance for a few months from now, book a space, and send out an invitation to a group of people. If you're trying to start a business, quit your job. If you're trying to write a consistent blog, put "new post every Tuesday" at the top of the page...
- Leave post-it notes for yourself, reminding you to make good choices.
- Set an alarm to remind yourself to start a task, or to remind you of the stakes.
- Minimize distractions by all means necessary. If TV's a huge problem, sell your TV. If the internet's a huge problem, get a second computer for work that has Wifi disabled, and turn your phone on Airplane Mode during work sessions.
- Pay for something—put down a non-refundable deposit for lessons or a membership.
- If normal methods aren't working, consider hiring the Adderall Sergeant, a salty character I didn't have room to mention above. No one wants to be on Adderall, but the toll procrastination is taking on you might be worse.
And if the methods you set up aren't working, change them. Set a reminder for a month from now that says, "Have things improved? If not, change my methods."
3) Aim for slow, steady progress—Storylines are rewritten one page at a time.
Like a great achievement happens unglorious brick by unglorious brick, a deeply-engrained habit like procrastination doesn’t change all at once, it changes one modest improvement at a time. Remember, this is all about showing yourself you can do it, so the key isn't to be perfect, but to simply improve. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The procrastinator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later.
So don't think about going from A to Z—just start with A to B. Change the Storyline from "I procrastinate on every hard task I do" to "Once a week, I do a hard task without procrastinating." If you can do that, you've started a trend. I'm still a wretched procrastinator, but I'm definitely better than I was last year, so I feel hopeful about the future.
Why do I think about this topic so much, and why did I just write a 19,000 page blog post on it?
Because defeating procrastination is the same thing as gaining control over your own life. So much of what makes people happy—their level of fulfillment and satisfaction, their self-esteem, the regrets they carry with them, the free time they have to dedicate to their relationships—is severely affected by procrastination. So it's worthy of being taken dead seriously, and the time to start improving is now.
Finally, if you're going to try to make a change, I encourage you to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a concrete goal and a date for its completion. I'll write it down and check up on you when the date hits.
It’s high noon in March and the cluttered patio of Maria’s Taco Xpress, the Austin, Texas institution, is gloriously sunny. First-time visitor Gan Baishui is moments away from his band’s American debut, but the composer and musician from a fourth-tier city in southwest China you’ve never heard of looks far from psyched to be playing a gig on the sidelines of the massive annual music festival and industry conference South by Southwest (SXSW). The source of his current state might be mistaken for nerves, but he’s probably just confused.
To look at him, Baishui (he and his band both go by his given name) conjures a bespectacled Mister Magoo, the nearsighted little old man of 1950s American television cartoons. He speaks in a thickly-accented Sichuan rasp, employing his entire head and contorting his face into a hard squint behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, a squint that gets harder as he switches from Mandarin to his better-than-he’ll-admit-to English. It’s like watching someone try, with all his might, both to process his surroundings and simultaneously describe his thoughts.
His pre-show discombobulation is understandable as he scans the mostly-empty picnic tables. In week two of what will stretch into a month-and-a-half in America, Baishui faces questions with no easy answers. Just what kind of debut gig is this? How will the band be received? Luo Keju, whose laptop is the source of the band’s digital soundscapes and samples, stands beside him, but where the hell is their guitarist, Gu Dao?
Baishui—“Teacher Bai” to most who know him—hails from the city of Yibin, deep in the earthquake-prone mountains of the southeast corner of Sichuan province, a small place by Chinese standards with roughly three quarters of a million people. From that unlikely subtropical spot in Southwest China, Baishui has made a name for himself, packing music clubs from Guangzhou to Beijing and selling albums as fast as he can press limited editions of his work. Those sales, plus paid downloads via iTunes, Bandcamp, and other sites, he says, are plenty to live on.
When SXSW began accepting applications for its 2013 festival just over a year ago, Baishui paid his 30 bucks like just more than ten thousand other artists from around the world hoping to get the opportunity to play in front of the producers and distributors at the biggest single market in the global music industry. “I figured I’d try it out,” he says. “I didn’t really think too much about it.” Within a couple of days, he got an email from an excited festival booker extending an invitation.
