Bob Dylan's actual attachment to the political ideals he sings about has always been a little hazy; he's usually had some skeptics to balance out his fans. The sixty-nine-year-old's concert today in Beijing, however, may just have handed some serious material to the skeptics.
News came through in early March that Bob Dylan was to be allowed to perform in China for the first time. The protest songster perhaps isn't the most natural match for a country so keen on censorship. But who can blame a musician for trying to reach out?
Unfortunately, it looks a little bad when Dylan blithely performs for fans and no less than two thousand attendants produced by China's Ministry of Culture--which is very likely turning a profit on those seats, according to The Telegraph's Malcolm Moore--only days after artist Ai Weiwei was seized by the authorities, the most prominent dissident to be taken into custody in a recent crackdown. As Glenn Mott, managing editor at Hearst and former Fulbright lecturer in journalism at Tsinghua University tweeted prior to the concert: "bustin out Times They Are a-Changin & All Along The Watchtower? Or will it be 'I used to care, but things have changed.'"
Is it unfair to expect Dylan to mount a protest? Well, it certainly looks like a cave-in, given that the stumbling block on an earlier Dylan tour of China was reportedly the government's request that he sign "a pledge promising 'not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.'" It's not known if he signed that pledge this time, but either way, his first concert went off without hurting any government censors' feelings: The Telegraph's Malcolm Moore points out that he did "play Like A Rolling Stone but there was no The Times They Are A-Changin' or Blowin' in the Wind," those last two being probably his two most famous works, both potentially subversive.
Another unfortunate coincidence: as The Telegraph notes in a separate article, as Bob Dylan and China's Ministry of Culture rake in the cash, law scholars are meeting at Fordham University in New York to discuss the lyrics of Dylan's protest songs. It appears the long tradition of academics taking Dylan uber-seriously continues (see Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz's presumably proud inclusion of his post as "historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan's official website" on his Princeton bio).
It's worth remembering, too, that other musicians have taken a stand: though the Rolling Stones caved and cut songs from their program in 2006, Bjork chose "Declare Independence" as an encore in 2008, then crying "Tibet! Tibet!" to the audience. Dylan's music, the part he actually did play, will just have to speak for itself.