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My Shen Yun reply guy

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

I don’t often turn around and write publicly about the irate comments and hate mail that come in due time to anyone who publishes things on the internet. At a certain point it all becomes part of the noise, and the best you can do is develop a thick skin while staying receptive enough to grasp when someone has a legitimate criticism of your work. Nine times out of 10, it’s best not to engage in the first place, and it can lead to punching down and gratuitous navel-gazing. But the barrage of DMs a Twitter account recently sent me about the Microtones column I published about the strange world of Shen Yun back in May is a worthwhile exception, both because it was truly bizarre and shed some light on the story itself. Why this reaction came more than six months late, I really can’t say. Maybe it’s some sort of guerrilla marketing tactic, because Shen Yun is already headed back to Madison in February for two nights at the Overture Center, because of course it is, promising an “Entirely New Production, accompanied by Shen Yun Orchestra.”

Whether human or bot, the Twitter account claimed to be a guy named John in Oklahoma who works in the crowdfunding world, and practices Falun Dafa, the Chinese spiritual community that gave rise to Shen Yun. (I’ve found some blog posts that report similar encounters with an account that seems to be from the same origin, but am not comfortable linking to those here, and some folks have told me they’re convinced this is a Chinese bot, but I really don’t know.) This account quickly escalated its critiques from stating that I set out to “critique spirituality from your skeptical or atheist perspective” to “You are a little piece of shit.” Our interaction had a lot of the hallmarks of internet blowback—ascribing sinister motivations, something something “hipster,” claiming that the piece is inaccurate without ever pointing out a specific error, and just generally making the argument about something it’s not. 

And yet I pressed on, not feeling any particular need to defend myself but strangely curious about where all this was coming from. John was persistent and willing to share myriad thoughts about art (“Art has spiritual content in it, which is why it is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel”) and politics (“I would like a Roman emperor”), so much so that there were even times where the conversation seemed to cool down. At one point, a mix of amusement and frustration prompted me to ask if he was a Shen Yun reply guy. “There are no Shen Yun reply guys,” he answered, indignant.

As I pointed out in the piece back in May, Shen Yun is known both for its lavish dance productions and its all-devouring promotional efforts, carried out by local Falun Dafa organizations around the country. The Epoch Times, a Falun Dafa-affiliated news outlet that also publishes a lot of conspiratorial pro-Trump lunacy, also maintains a deep file of stories that gather glowing audience reactions from Shen Yun shows around the country. My Twitter pen pal sent me a link to a landing page for such stories, arguing that praise from certain kinds of qualified people overrules any criticisms of Shen Yun. (Not how criticism about something subjective works, obviously.) Our initial piece wasn’t an aesthetic critique of Shen Yun’s performances, so how we even got to this is anyone’s guess.

John’s messages helped me grasp another aspect of the Shen Yun promotional strategy, which is to grab on to any scrap of praise or prestige and shout it from the hilltops. Any arts organization holds onto press links and loves a good review and usually monitors Google alerts and so forth, but in the Shen Yun world this has been elevated to something of a mania. For the current event page on Overture’s website, for instance, Shen Yun has supplied quotes from not just The New York Times but also “Jim Crill, former television producer” and “Joe Heard, former White House photographer.” If anyone from an “entrepreneur” to a “city government adviser” to director of capital for the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan speaks highly of a performance, Shen Yun and its supporters will bang on about this fact to the point that some folks, in their Google results, seem primarily known for having praised Shen Yun. If I went to a Shen Yun performance and waxed poetic a bit, perhaps I too could become immortalized in The Epoch Times, with slightly inflated credentials.   

Then again, maybe I wouldn’t be worthy.  “Not all people are equal. Some are of higher caliber and are trained in the arts and classical music,” John explained. “When they speak, it matters. But you are a little shithead at a rag, so you wouldn’t know.”

In conclusion: Shen Yun!


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New this week:

Recent Madison transplant Graham Hunt caught up with us about his very good solo music.

Dakota Mace’s work as both an artist and curator highlights the material cultures of Indigenous people.

Madison-based startup Murfie is shutting down, and customers have to pay to get their CDs back.

Dozens of artists are signing onto an open letter protesting the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chroma event.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: B-Side’s annual best-of-music list is in print now, festooned with pigs. A playlist tribute to O’Cayz Corral. Our own beloved Chris Lay is now the co-host of The Capital Times‘ food podcast. Bob Mould has announced a March 28 show at the Stoughton Opera House.

This week’s Madison calendar: Seven Samurai at UW Cinematheque. Slow Pulp at the High NoonAnd more

Upcoming Tone Madison Events!

December 12: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party. Giant Jones Brewing Company, 6 to 9 p.m., free, 21+

NEW! March 5: Kayo Dot, Psalm Zero, Telechrome. Communication, 8 p.m. Tickets available now, discount for Tone Madison Sustainers

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