Bob Dylan in China

This week Bob Dylan played his first gig in China. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, in a very poorly thought-out opinion piece, is upset with him for “selling out,” as uptight people of all persuasions have been for the last 48 years:

Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China on Wednesday at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he… let the government pre-approve his set.

Iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” wouldn’t have been an appropriate soundtrack for the 2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression…

Maybe the songwriter should reread some of his own lyrics: “I think you will find / When your death takes its toll / All the money you made / Will never buy back your soul.”

He's sure got a lotta gall / To be so useless an' all

Really? Dylan is not the Secretary of State. He’s a musician. Gawker nailed it with their headline: “Maureen Dowd Mad that Bob Dylan Didn’t Overthrow Chinese Government.”

In any case, the songs he did play in Beijing were mostly better than “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Even the first song he played, the mediocre gospel-era “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” contains these lines:

Gonna put my good foot forward / And stop being influenced by fools / So much oppression / Can’t keep track of it no more

Which, if you’re looking for an anti-authoritarian message in lyrics, comes a lot closer than “the times they are a-changin’”. The times are always changin’. That’s what time is.

There’s a lot more to say against this article, but the excellent Sean Wilentz has done it already, over at The New Yorker, and I will leave you with his main point:

Dylan learned long ago that he is not a particularly good conventional political spokesman. His gifts lie elsewhere, in composing and singing songs of love and loss and the rest of human experience, above and beyond politics, although politics is always there as well.