It’s said the role of an artist is to hold a mirror to society. But not everyone appreciates a critic. That was certainly the case when Richard Nixon tried to have John Lennon deported for speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1972. Many assumed something similar might overcome Bob Dylan’s attempts to play in China next month. But against all odds, the Ministry of Culture has given its go-ahead to a performance from the sixties icon.
The decision, while welcomed by Dylan fans in Beijing and Shanghai, has surprised WiC. After all, previous requests to perform were turned down, reportedly because his songs were too anti-establishment. The upside for whichever official signed off on the Dylan show is decidedly limited. If the folk singer does decide to make a political gesture on stage – such as a reference to the highly sensitive topic of the uprisings in the Middle East – it could cost the functionary his job.
It has become easier for foreign bands to tour China since Wham’s groundbreaking gigs in 1985 (Wham’s manager was taking officials to lunch for two years before he got the green light). But permission can still be hard to come by, especially after Icelandic pop star Björk made politically taboo comments during a 2008 concert. British group Oasis had their own tours cancelled the following year over similar concerns.
One weibo contributor, ‘Haizi’, reckons the Ministry of Culture will have spent more than a month deciphering Dylan’s lyrics to see if there was much likely to offend. Presumably officials won’t have failed to notice that his most popular songs have political messages – from the anti-war classic Blowin’ in the Wind to the counterculture anthem The Times They Are A-Changin’. Perhaps it helped that Dylan isn’t that well known in China. “I think Dylan’s music has had little influence on Chinese rock,” music writer Wang Xiaofeng said in an interview with Beijing News, “[it] is very different from the way we know the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”. He’s so little known, in fact, that when the news of next month’s concert broke, some newspapers mistakenly posted photos of Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson, according to Life Style magazine.
Of course, Dylan is not without fans entirely. “From my childhood to now he has been my biggest idol,” rocker Wang Feng wrote on his weibo, “I still remember my excitement hearing him sing Like a Rollin’ Stone when I was 19.” ‘Laoruizi’ agreed: “If there had never been Bob, what would rock be like?”
For some concertgoers, seeing a world-famous artist perform will be reason enough to buy a ticket. But could part of the appeal be the chance to see him go off script – perhaps between songs?
Bob Dylan is playing April 6 in Beijing and April 8 in Shanghai.
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