I wrote a book about Chinese rock and roll and I found it hard to believe that the only Chinese name among the SXSW first-round picks for 2013 was one I’d never heard. After finding Baishui’s music, listening to it, and liking it, I emailed to see if I could help him sort out his first overseas tour, as I’d done for multiple Chinese acts over the years.
In Austin, Baishui is at the taco joint to play at an event called the Traveling Barn Dance, and it’s clear this wasn’t what he had in mind when he dreamed of bringing his music to the West.
Part of his confusion is my fault: this gig isn’t part of Baishui’s deal with SXSW, it’s one I added to his schedule myself. Surely he’s wondering if leaving things in my hands was a good idea.
Local musician Leeann Atherton has hosted barn dances for the past 18 years, and those held during SXSW are some of the hundreds of unofficial sideshows key to keeping visiting musicians busy during the daylight hours in between their one or two official festival showcases. Last year, she invited the Shanghai-based alt-rock band Duck Fight Goose to join her Full Moon Barn Dance and, based on their rave reviews, I suggested she give Baishui a listen. After inviting Baishui to join the Full Moon event, she asked about adding him to the lineup at the Traveling Barn Dance, too. A twofer, I thought. Sold.
Atherton’s Barn Dances are two of the week’s quirkier related attractions, quirkier still considering the potential for the crowd to revolt when Baishui’s carefully-constructed 40-minute set reveals nary a country fiddle nor hoedown melody. The band plans to lead the audience into dark territory, far from the realm of the murder ballad or twangy tale of heartbreak; here, the road is lined with references to out-there and riff-heavy classics à la Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and filled with nods to hard-driving, distorted barrages of noise akin to the industrial music of Nine Inch Nails. The one seeming concession to the Barn Dance theme will be the folky notes on which the set ends, a piece featuring a recorder solo evoking a monk roaming the Chinese countryside.
But for now, dressed in a long-sleeved polo shirt, jeans, and skateboard sneakers, Baishui sits in a plastic chair, while would-be listeners in various stages of lunch go about their business, oblivious to the landmark concert they are about to witness—the first outside his home country and the first in many years where Baishui is not the headliner. By this point in his career, he has filled clubs across China thanks to a rabid, if niche, following. Today, he is the opening act in the lineup and playing for a crowd that doesn’t seem to realize he sits before them, by some miracle, from half a world away.
Chinese bands are not exactly strangers to SXSW, but they’re not yet the fixtures that bands from Japan and South Korea have become over the years. A “K-Pop Night Out” closed the festival this year and “Japan Nite” has been a SXSW favorite since 1996. There has been what Mirko Whitfield, SXSW International Representative, calls a “slow trickle” of Chinese participation. The Chinese bands that have landed at SXSW since 2001 have tended to be well supported by record labels, organizations that are able to get applications and travel money together with relative ease. Most bands performing at SXSW apply, and bookers look them over and decide if they are worthy of a billing.
But Chinese bands didn’t become a regular SXSW feature until 2010. When two of them played Austin in 2007, six Westerners—myself included—participated in a panel discussion called “China's Emerging Music Market.” The American audience, not much concerned with Chinese music, asked for tips on getting their own bands gigs and record sales in the Middle Kingdom. Panel organizer Vickie Nauman, a long-time specialist in digital music technology and international business development, said it was hard to convince Chinese industry folks that the trip was worth their while. In the U.S. music industry, “no one had really heard of China,” she said.
Since then, with China’s continued economic rise, curiosity about all things Chinese has spawned SXSW panels with titles such as “Why the Global Music Industry Needs China” and “Hype or Bust … Do You, the Artist, Need to Be in China?” But other aspects of the would-be music industry exchange remain frozen. Though Chinese artists now arrive in Austin each March in increasing numbers, Chinese music industry executives still rarely make the trip.
“There is a very active Chinese music business, but not on an international level,” said Whitfield, who helped bring the massive Midem music industry conference and festival begun in Cannes to Hong Kong for the first time in 1997.
