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Look, Ai Weiwei’s been through hell. But that doesn’t mean he needs to put the rest of us through it. And yet, here we are — “Dumbass” has arrived. In terms of metal, Ai Weiwei, in one song, has become the Billy Ray Cyrus of the genre. Billy Ray is about as country as Pat Boone was heavy metal. And as far as metal cred goes, Pat Boone was more believable than Ai.
In a track that stylistically recalls a Def Leppard B-side that wouldn’t have made it past Joe Elliott‘s coke dealer, Ai warbles and wails his way through five minutes of tepid, sugary metal — although the warbles and wails are the one thing about this mess that works. More punk than metal, “Dumbass” reminds me of one of the most punk moments in all of cinema: Michael Caine singing a dead little ditty in Little Voice. (You were expecting a Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle reference, weren’t you?)
Heavy metal is about power, be it sexual, personal, cultural, or political. Michael Cain’s Little Voice character, Ray Say, is a man who has given all his power away, while Ai has had his taken from him. In both situations, the power is gone and the art is about that. Ironically, in Little Voice, the man who has become a cartoon reveals honest tragedy through a rage about that transformation. In Ai’s case, he takes a real tragedy — his own — and turns it into a cartoon.
Using video clichés leftover from ’80s hair metal (prison guards and food, hot chicks, sex doll comedy, cinematic shaving, lipstick) to achieve his goal of depicting the terror of being in a Chinese prison, Ai ends up conveying the feelings of 16-year-old kids the world over: my parents don’t understand me, and now I’m grounded. This would have been perfect had it been a Skid Row video.
With all the accolades he’s garnered lately (deservedly!), Ai Weiwei, artistically, must feel slightly invincible at this point. This expands the scope of your options. But there’s a difference between having the freedom to try anything and believing that you have the skill set to succeed at it. Partnering with “China’s Leonard Cohen,” as singer Zuoxiao Zuzhou was referred to by Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, seems to have been a mistake, at least in trying to make something “heavy metal.” A quick survey of Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s music on YouTube betrays a bad approximation of Western pop music usually reserved for places like France and Israel. Um, not very metal.
And the shame of all this is that Ai Weiwei, because of his current position on the world stage, could have had almost any collaborator he wanted. When Ai first spoke of his desire to do a heavy metal song, he talked about it being the only way he would be able to release all the rage in his heart. Well, the aforementioned vocals are there, but they’re backed up by “metal” that seems to have been written by Yanni. I dreamed of a collaboration with the still-kicking-against-the-pricks Napalm Death. (You can’t tell me that John Zorn couldn’t have arranged this with a few emails.) Hell, I would have settled for a toothless Metallica jam. If Ai Weiwei wanted to keep it closer to home, he should have cast aside his metal dreams and worked with the Beijing duo Li Qing and Li Weisi’s industrial outfit, Soviet Pop. They have the sound of oppression down; it’s raining piss while live wires snake across the floor with these nasty bats. Ai’s struggling and strangled vocals could have taken the shape of a fractured siren, floating above a primitive and desperate landscape.
But instead we get this. Ai Weiwei, go back to your room.
Ai Weiwei’s “Dumbass” is the first single from his album The Divine Comedy, coming out on June 22.