Feature

Bob Dylan: Did he sell out in China?

Dylan had to submit a list of songs he planned to perform during his first-ever tour in China to the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

Once again, the iconoclastic folk-rock singer Bob Dylan has “broken creative new ground,” said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. He may have set a new low for music superstars who sell out their integrity for money. To receive permission to perform his first-ever concerts in China last week, the “raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems” agreed to submit a list of songs he planned to perform to the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Lo and behold, Dylan then failed to sing the subversive protest ballads that made him so famous: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” At a time when China is engaged in “the harshest crackdown” on free speech in a decade, Dylan simply “sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash, and left.” Fifty years ago, Dylan was the conscience of a generation, said Azar Nafisi in The New Republic. But age, fame, power, and wealth have weakened his moral compass. “The result? A disappointing and hypocritical show.”

Dylan’s performance may have seemed uncontroversial to an American audience, said James Fallows in TheAtlantic.com. But my friends in China viewed his playlist as anything but tame. Although he dropped “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” its lyrics about senators and congressmen make little sense in China. But he opened his Beijing and Shanghai concerts with the overtly Christian “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” which includes the lines, “So much oppression / Can’t keep track of it no more.” And during “Ballad of a Thin Man” he virtually snarled at the crowd, “But something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” If China’s censors tried to gag Dylan, they failed to notice he sang lyrics as “subversive as anything he has written.”

Besides, who said Dylan is primarily a protest singer? said Charles Shaar Murray in the London Observer. He sang protest songs for two years in the early ’60s; in the five decades since, he has angrily resisted those who want him to be “a singing placard: Enter a cause, push a button, get a song.” Dylan’s body of work is about so much more than politics, said Sean Wilentz in NewYorker.com. A true artist, he writes songs about the entirety “of the human experience,” and subversive ideas permeate them all. The joke is on the Chinese, because “his music long ago became uncensorable.”

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