Since its modern beginnings in the mid-1980s, the mainland’s music industry has been wracked by piracy. Chinese music sales are a mere sliver of the global pie. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says that 99 percent of all music sold in China is pirated, and that China ranked 20th in global sales in 2012, with $92 million. The United States ranked first, with $4.4 billion in sales. But, as with many other industries trying to reach China’s expanding consumer class, the music business is viewed as being off the charts in terms of potential, particularly because of the country’s voracious, and growing, appetite for digital gadgets and global culture. In addition to a regular stream of emerging Western acts playing a night or two at small urban clubs, China’s biggest concert venues have hosted packed performances by the likes of Metallica (2013), the Rolling Stones (2006), Bob Dylan (2011) and big-name pop acts such as Elton John (2012), Beyoncé (2007), and Jennifer Lopez (2012). Additionally, a range of tiny upstart labels and bigger music business names have visited China from around the world to attend industry conferences. By contrast, thus far in Austin—and across the U.S.—Chinese indie acts and small labels have led the way into the American heartland, less to do actual business than to gain experience and spread the word that rock and roll is made in China, too. After talks with the Chinese Consulate in Houston and China’s biggest record company, the government-owned China Record Corporation (CRC), Whitfield is convinced that it’s only a matter of a few years before SXSW sees a “real Chinese presence,” executives and all. Once CRC—with its enormous catalogue, vast multimedia empire, and serious governmental clout—comes to SXSW, “everyone else will come as well,” he says.
Since 2010, Beijing-based indie rock label Maybe Mars (has sent club acts to SXSW each year. In 2013, Carsick Cars, one of the better-known bands on the Chinese circuit, led the label’s Austin-bound posse for the fourth time. Often compared to big-name American alternative rock band Sonic Youth—for whom they opened a few shows in Europe in 2007—Carsick Cars led Maybe Mars’ ascent from underground upstart to legitimate player in the music business, earning the lion’s share of the label’s investment. As a result of their many trips to the U.S., they may well have become the best-known Chinese rock band in the world, but that doesn't imply that their fan base is large. During Stateside talks for my book, when I ask which Chinese bands people have heard (or heard of), Carsick Cars is always on a very short list.” But their renown still translates into only a small turnout at their sole SXSW 2013 gig, this time alongside label-mates The Gar and White+. I am reminded of a 2012 SXSW panel about Chinese music when Charles Saliba, Maybe Mars’ Managing Partner and co-founder of the Beijing club D-22, admitted that getting his bands to Austin amounted to “a big investment with very, very low returns.”
SXSW recently announced the first round of artists invited to play their music at the festival in March 2014—a list on which Baishui appeared this time last year. There are no Chinese acts on next year’s list.
“Please tell people,” Baishui wrote to me in advance of heading to the U.S., “I don’t play China Music. Tell them I play Baishui music.” It was a refrain he’d repeat over the course of our time together on the road in America. At SXSW, Baishui’s playing alongside other international acts meant Austin audiences could separate the band’s music from its country of origin faster than they might when hearing the Maybe Mars bands, whose Chineseness was thrust front-and-center in a lineup dubbed the “Beijing Underground.” Whereas the Maybe Mars posse channels the current Chinese rock scene, delivering the gritty flavors of its epicenter in Beijing, Baishui epitomizes the up-and-coming edges of contemporary music, with sounds emanating from Yibin and other far-flung cities and individual voices that together represent something like the sound of China’s future.
Many Chinese bands aspire to be recognized for their art, not as Made in China novelties. One of the few bands to escape this China Syndrome and be heard on its own terms is FM3, an ambient/electro duo that shares Baishui’s penchant for experimental sounds, and that came to SXSW in 2008. The members of FM3—Beijing rock veteran Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant, a long-time Beijing resident by way of his native Omaha, Nebraska—are known best for the “anti-iPod” they created by repurposing a deck-of-cards-sized plastic transistor (the type East Asian monks use to tote around recordings of their mantras) and filling the brightly colored devices with analog loops of new age chants. Among the wide range of fans of the FM3 “Buddha Machine” is legendary British musician and producer Brian Eno.
