Dowd on Dylan in the PRC

As controversy and news coverage over Bob Dylan’s recent performances in the PRC die down, I thought I’d contribute a little perspective from someone on the ground on the show… and one very skewed, but very interesting, piece of coverage.

Let me start out by saying that I didn’t even want to go to Dylan’s Beijing show. I saw him perform around ten years ago, and he wasn’t that great then; I’d heard that in the years since, he’s only gotten worse. Plus, the cheapest tickets we could find were almost 500 kuai. For those of you who don’t deal in Maos, 500 RMB = 75 USD = 1/3 of my monthly rent = 83.33 bowls of noodles. But I’m a sucker, and so I went.

It was probably the worst show I’ve ever seen – not because Dylan didn’t sing some of his best-known protest songs, and not because he failed to rally the 6,000-strong crowd over the detention of well-known artist and political prisoner Ai Wei Wei. It was because the sound sucked. And our seats sucked. And some guy pretending to work at the venue ran off with our tickets.

It may have been an event of huge international cultural and political importance – but it was also the most boring concert I’ve ever seen. The sound was so low we could barely hear anything, a situation made worse by Dylan’s nearly non-existent vocal range (he didn’t so much sing as he did yell his way through the songs). Hits like “Tangled Up in Blue” roused a few cheers, along with some anemic clapping-along that petered out a few measures in. When the show finally ended, my companion and I breathed a sigh of relief. “God that was boring,” I said. “Yeah,” he answered. “Let’s go get some food.”

In other words, for us, it was kind of a non-event. Which is why I was surprised when I logged onto the New York Times a few days ago and read Maureen Dowd’s idiotic new column about how Bob Dylan is a giant sellout for not inciting revolution during his recent performance in Beijing. What could be more Sinosploitative than that? She writes:

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 — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.

I guess since Thomas Friedman was off today, someone had to spew a little Sino-ignorance all over the NYT’s Opinion Pages…

Defenses of Dylan in the comment section seemed mainly to revolve around the recurring ideas that “well, Dylan never wanted to be a revolutionary” and “hey, we all gotta make a living somehow, right?”

What was missing from the discussion was a real understanding of how protest works (or doesn’t work) in China. The problem here is not that Dylan missed an opportunity to make a statement, but that there was never an opportunity in the first place. The notion that Dylan should have – even could have – whipped out a little of the sixties revolutionary spirit in 21st-century China, and in this way made a statement, is beyond absurd. The significance of such an act not only would’ve been lost on the crowd (which, according to various articles, was only vaguely aware of Dylan’s cultural significance), but it would’ve incited a government crackdown like the one that followed Bjork’s misguided mention of Tibet during a show here two years ago.

Local musician Luddy Harrison makes the point effectively in a post on James Fallows’ blog, mentioning a crucial point that most other respondents missed: namely, that there is nothing courageous or effective about the course of action that Dowd suggests:

There’s another aspect to this whole question, namely, what is in fact the most effective thing for a foreign performer to do, if they hope to increase openness and democracy in China? I was at Bjork’s concert when she muttered ‘Tibet’ a few times in the encore. It was off-mic and hardly seemed courageous to me, in fact I couldn’t make it out and didn’t understand what had happened until I read the papers the next day.

While I don’t want to say that protest in China is pointless, for Chinese it is dangerous and largely ineffective. For famous, privileged Westerners, it’s beyond ineffective – it’s pure vanity. Nobody’s going to throw Bjork or Bob Dylan in a secret Chinese prison for twenty years. They’ll make their “statement” and be on their merry way, while back in China, we won’t see another big Western act for years.

But Dowd, I reckon, isn’t interested in the reality of the situation here in China. Nor does she seem particularly interested in the reality of Dylan as a performer, who (despite his lyrics) has no interest in serving as a moral beacon or revolutionary. She’s interested in the symbology of the event – one in which the Chinese government is a monster, the public are a huddled mass, yearning for freedom, and Bob is an ambassador of American freedom.

There’s been tons of coverage of the Dylan show. On the [English-speaking] Chinese side is government mouthpiece, The Global Times, which printed an amusing analysis of the cultural significance of Bob Dylan (or lack thereof) in China. Best of all are the translated song titles on page 2. Predictably, after the show they printed an overly optimistic review of the concert.

The L.A. Times, by contrast, relayed a factual account that focused on the political implications of the performance.

James Fallows at the Atlantic showed remarkable restraint in a recent post entitled “Dylan, Dowd, and China: Did Bob Really Sell Out?”  He then diplomatically steps back and allows his friends to answer the question. Reading between the lines, the answer is “no” and “Dowd has no idea what she’s talking about.”

More recently, The Nation and Huffington Post both offered rebuttals to Dowd’s article, though more on the basis of Dylan’s artistic integrity and complexity than on Dowd’s complete ignorance of the circumstances in China.

My favorite quote of all the articles I read was from Bob Dylan expert Sean Wilentz, who tried to convince Dowd she was making a mistake writing the article:

Whatever the facts are, Dylan knows very well — as I tried to tell Dowd when she interviewed me for her column — that his music long ago became uncensorable. Subversive thoughts aren’t limited to his blatant protest songs of long ago. Nor would his political songs from the early nineteen-sixties have made much sense in China in 2011. Dowd, like Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” is as clueless about all of this as she is smug.
哈哈 – indeed.

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