The Sensual Experience
by JOANNA SWAN
Atop the Great Wall the other day, savoring the great silent woods below, I was assaulted by Kenny G. His music was coming from a transistor radio clutched by a security guard, who smiled so graciously that I couldn’t bear to ask him to throw it over the edge.
— notably disgruntled New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos
Kenneth "Kenny G" Gorelick (in China known as Ken Ni Ji 肯尼基, a name Mr. Osnos observes is disturbingly similar to the Chinese loanword for Kentucky Fried Chicken — Kěn Dé Jī 肯德基) has enjoyed mammoth success in China. The smooth, smooth tones of his alto sax enjoy an intimate auditory rapport with elevators, mega-malls, subways and wet markets alike.
One song in particular plays a singular role throughout the country — "Going Home." As closing time rolls around in the market and vendors roll blankets over their wares and roller doors over their shopfronts, this hit from Kenny's first live album begins to play. Sedate and unobtrusive yet disturbingly grandiloquent, the soft tones of a saxophone piped through myriad megaphones signal me to hasten towards the nearest exit or, alternatively, snatch up impulse buys posthaste like my knockoff Minnetonka ankle moccasins, a real rip-off at 140 yuan. Luckily, repetition is also a musical theme in Mr. G's work, and while still usually seeking rapid egress from the premesis, I learned that one usually has ample time to bargain up a storm before closing time.
There is something wholly surreal about walking through aisles of fake (and real) fur at the Muxiayuan Fabric Market — polystyrene particles floating through my nasal passages, grandmothers cajoling fretful toddlers with butt-less trousers, workers pulling canvas sacks around pillow fill, the rhinestone shop-owners sifting their wares and bedazzling orders — as mawkish tones of an alto sax suggest peace, homecoming and other harmonious motifs.
When people ask me about China, I find myself tongue-tied and usually blurt something about Delicious Food and So Much History. Depending on my audience, I also act wise and add sagaciously that the country is, like, full of paradox. I am not sure exactly of what I mean here, but I think it is something like the "Going Home" Sensual Experience.
While altogether absurd to American Joanna, the juxtaposition of Kenny G and shrimp-sellers hawking their wares is a wholly normal and expected state of affairs on the mainland, as are also: migrant workers who make less than $80 a month building Beijing's next Chanel boutique while the rest of the city sleeps; karaoke for 5 hours that easily costs a month's Beijing rent; the adoration of a man who entertains thousands in his waxen postmortem circumstance and also, deliberately or no, "let" several million of his comrades go hungry to the point of expiration.
I'm unsure where Kenny G stands in both Eastern and Western cultural repertories. If anything, though, the Chinese engineers of public ambiances seem to have successfully appropriated a Beverly Hills jazzman into a wholly unique, non-Western system without compromising the Chinese-ness of it all.
Beijing is a city where, on the same block, I'll spot a vintage Rolls, a legless beggar recumbent upon the ground muttering "xie-xie," and a group of audacious French kids with their heavy backpacks and mannered glares. What the city lacks in racial diversity (I lost count of how many times I've received curious stares, blatant finger-pointing, unapologetic picture-taking, and christening of "waiguo" or "laowai") it makes up for in diversity of experience. And while Kenny might not play a Dizi or paixiao, there seems to be something more to his ubiquitousness in China than simple appreciation of a Western celebrity. Indeed, this latter title itself tenuously holds water; for many (myself included), smooth jazz inspires a pro forma aversion, its deleterious status as saccharine elevator music relegated to the Woody Allen corner of our comedic cultural repertory.
Going Home, Muxiayuan Fabric Market, Beijing
In a society where 7-day workweeks are not uncommon and the phrases "business casual," "work from home," and "self-employed" don't really exist in the working world's lexicon, Kenny G makes time, forces time, to relax, decompress, steel oneself for the next harrowing onslaught — whether it be unloading the poultry shipment from Guangdong, waiting in line to buy Spring Festival train tickets, placating the privileged young Chinese patrons of The Learning Center (which often called less for a jazzy sensation and more for a long swig of Johnny Walker), or just enduring the two-hour subway/bus commute through Beijing. In a sense, "Going Home" feels like the mandatory song/dance routines of primary schoolchildren or the 90th anniversary cinematic blockbusters funded, released, and produced by the Party — like Kenny G taking his place in China's propagandic mythology, keeping the peace with insipid intonations.
Dulcet demagoguery may seem harsh judgment; I've felt oppressed by such tractable tunes in locations not under the shadow of a one-party system, though, and can vouch from a most objective stance for their powerful nature to instill, as Evan Osnos notes, a certain feeling of assault and the keen desire to Go Home. Audi caught on long before I did, casting Mr. G as riot supressor in last spring's Super Bowl campaign.
Joanna Swan is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the end of the trip. She blogs here and tumbls here.
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