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Following PC Music to Beijing on its global domination trip

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The divisive collective’s collaboration with Chris Lee marks the first time that it’s worked with a genuine superstar, although one that nobody knows outside of China

TextSelim BulutPhotographyCG Watkins

Beijing’s ultra-commercial Sanlitun Village is one of the city’s largest and busiest shopping districts, home to huge stores housing international megabrands and boasting a rowdy nightlife scene. It’s also where you’ll find The Orange, a warehouse-sized event space that every year hosts the city’s largest contemporary art exhibition, Tomorrow’s Party. The centrepiece of this year’s exhibition was the premiere of a new music video from Chris Lee, a former reality TV contestant who rose to become one of China’s most successful pop stars. It’s a double-single consisting of upbeat dance pop song ‘Real Love’ and its more icy and introspective counterpart, ‘Only You’, but what makes the release particularly noteworthy is Lee’s choice of collaborators: both songs were written and produced for her by A. G. Cook, head of London-based label slash collective PC Music.

“Before the collaboration, my impression towards PC Music was that they were talented and different,” Chris Lee explains after the exhibition, “Its artists are young, creating something new, modern, and progressive. For this project, we tried to use all the so-called popular artform – music, video, installation and their combination – to discuss ‘if the pop format could become an art medium’, which is interesting.”

It’s hard not to see the cross-continental collaboration in the context of PC Music’s swift ascent. Just two years ago the label were practically unknown, a tight-knit group of friends writing experimentally-inclined yet immediately gratifying pop songs. Fast forward to 2016 and they’ve penned a deal with Columbia Records, signed their artist QT to powerhouse independent label XL Recordings off the back of one song, and racked up thousands of column inches in Pitchfork, the Guardian and the New York Times along the way. Though they’ve been breathlessly described with phrases like “the future of pop”, Chris Lee’s single marks the first time that they’ve actually worked with a bona fide pop superstar – albeit one that remains little known outside of her home country.

The extent of Chris Lee’s star becomes clear on the opening night of Tomorrow’s Party. She’s giving a press conference in front of a huge LED screen playing the ‘Real Love’/‘Only You’ video on loop, joined by Finn Mactaggart, PC Music’s creative director and the video’s co-director. Dozens of photographers have their lenses focused on Lee, while one particularly eager fan is livestreaming the whole thing on what appears to be the Chinese equivalent of Periscope. It starts off fairly civil, but moment the conference wraps up, the photographers lurch forward to get a closer shot of Lee. Security erect a human barrier around her, whisking her out through a side exit before heading for dinner at a restaurant nearby. She was originally going to perform the single at the event, as Mactaggart explains later, but it was deemed too risky – there weren’t enough safeguards in place to stop a potential crowd surge.

Known in China by her birth name Li Yuchun (李宇春), Chris Lee sprung to fame in 2005 after winning Super Girl, a televised singing contest with a format similar to the international Idol series. Over the course of the show, Lee appeared in plain clothes with an androgynous look that was frequently described as ‘tomboy-ish’ in the Chinese media. The look marked a departure from traditional images of Chinese femininity, endearing her to a huge and dedicated female following who voted for her en masse in the show’s finale, which was watched by an eye-watering 280 million people. Later that year Lee would feature on the cover of Time Asia after being named as one of the 50 most influential people in China, and since then she’s released dozens of chart-topping singles and seven studio albums, each of which went on to be the top-selling album in the country in the year of its release.

“She was originally going to perform the single at the event but it was deemed too risky – there weren’t enough safeguards in place to stop a potential crowd surge”

Lee’s image has moved on considerably since the Super Girl days – she’s since worked with international designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Riccardo Tisci, both of whom designed outfits for her tours – but fans still recognise the everygirl in her today. One of those fans approaches Mactaggart later in the night (having appeared alongside Lee earlier in the evening, he’s become a celebrity by extension) and presents an autograph book for him to sign. She has a short haircut almost identical to Lee’s, and travelled to the exhibition purely based on her involvement. When he asks the fan if she saw Lee’s press conference a few hours earlier, she becomes visibly saddened at the missed opportunity. “She was here?!”, she cries.

