Dylan sells out?

Bob Dylan recently sold out in China. Literally, according to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. “Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China…at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he ignored his own warning in Subterranean Homesick Blues — ‘Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose’ — and let the government pre-approve his set”, she wrote on April 9. Last year the Culture Ministry refused permission for two concerts, but in a brief statement claimed that this year Dylan “performed with the approved content.”

The backdrop to Dowd’s attack is a major crackdown on so-called dissidents – artists, activists and lawyers, including Ai Weiwei, artist and architect of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. Recently local rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou was detained by police after displaying the words “Free Ai Weiwei” on a large screen at the 2011 Modern Sky Folk & Poetry Festival in Zhouzhuang in eastern China.

Dowd feels that by allowing the government to censor his playlist, “Baobo Dilun,” as he is known in Chinese, has sold out the very principles espoused in his songs.

“Iconic songs of revolution like The Times They Are a-Changin, and Blowin’ in the Wind wouldn’t have been an appropriate soundtrack for the 2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression.”

But the issue of Dylan’s mumbled lyrics – often hard to make out even for English speakers – were downplayed by the state-run newspaper, the Global Times, a popular tabloid run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

“The subject of Dylan’s songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person, who is more interested in taking care of his or her family,” it wrote in its English language edition. This is partly true: Chinese censors are also sensitive to references to sex and drugs. The Rolling Stones had to exclude songs like Brown Sugar and Let’s Spend the Night Together from concerts in 2006 because the lyrics were deemed too risqué.

There has been a backlash against Dowd’s article, not just from devoted fans who feel Dylan can do no wrong, but by those who point out that Dylan never wanted the role of activist. He might have stormed off the set of the Ed Sullivan show when he was 22 because CBS wouldn’t let him sing Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, but in his memoir Chronicles he complained of being anointed as “the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, [and] the Czar of Dissent.” He had “very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of” and performing his message songs came to feel “like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat.” This is borne out in his playlists, which these days don’t include many protest songs.

What remained on the China playlist included songs that are still pretty subversive like Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and Ballad of a Thin Man. Blowin’ in the Wind was not only  performed live, it was used in a report on Chinese television.

The most vociferous responses attack Dowd’s armchair moralism. Many made the point that artists may choose to boycott China, but shouldn’t be expected to make inflammatory statements while on tour, especially when there’s the possibility of them backfiring. When Björk yelled “Tibet! Tibet!” after a performance of Declare Independence back in 2008, she not only angered the local audience but also caused a temporary ban on foreign musicians.

However flawed Dowd’s thesis, the fact remains that China’s human rights record is continually ignored as Western artists – just like their governments – clamber to get a slice of a huge new market. In the most recent EU Foreign Policy scorecard, one of the most successful policies was “agreement with China on standards and norms, [in] consumer protection,” but one of the least successful policy was dealing with “rule of law and human rights in China.”

There have been boycotts of states like Israel – most recently by artist Robert Ballagh – but debate hasn’t even started on artists’ response to the clampdown on colleagues in China. But maybe that too is armchair moralism. Best to leave the last word to Dylan.

 

Gonna change my way of thinking

Make myself a different set of rules

Gonna change my way of thinking

Make myself a different set of rules

Gonna put my good foot forward

And stop being influenced by fools

 

So much oppression

Can’t keep track of it no more

So much oppression

Can’t keep track of it no more

 

Published in Soundpost, Volume 9 No.2 Summer 2011