Most of last week's news cycle was consumed with the last minute averting of a government shutdown. But did you know that while all of this was happening, Maureen Dowd was yelling at Bob Dylan for blowing our best chance to finally shame China into doing something about its terrible record on human rights? It's all shocking and true.
This past Saturday, Maureen Dowd complained [MEMO TO LEGAL: Does the phrase "Maureen Dowd complained" infringe on a New York Times copyright?] that American folk hero Bob Dylan -- who had previously delivered the most haunting Victoria's Secret commercial ever made -- was a straight up "sell out." Dylan's misstep? He performed two concerts in China and utterly failed to play "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind" -- two songs whose radical use of the dropped-g form of the present participle would have touched off a human rights revolution throughout China. According to a similar report, the shows were attended by "a large percentage of foreigners, members of Beijing's expatriate community and many of them baby boomers who grew up with Dylan's music," but who evidently have not done a good job themselves taking Dylan's message out into the hinterlands to reform China from within.
So it fell to Dylan himself to take his message to those few Chinese that were in attendance, no doubt to be further indoctrinated by the Chinese government, subliminally, through the song "Tangled Up In Blue." Per Dowd:
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.
Spooked by the surge of democracy sweeping the Middle East, China is conducting the harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade. It is censoring (or "harmonizing," as it euphemizes) the Internet and dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei, the famous artist and architect of the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic stadium.
Dylan said nothing about Weiwei's detention, didn't offer a reprise of "Hurricane," his song about "the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done." He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.
The power of these two pieces of music can not be understated. Just last year, the hand-written lyrics of "The Times They Are a-Changin'" were bought at auction for $422,500 by a hedge fund manager, and I think we can all agree that the subsequent viral reforms of the financial industry were near-instantaneous.
So, Dylan: what an a-hole, right? Well, not so fast. I'm nobody's example of a Dylanologist, but my limited experience has taught me that it's impossible to believe that you can remove the essential Dylan-ness from an hour of his music. So the first thing I did was check in with an actual Dylan fan, Peter Feld, who sent me off to James Fallows, and what do you know? It turns out that Dowd basically doesn't know what she's talking about:
Many of my Chinese and Western friends, writing from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Nanjing, are wroth about Dowd and what they call her misunderstanding of Dylan, China, and the current alarming wave of crackdowns there [...]
Jeremiah Jenne, a Chinese-speaker and long-time resident of Beijing who covered the actual "Jasmine Protests" in Beijing in a stint as guest blogger here, says in his Jottings from the Granite Studio that "there has been a rash of increasingly unrealistic drivel [about Dylan] from the foreign press, culminating yesterday in a truly moronic piece by Maureen Dowd." Jenne pointed out that one of the numbers Dylan sang in Beijing, "a corrosive version of All Along the Watchtower, ain't exactly bubble gum pop. Coming on the heels of an epic Ballad of a Thin Man (in which Bob stood in a yellow spotlight at center stage, staring down the crowd like a carnival barker at the gates of Hell, literally snarling lyrics like "But something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?") it's hard to complain that Bob was toning it down."
Go read that whole thing if you want to see the value in knowing the actual lyrics to Bob Dylan's actual songs. And then go read Sean Wilentz in the New Yorker, who evidently attempted to convince Dowd that she was making a huge mistake:
I don't know exactly what Dylan did or did not agree to. (I don't think Dowd does, either.) But 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.
What can I say? I guess some people just want to hear the hits.