Even after several tours overseas, bands like Carsick Cars still draw news-of-the-weird mentions in the foreign press rather than straight-up coverage from serious music critics. Even when Cui Jian—China’s only legitimate rock star—plays overseas, most of his audience is Chinese. Cui, now 52, is the rocker who unwittingly produced the soundtrack for the failed democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, his songs “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth” adopted as the student protestors’ anthems. (Though he’s been called both the Springsteen and the Dylan of China, some might prefer to think of him as a Chinese original touched by not only Bruce and Bob, but also the spirit of the late Joe Strummer of British punk innovators The Clash.) “Outside of China, there aren’t as many foreigners at the shows as there are at our concerts in smaller Chinese cities,” said Cui.
Some argue Cui Jian can’t crossover because he doesn’t sing in English. But language alone can’t account for this isolating China Syndrome, particularly in the case of someone like Baishui, who often sings in a Sichuan dialect as foreign to a standard-Mandarin-speaking Beijinger as it is to a music snob in Brooklyn or Berkeley. Lyrics in Spanish, Portuguese, or Korean didn’t stop Richie Valens, Gilberto Gil, and Psy from scoring global chart-topping hits that scored big in the U.S., too.
When I toured Europe with the Beijing-based punk band Subs between 2005 and 2007, the band took to traveling with a poster that read, in English, “Why Must We Say We Are Made In China?” The band knew the answer: The only way to attract the interest of foreign rock fans—a crowd that tends to expect Chinese music to be defined in opposition to an establishment—was to shout that they were rocking out about life under a repressive regime. Yet they were pigeonholed across Europe as “that Chinese punk band.” Accepting the band’s fate, for a brief period, Subs’ wiry front woman Kang Mao told me, gesturing big to frame an imaginary concert hall marquee in the air with her hands: “This year, we’re ‘CHINA subs,’ Next time, we’ll be ‘China Subs,’ and after that, we’ll be ‘Subs China,’ and then, just ‘Subs.’” Though they left thousands of fans clamoring for more of their tight, loud brand of driving Beijing punk, the band remains, eight years later, “CHINA subs” in the eyes of much of the rest of the world—more limited by the world’s abstract understanding of the nation from which they come than celebrated for the sounds they produce.
Back on Maria’s patio, as the sounds of the opening loops from Luo Keju’s laptop computer reach Austin ears, Baishui’s guitarist, Gu Dao, still is nowhere in sight. After catching English rockers Muse at the Toyota Center in Houston the night before, then crashing in a storage unit he’d rented for $11, Gu miscalculated the time it would take the Greyhound bus to deliver him back to the show.
His absence goes unnoticed by the crowd, until, 15 minutes into Baishui’s American debut, a frazzled Chinese dude jogs toward the stage. Baishui and Luo are deep into the set and Baishui’s glasses have slipped nearly off of his nose. His eyes are closed and Gu’s arrival doesn’t break his concentration. Gu takes the stage with minimal disruption, marveling at the scene he’s joining.
Now the audience is processing several things at once. A good many in its number were unaware their lunch hour would involve music at all; most who knew expected the hoedown sounds of the Traveling Barn Dance; fewer still knew that Baishui was in the line-up, and that small subset is now trying to figure out just what a band from China should look and sound like. This mutual measurement, by band and fans alike, is repeated each time the trio takes to an American stage.
Like many of his Chinese contemporaries, Baishui came to rock and roll via heavy metal. In the pre-Internet age, the soundtrack to his, and his nation’s, headbanging came via dakou or “saw-gash” tapes and CDs: surplus albums from the West, unsold in their native lands, with gashes that marked them as garbage without completely destroying their function. Forward-thinking businessmen unschooled in rock and roll but keen to take advantage of the earliest signs of China’s opening market economy rerouted the stream of saw-gash recordings from landfills to shops around the country where they went for pennies on the dollar. By the time he was ready to compose his own music, Baishui’s tastes had mellowed, coming around, eventually, to neo-folk, a genre whose guitar-strumming is overladen with experimental and gothic elements, earning the nickname “apocalyptic folk”—the times ain’t so much a-changin’ as they are a-endin’. Baishui’s 2005 debut, with the band Bloody Woods, attracted fans across the country primarily through word of mouth and a collection of critical praise. Two years later, the band performed to full houses in live venues across China, establishing Baishui a fan base whose admiration is revived on this U.S. tour. Chinese now studying Stateside approach him with nervousness and respect.
