How Does it Feel? - Dylan in China

Turntable image by Johnny Magnusson via WikiCommons

Turntable image by Johnny Magnusson via WikiCommons

Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote yesterday about the reasons behind the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissenting voices. It comes at a time of widespread criticism of 69 year-old singer-songwriter Bob Dylan following his first appearance in mainland China. Dylan was happy to have his set list vetted by government officials anxious to avoid a show of political dissent by one of the leading figures of the 60s counter-cultural movement. According to one report, there were worries he’d try to protest the arrest of Ai Weiwei. Here’s a review of the concert.

The anti-Dylan critics have not spared him their vitriol - Azar Nafisi accused him of hypocrisy. Maureen Dowd vented her spleen at Dylan in a widely reprinted op-ed column: “The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout,” she wrote. Her column generated much online noise, such as here, here and here. Here’s an especially interesting one with good background on the crackdown.

The affair has also provoked discussion on what exactly Dylan’s political position might be. As Charles Saar Murray pointed out in The Observer, Dylan was never entirely comfortable with the way he was co-opted as radical baby-boomers' voice of choice: “The notion of Dylan as a hardcore political activist and polemicist, or as a dyed-in-the-wool man of the left, is not only antiquated but was essentially erroneous even in the early 60s.”

Anyone who’s ever seen Dylan live will agree with a telling point made by The Guardian’s Mark Lawson: “his renditions are now so idiosyncratic and his inter-number mumbling so impenetrable that it remains entirely possible that he performed both of his most famous protest songs, and made an impassioned plea for the release of Ai Weiwei, without either Chinese censors or audience noticing.”

But we can’t help but wonder: what if Dylan knew exactly what he was doing? What if he decided that the power of poetry is potentially more seditious - in a slow-burn kind of way - than any short-term grandstanding? It seems appropriate to end with what a young Chinese man who attended the concert made of it all: “People say he’s out of date, but he has experience and wisdom. He’s a sheng ren – a sage, like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King.”

Update: Here’s a report on Dylan in Australia in which he describes being in Australia as “like a feeling where the windows are closed and you can’t open them”. Oh Bob, you ol' charmer you.

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