Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to the Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed “strictly according to an approved programme.”
That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”
The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number-one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”
But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing, starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to.
He also sang “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I would say that carries a pretty strong political charge.
And he sang “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” If you were looking for critical commentary on China today, this would work.
Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian who wrote Bob Dylan in America, says the people charging “sellout” are “clueless.” “Apparently, unless Dylan performs according to a politically-correct line, he is corrupt, even immoral,” Wilentz wrote at The New Yorker blog. “He is not allowed to be an artist, he must be an agitator. And he can only be an agitator if he sings particular songs.”
And besides, Wilentz says, there’s no real evidence the Chinese ever told him not to sing “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All we know is that, like all foreigners seeking to perform in China, his appearance was approved by the culture ministry.
It’s true that Dylan did not follow the example of Bjork, who chanted “Tibet! Tibet!” at her concert in Shanghai in 2008. Maureen Dowd says Dylan in Beijing should have done something similar, like speaking out in defense of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and architect who has been arrested.
But “to demand that an artist make an incendiary statement is the worst kind of armchair moralizing,” Wilentz said in an interview on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. “And what was the result of Bjork doing that? Foreign acts were not allowed into China for a long time. And it didn’t help Tibet. I don’t think anything Bob Dylan could have said onstage would have helped Ai WeiWei. But the songs he sang were about the kinds of oppression we live with, the kinds of difficulties that are out there—political, and not political. That’s what he does.”