Though nowadays some describe Baishui as a player of the “new folk” music of the first decade of the 21st century—a sound whose scene is centered in Beijing—Baishui quickly rejects the link critics and fans make between his sounds and the acoustic Dylan-esque urban music of a certain stripe of singer-songwriter. Baishui insists that his music is a very different beast.
A desire to separate himself is Baishui’s defining characteristic. There is the geographic isolation of life in Yibin, where there is no music scene to speak of. “There’s nobody to even talk to about music, let alone play music with,” says Baishui. There is also the musical isolation that comes from drawing on such a wide range of influences and creating such a diverse body of work. Baishui’s material spans the musical spectrum. There is Sichuanese folk music, which, like American folk, seems ancient yet timeless, offering up songs you feel like you’ve always known. Some of his music employs a mixture of the musical traditions of the Silk Road, where Chinese zithers meet subtle Arabian rhythms and intense Indian drones. There is his minimal, Zen-inspired music: prayer bells, carefully plucked guitar, and meditative flute, the occasional sounds of water flowing—the soundtrack to an imagined mountain retreat. And there is Baishui’s heavier, post-rock stuff: sweeping and cinematic instrumentals loaded with the sounds of machines. His lyrics are delivered in a voice scarred by years of smoking and, one suspects, the effects of the wellspring of Wuliangye. The best-known brand of Chinese grain alcohol, Wuliangye has been produced since the early 1950s in Yibin—which the distiller calls “Liquor City.” But rather than a down-and-dirty hard-drinking and hard-living voice, Baishui’s rasp is hypnotic, filling a room with meaning, particularly when voicing the Sichuan dialect. Meeting the man surrounded by fans who call him “Teacher” only intensifies this effect.
The band’s set at Maria’s Taco Xpress is well-received; the lunchtime crowd is a polite, if not overly excited audience. But the musicians in the crowd—a combination of other SXSW acts and curious local rockers—make up for the indifference by paying close attention. They greet Baishui with excitement after the set. Baishui’s delight with them is tempered by the embarrassment over his bandmate’s late arrival, the inevitable disappointment over issues not cleared up in sound check, and the clear preference of the general audience for the country twang and sing-along-ability of the second band on the bill. Over the next few days, three straight-up rock club gigs will give him a better taste of what it means to play as a band in America.
But all along, Baishui is dogged by China Syndrome. Invitations to perform at unofficial events came not solely because of the band’s nationality, but often their being Chinese was a factor in bookers’ decisions to put them on stage. Each time I heard a host exclaim that Baishui was “all the way from China!” or “a real Chinese band!” a part of me cringed, fearing that Baishui would see his mission to spread Baishui Music fail before it ever had the chance to begin.
He and I talk a lot about China Syndrome over the course of the tour. “A friend said to me that I could get a lot of great gigs in the West with my folk music,” says Baishui, acknowledging an overt Chineseness in his unplugged material. “I know I could. But that’s not where I am now.” He moved away from the neo-folk music that attracted his first large following, and headed into heavier territory. “If I’m not comfortable, the audience will know it ... I wanted to move on.”
He moved on to progressive rock, the complex and off-kilter music made (in-) famous in the 1970s via a reputation for musical excess, and experimental music, in which the goal was to find new ways of employing sound. His work on small independent films expanded his musical vocabulary. The film Einstein and Einstein, which features his score, just had its world premier at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. A quick listen through his catalogue reveals that Baishui Music is a moving target. To Baishui, though, it’s a work in progress—one that can be heard at his SoundCloud page and will, he insists, be influenced by the music he and his bandmates will hear over the course of their month-and-a-half Stateside, seeing everything from touring stadium shows to local bar bands.
