Lady Gaga ‘ban lifted’: who says she was ever banned in China?

It couldn’t be easier to buy a knock-off CD or download her music, says our new Shanghai columnist

Lady Gaga

SHANGHAI - Much has been made in recent days of Lady Gaga’s music being “unbanned” in China. Her most recent album, Artpop, released internationally in November, has suddenly and miraculously been given the green light for sale in the world’s most-populous country after her music was banned for vulgarity in 2011.

According to Billboard magazine, the flamboyant songstress’s Twitter response to the news was “breathless”, reading: “I'm so excited!!!! The Chinese Government Approved Artpop to be released in China with all 15 songs!”.

One wonders why Gaga is “so excited”. My local knock-off DVD/CD shop has openly displayed Artpop on its shelves since … well, since November. The CD has a neon-yellow sticker on its cover reading, “Hot!”. It goes for 20 Yuan (two quid).

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From what I’m reading in the western and Hong Kong press, Chinese authorities are insisting that the raunchy artwork on Artpop’s cover, designed by king-of-kitsch American artist Jeff Koons, and depicting the singer straddling a lustrous blue ball and cupping her breasts, will need to be toned down for China’s censors. That ball will be made larger to cover those breasts, and her bare legs will be concealed beneath black tights. What’s more, the album’s track /Sexxx Dreams/ will need to be renamed X Dreams.

Well, just across the street from me in Shanghai, Gaga’s airbrushed frame and the offending five-letter word ‘Sexxx’ have been in the public eye for months.

Perhaps the lady in question is thrilled because removal from a government blacklist means her oeuvre can now be sold legally in China. But how will she benefit from that?

The internet-savvy youth and young of China – her market – know very well who she is and what she does. More significantly, the vast majority of music consumers in China would never dream of even dropping two quid for Artpop. In a society that has minimal respect for intellectual property, they are unrivalled experts in getting all the cultural nourishment they desire for free online. (essentially China's Google, while access to the real Google is deliberately disrupted from on high) and other Chinese websites openly facilitate searching for MP3 files, and provide download links for those.

This morning, when I searched for Gaga's Born this Way (supposedly still banned), it took less than a minute to discover that song, to download it and have it playing on iTunes. Was that effortless online access to Gaga’s defiant anthem due to her recent forgiveness from Chinese authorities? Unlikely.

In 2009, Miley Cyrus posted a photograph on her website that showed the former Hannah Montana child star pulling at her face to create more slanted eyes. The response was swift: she and her work were banned in China. (Search-to-listen time for Cyrus’s song Wrecking Ball on Baidu today: less than 90 seconds.)

In 2008, while performing live in Shanghai, Icelandic siren Bjork dedicated her song Declare Independence to Tibetan freedom, shrieking, “Tibet, Tibet!” at its climax. She has been unwelcome ever since. (Download time of Declare Independence – Matthew Herbert 12-inch remix: less than 30 seconds.)

Most ironically, if you are outside China and try to access MP3 files via Baidu … no such luck. Pilfering music that is banned in China, it seems, is only allowed when in China.

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Gary Jones is a China correspondent for The Week online, dividing his time between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. He has written for The Times, The Sunday Times, The Observer, GQ and Wallpaper among others, and for newspapers in Australia, Canada and the US.