With her unique aesthetic and a background in the artificial constructs of reality television and celebrity culture, it’s easy to see why PC Music were interested in working with Chris Lee. “Flying to Beijing to record the vocals and co-ordinate the release was pretty wild,” says A. G. Cook, “There were some basic things that made a big impression, like the film crew that was documenting the entire process. Chris Lee comes from a reality TV world, and is extremely comfortable in front of the camera, but she was doing her vocal takes in a booth with two cameramen, while a third cameraman was filming me giving instructions from the mixing desk. That’s not to mention the 20-person entourage that was present from all the creative and record label teams involved. It’s exactly the kind of overloaded, multi-cam, multi-perspective experience that we tried to create for live events like Pop Cube. And I honestly enjoyed it, even if it was taking place for completely practical reasons this time.”

Though it might seem logical to link the collaboration with PC Music’s recent Columbia Records deal, Mactaggart explains that it’s “actually a completely independent project” between PC Music and Chris Lee’s label, E-E Media. Besides managing Chris Lee’s releases and the catalogues of all future contestants on Super Girl (and its male equivalent, Super Boy), E-E Media also staged Tomorrow’s Party. Tomorrow’s Party’s curator, Shangshang You, started the annual exhibition out of a frustration with China’s art scenes, dominated by what he describes as the “old works” or otherwise driven by selling artworks for the largest profits.

It’s a criticism that could be extended to the country’s music industry, too, often displaying a conservative streak that prevents innovative talents from flourishing on a mainstream level. It’s also an insular world, where only classical musicians who can sell the country culturally overseas get much of a chance to collaborate outside of China. “I think Chinese celebrities would do something with someone from outside of China who is also very famous, or very old,” says Wang Newone, a Shanghai-based artist who created an installation combining 3D rendering, robotics, and ASMR with emerging Chinese pop idol Oho Ou-Hao for Tomorrow’s Party. “For the rest of the world, no one cares about them – but here, they can come and get some cash. But for PC Music, it’s so new and so fresh.”

Another artist exhibiting at Tomorrow’s Party was Shanghai-based Kim Laughton, a frequent collaborator with PC Music, who first put the label in touch with Chris Lee’s team. He sees these collaborations as particularly important given the government are often quick to censor things that they don’t immediately understand. “It’s much easier to just stop that kind of thing from happening,” he says, “They can cancel a show at a moment’s notice. But these things are very important. All it takes is a few people who want to make them work to find ways to make it happen.”

“Here in China if you want to do a performance you really need to get a license and plan a lot of things,” Newone adds, “If PC Music came here, they’d ask what kind of performance they’re doing. They’d ask what kind of songs they’re gonna play. You have to translate all the lyrics.”

The label are wary of seeing the collaboration as a model for working with other established stars. “The Chinese music industry is so unique that this simply wouldn’t apply anywhere else,” Mactaggart explains. It’s also hard to apply one mould to a variety of artists. “We never sit down and say “that’s not PC Music enough” – but we probably do sit down and say ‘That’s not appropriate to the artist.’” Nevertheless, it does show that PC Music can adapt themselves to have a genuine impact on the mainstream.

It’s unlikely that this will be the last they’re heard of on the global pop stage: A. G. Cook and labelmate Danny L Harle recently spent 10 days in Los Angeles working with some of the most successful songwriters in the industry today, while a forthcoming collaboration in Japan is set to be announced shortly. But, as A. G. Cook explains, none of this matters to them unless they’re working with the right artists. “For me, PC Music is pop music,” says Cook, “Maybe it says something about us that the first mainstream, A-list artist to fully embrace our sound and vision is actually from China. At the same time, it says a lot about Chris Lee that she was willing to work with us in the first place. She’s a risk taker who really wants to challenge her audience and play with the way that she’s perceived.”