I'm not the first to point out that Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, has a dubious take on Bob Dylan's recent concerts in China. Much has been made of the fact that Dylan received approval to play in China only after the "content" of the shows had been approved—presumably, the setlists. (Here's the official statement.) Dowd professes to be outraged that Dylan failed to defy the regime with a string of protest songs. 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." She then asks why Dylan didn't offer "Hurricane," a tale of a man falsely accused, alongside comments about the detention of Ai Weiwei. She seems to assume that Dylan was barred from singing such songs, although I have yet to see evidence that the authorities asked for changes before approving the setlists, which included "Desolation Row," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
Let's recall that in 2008, at a concert in Shanghai, Björk caused a major controversy by shouting "Tibet! Tibet!" after a performance of "Declare Independence." It was a brave gesture, but the aftermath was frightening, and it led to a temporary ban on foreign musical acts. You can ask whether musicians should now be refusing to play in the PRC, but to expect an artist to issue incendiary statements while on tour is the worst sort of armchair moralism. In any case, Dylan almost never makes topical comments from the stage, and the notion that he would launch into a critique of the Chinese regime will amuse anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to him in the past twenty years. As for those protest anthems, they don't figure strongly on Dylan's setlists these days — here is an index of the songs he sang last year — and, as Adam Minter points out, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind" wouldn't have been very relevant to the Chinese situation even if Dylan had trotted them out. ("Come senators, congressmen / Please heed the call"?) Indeed, their residual Popular Front stylings might have been something of a comfort to the Party elders. Rather more unnerving, in the present climate, would have been a number from Dylan's sizeable religious catalogue. Strange to say, that's what he offered, at the beginning of each of his Chinese shows: "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." The current version of the song includes these lines:
Jesus is coming
Coming back to gather his jewels
We're living by the golden rule
Whoever's got the gold rules
You'd almost think it was a deliberate gesture. Then again, Bob began his last show of 2010 — at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut — with the same song.
Update: Ulysses Stone attended both Chinese shows and has a passionate report. He also points out that the last time Dylan performed "Hurricane" was in 1976. There are many more reactions at Expecting Rain. Further undermining Dowd's thesis is the fact that "Blowin' in the Wind" was featured in a report on Chinese state TV. If Dylan had played it in Beijing, the apparatchiks would probably have smiled and nodded along.