The band’s Austin run ends as it began, at a barn dance, where Baishui has the headlining slot at the Full Moon Barn Dance, a massive, long-running neighborhood party on Atherton’s own property. The threesome arrives to find several hundred people chomping barbecue and swilling from kegs of beer spread out across a huge yard flanked by two stages.
As Baishui prepares to take the stage to close out the night, only the heartier, drunker element of the audience remains. The grass in the yard is well trodden and there is more room on the wooden-plank dance floor. The acts preceding Baishui include a Swedish country trio, a Norwegian pop singer, and a band fronted by Atherton, the Barn Dance hostess, singing classic country tunes.
Introduced as a band playing “Country music … music from another country,” Baishui takes the stage to cheers as speakers hanging from tree branches shudder under the weight of the band’s bass-heavy sounds.
I turn my gaze from the stage to the audience and watch a slow transformation I’ve seen time and again across Europe and North America. First, I spot thin, spreading smiles in recognition of the distance the band has traveled to get there. Smiles widen at the idea of the band’s mere existence—“These guys are from China!” faces say. Smiles then deepen as curiosity evolves into appreciation—a sort of “Hey, this music is pretty good!” vibe. Finally, there’s the craziness factor, as it dawns on the crowd how amazing it is that this band from far away Sichuan exists at all and is playing in Austin, Texas.
A gaggle of hippies in green sheer capes dance and sway, interspersed with greybeards in overalls shooting photos and video from all angles. Hipsters hoot and holler, decked out in their best denim and gingham hoedown garb, hair pigtailed for the occasion. Arms are waving and eyes are popping. The sound man tells me that what he wants more than anything is to crank the dials all the way up, but refrains, knowing that’s the quickest way to get the party shut down.
It’s in the last moments of his live set that Baishui voices the only four lines Texas will hear him actually sing (which you can listen to in the video above). His dialect twangs, his voice moans. It’s poetry that it doesn’t take fluency in Chinese to feel. He sings of a wilderness where there are no roads, where forests and mountains tower, and where understanding is possible.
At the end of the set, fans rush up for autographs and CDs. Unable to speak Chinese but lubricated enough to want to approach while they have the chance, some locals bow, sure that this is the culturally-appropriate gesture of respect for Chinese guests. Baishui and his bandmates spur on the confusion by bowing back, overly-polite, not sure how else to react, and the process repeats itself. “We went to China once,” one woman tells the threesome, “and we never saw anything like this and we just wanted to let you know and you guys were great!”
No distribution deals have been inked, nor future tours lined up, but in this backyard in rock and roll’s heartland, Baishui Music’s future looks bright.
This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.
You’ve heard of Bonaventure’s famous image of faith and reason as two wings by which the soul flies toward God? Well, evangelicals have two wings, one devoted to that mystical ascent of faith and the other toward the rational exposition of the faith. These two wings are the revivalist and confessionalist ends of the movement and they rarely beat in rhythm.
In my view, a lot of the disputes (not all) within evangelicalism stem from these two divisions and the conflicting perspectives to which they lead.
Revivalist evangelicals tend toward pietistic forms of the movement like the Methodism of an Asbury or a Seattle Pacific, the holiness churches (Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church), the Pentecostal churches, forms of Anabaptism (Ashland Seminary), and certain kinds of Baptists and Presbyterians. Also, virtually all charismatics fall into this category. In my view, this is the largest category of all.
Confessional evangelicals tend toward creedal parts of the movement like the Presbyterianism associated with Westminster Seminary, certain parts of the Southern Baptist Convention wishing to recover historic Baptist confessions like the London Confession, and forms of Anglicanism emphasizing the thirty-nine articles. One could also include some confessional Lutherans here who self-identify as evangelicals, but many prefer just to be called confessional Lutherans.
As I said, these wings rarely beat in rhythm. For example, the recent debate between Gerald McDermott and Roger Olson, begun with McDermott’s article in First Things (see also here, here, and here), over how to read scripture and Christian tradition. Without getting into the weeds on this debate, McDermott and Olson represent the two distinct ways revivalists and confessionalists interpret Christian tradition with McDermott exemplifying the latter and Olson the former.
