By Beth Loyd, ABC News Beijing
On Monday night, Avril Lavigne, the Canadian pop-rock singer who is beloved by teenage girls worldwide (and certain ABC News staffers) ended her “Best Damn Tour 2008” in Beijing. It was her first time here. It is relatively rare for such a star to perform in Beijing. Chinese organizers always lay down a set of rules that it is often difficult for rock stars to abide by. Artists don’t particularly like to be told what they can say, what they can wear and certainly not what they can sing. Without a doubt Avril was given unwavering guidelines, especially after Bjork’s performance in Shanghai earlier this year when she screamed “Tibet, Tibet!” from the stage. But Avril, even with her self-created bad-ass, rebellious image, was here anyway. With China’s 1.3 billion potential fans, it’s not hard to imagine why some artists overlook the censorship.
Avril’s concert was held at the Beijing Olympic basketball stadium and the seats were filled. The tickets cost from $30 to $150, not an easy price tag for Chinese teenagers, many of whom were experiencing their first Western concert. As Avril took the stage and began her first set, hundreds of incredibly excited and harmless teenagers left the nosebleeds, climbed to the floor and gathered at the foot of the stage to sing and dance along. It is a common sight at concerts anywhere else in the world, but not in China, where people are expected to stay in their seats and not break any rules, no matter how silly. At that moment, there was more energy in that stadium than I had ever seen at any event Beijing, including at the Olympics.
Keep in mind, these were not rowdy teenagers. They were not drunk. They were not doing drugs or fighting. They were not screaming “Free Tibet” or organizing a democratic movement. They were simply showing their passion for the performance. For a Westerner living here who never sees such unadulterated displays of excitement, watching these young Chinese expressing themselves this way was breathtaking. But it didn’t last long. As the kids continued to make their way toward the stage, the security guards started yanking them away.
And then the concert stopped. A member of Avril’s entourage came onto the stage and whispered to her. She quit singing and left the stage. Then the lights came on and one of the Chinese organizers took the microphone and told the audience to get back to its seats or the concert would be canceled. The crowd booed. The man explained that it was dangerous for fans to be out of their seats and that they shouldn’t break the rules. The teenagers obligingly left the floor and went back to their seats. The energy died. Some band members had looks of awkward shock and dismay on their faces.
Why would the organizers stop such harmless behavior and drain the fun out of the concert? Perhaps they didn’t want anyone to get trampled. Perhaps the perpetrators were blocking the view of Communist Party officials’ families who were seated. Perhaps the organizers just wanted to remind the young people who is in charge. Perhaps they were afraid that if they allowed it to go on, these young people might think that rules are indeed, meant to be broken. Whatever the case, organizers had to strike a delicate balance between allowing modern Western singers to perform here and maintaining Beijing’s definition of “order.” It must be said that crowds in China can get unruly, much like crowds anywhere. One concert-goer said that security should have never let the teenagers get to the floor in the first place. But the way it was set up, with just a few rows of chairs on the floor of the arena, while the nosebleeds were packed, it was awfully tempting for some to take advantage of all the excess space between fans and Avril.
Finally, the more subdued show started up again and Avril stuck to the script. She didn’t mention the concert’s interruption, most likely because she did not want to make things more uncomfortable. Despite the drowned energy, she plugged along with her playlist, with intermittent screams of “I love Beijing.” There was a young girl of about 10 years of age sitting in the front row about 20 feet from the stage. A couple of times, she could not contain herself, and she ran to edge of the stage. She was immediately grabbed by security, which had been beefed up, and taken back to her seat by her arm.
The concert ended and the young folks gathered their concert T-shirts and glow sticks to leave. While it was sad to watch the organizers put a damper on the excitement and disappointing that Avril -- given her public persona -- did not mention it, it was still refreshing to see this younger generation of Chinese have such passion about something. Just 10 years ago, Chinese officials did not allow Western bands to play here in the first place. So, perhaps this is progress: rock concerts with Chinese characteristics, of course.