Jon Wiener: Bob Dylan in Beijing: No Sellout





[Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble.]

Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to The Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed "strictly according to an approved programme."

That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin,’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”

The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”

But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing, starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner's face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to....


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