Confessionists tend to claim that revivalists reject Christian tradition because they remain suspicious of confessions and creeds. Revivalists, however, drink deeply from the spiritual traditions of Christianity by which I mean the mystics, pietists, and other spiritual writers. These are the very parts of Christian tradition that many confessionalists question. One might consider it akin to the differences between a Thomas Aquinas whose Christology is centered upon historic creeds and heresies verses a Bonaventure whose Christology is centered upon the mystic Christ in Francis’ vision on Mount La Verna.
Another area of confusion is over penal substitution, which many confessionalists tend to see as a belief that must be embraced whereas most revivalists do not (vicarious atonement, yes; penal substitution, no). Many revivalists in the late nineteenth century embraced a theological position that Christ’s atoning work included the healing of the human body, not simply the soul. This theological position makes little sense in a penal substitutionary model that trades on legal and juridical metaphors. It does work well within a Christus victor model in which Christ conquers sin, death, and the devil.
Confessional and revivalist evangelicals need to learn to speak each other’s language if they are going to hold together the big tent that is evangelicalism. Being evangelical Protestant, they both pick and choose what parts of the tradition to embrace and they interpret the tradition differently.
The argument that the creeds represent the center as opposed to the spirituality is not immediately apparent either. It’s like saying the Philokalia is less central than Chalcedon when the former unites the Coptic, Armenian, Antiochene, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches in ways that the latter does not. I personally find it difficult to talk about Chalcedon without taking into account the fracturing of Greek and Syriac Christianity it created. Do we embrace Chalcedon to the exclusion of Theodore of Mopuestia, the School of Nisibis, and Alexandrian Christianity after Cyril of Alexandria?
The first step toward flight comes from learning the rhythms of both wings.
LAST week, Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving "executive function" (which involve the brain's ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.
It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?
This week Victor took me to a shop to find a lamp for the bedroom but they were all too expensive. Like, they had an $8,000 crystal chandelier in the shape of a leaping, life-sized, cavorting pony. True story. I wanted to take a picture but Victor thought it would be too weird for me to say, “Hey, can I take a picture of your shiny pony?” so instead I stayed quiet until about 10 seconds later when I saw an enormous bear’s head on the wall and I screamed ,”HOLY SHIT THERE’S A BEAR” and then I think probably Victor realized that he just can’t take me out in public in general.
Several clerks (and shoppers) looked up in a rather annoyed way, which is sort of rude because 1) if there really was a bear in the shop they would probably be grateful for my warning and 2) THERE REALLY WAS A BEAR IN THE STORE. Victor pointed out that it was just the head of a bear, but I countered that the head was technically the most dangerous part of the bear and then he argued that bear paws are just as painful, but I pointed out that no part of the bear is deadly if his head has come off, and then we just agreed to disagree because we were attracting more attention.
Then a salesman came over and I was all, “HOW MUCH IS IT FOR THE BEAR?” but I was trying not to sound too eager because even though the head was dusty and mostly shoved behind a vent it was still pretty bad-ass and I didn’t want to let them know that I was too interested because that’s how they get you. The saleman looked confused for a second and then laughed awkwardly, and then said “Oh. You’re serious” and was like, “I am deadly serious, sir” and he said he’d ask his manager.
The manager came over to make sure that I wasn’t just fucking with him and I said, “Before we go any further, I just want to point out that this bear is literally75% off. I mean, unless you have the body of the headless bear in the back, in which case I might be interested in purchasing it too” and then he wandered off in a bit of a daze. Victor shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, but in his defense it’s possible it was because he was looking at the pony chandelier because that shit was fucking dazzling. Then the salesman came back saying, “We would be so…so thrilled to let you have it for $75″ and I shouted “SOLD!” and then I was a little offended on Beartrums behalf because why were they so happy to get rid of him? Clearly I was saving him from people who did not appreciate him and probably didn’t even realize his name was Beartrum.This was a damn rescue. Plus, when they got climbed up on the ladder to get him down I realized that Beartrum’s head was three times the size of a normal bears and the whole thing was made of fiberglass and fake fur so no one even had to die to make him, unless it was a lot of stuffed animals from a scarlet fever ward, which would explain why they were in such a hurry to get rid of him. Then they really quickly wrapped him up because I think they just wanted us to leave. This is exactly why I often get really good service and also why I recommend not taking your medication during days when you have to buy a car or a bedroom set.
Victor drug the giant box of bear to the car while muttering that I was unstable, and I agreed with him, but I don’t think you have to be crazy to realize that paying 2 bucks per pound of bad-ass bear is a goddamn bargain. I tried to go online to find a similar bear head to prove that I’d made a fantastic buy, but when I searched “Big Bear Head” it gave me a San Diego craigslist ad entitled “Big Bear needs some quick head now” and then I just decided to never go on the internet again.
I got Beartrum Higglebottom home (“Beartrum” was just a given and I think “Higglebottom” is nice because it sort of implies that his non-existent bottom had once been wiggly and positive) and I decided to take some of those fancy unwrapping picture sets like you see on sophisticated techy blogs, but when I downloaded the first one I noticed that Ferris Mewler was doing something weird in the back.
I don't... Wait. Is he doing yoga? Is that the Sun Salutation?
And so then I was like “Enhance….Enhance….Enhance” until finally it was big enough that I could see that Ferris was hiding his head in his genitals. Or something. I’m not sure. All I know is that he’s way more flexible than I am and he seems to be showing off. Victor says he’s probably just hiding his head in shame so that other neighborhood cats won’t recognize him on my blog and make fun of him. I can’t but help to think that this is not going to help his case:
You're only hurting yourself, Ferris.
Then I opened the box a little more and you could see Beartrum’s enormous smile, as if he was saying, “YOU ARE MY VERY BEST FRIEND EVER AND NOTHING WILL EVER TEAR US APART.”
That bear was totally fucking right.
Then I asked Victor to walk around holding Beartrum up at various places in my office so that I could figure out the best place to hang him, but I was actually just taking pictures of Victor wearing a bear and then he heard me giggling and was all “WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?ARE YOU RECORDING THIS?”
I totally was.
Then he put Beartrum down and walked away muttering under his breath. I figured I needed to even the score for the sake of my marriage so I yelled at Victor to come to the front yard and when he got there I was wearing Beartrum’s face and singing “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” in a deep, creepy, slow-motion voice on the yard.
It's like if a bear was doing dub-step. In a dress. On the yard.
That’s when Hailey’s school bus pulled up and I waved at her, and the bus driver seemed sort of disturbed, but probably only because I looked so realistic that she wasn’t sure if it was safe to leave Hailey there with me. Victor agreed, but not for actual bear-related reasons. Hailey, on the other hand, thought Beartrum was totally bad-ass, and that’s when I decided that from now on I’d only hang out with eight-year-olds, because they still understand the whimsical joy of silliness, and they’re too young to call the authorities on you.
Victor, on the other hand, demanded that I get in the house and stop waving at our neighbors because “WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO THINK?” and I immediately dismissed him, but then I thought, “Oh my God, they probably think we’re furries.” Then I started to explain what a furry was to Victor and he was like, “STOP TALKING ALREADY” because apparently education is not important to him.
Then Victor told me to put Beartrum away, but I told him I needed a few days to figure out where he fit best.
There were more options than you'd expect.
Victor: NO. Just…no.
me:But he looks so happy.And it’s the guest bedroom so it’s hardly ever used and when we have family spend the night they’ll have company. I tucked him in like a burrito baby. LOOK HOW HAPPY HE LOOKS.
Victor: Try again.
I attempted another option:
me: OHMYGOD, LOOK OUT THE WINDOW!
Victor:WHAT IN THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?
me: He likes to wander at night. I think he might have narcolepsy.
I briefly considered poking his head through the hedges just to freak people out, but Victor said I couldn’t because I might cause an accident because people weren’t prepared for that much awesomeness. (He didn’t say that last part out loud, but I’m pretty sure it was implied.)
In the end, I left Beartrum on the floor of my office until I find the perfect spot. The cats fucking love him.
"Maybe if we cover his eyes he can't eat us."
The good news though is that I think I’ve finally found my new profile pic.