Saturday, April 30, 2011

Skeptic Alert: Did Dylan Self-Censor in China? (Off-Topic Weekend Post)

I don't even know why we come. Goin' back where we come from.
 “Oxford Town”

We live in a world of abundant information. I am highly suspicious of the belief that quantity is even faintly correlated with quality. My skepticism is often proven to be well placed. I don’t know how it happens that some stories travel around the world at the speed of light, but somehow they just become omnipresent, especially during slow news cycles. One instance was last week’s insistent reporting that Bob Dylan had his first gig in China and that he played a censored set. “A little disappointing,” was my first reaction as a well-informed fan, “but not surprising.” The relations between Dylan and political commitments are highly complex. This was probably another episode of a great artist’s five-decade long escape from easy categorization.

But then I recalled Dylan’s steady drift away from the left in the 1960s. One thing I always found unsettling about the reaction by folkie purists to his initial dalliances with rock’n’roll was the piousness of the complaints that he was betraying some sort of commitment he had made to become the voice of civil rights or the liberal left or whatever. He was barely twenty-two, with just two albums behind him and already critics had decided what sort of music he had to play. That is why, in my view, the turn to the electric guitar and the move away from folk was not only logical but a way to escape from a creepy-folkie-lefty religious cult.

Was this same piety rearing its ugly head half a century later as everyone tut-tutted the “censored” setlist? The doubt lingered as I went about my daily business. But then I stumbled upon some of the news articles about the event. The most “significant” absence from the setlist that most reporters noted was “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” cited as practically the only evidence of self-censorship:

New York Times:
Though he stayed away from songs with obvious protest messages, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Mr. Dylan played “All Along the Watchtower”…
L.A. Times:
His performance doesn't include 'The Times They Are A-Changin' or 'Blowin' in the Wind.'
Famous for his songs against injustice and for civil liberties and pacifism, Dylan struck a cautious line in Beijing and did not sing anything that might have overtly offended China's Communist rulers, like "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

And then my niggling doubt turned into a raging whirlwind of skepticism. First of all, Dylan’s corpus is huge. We are talking about hundreds of songs. Dylan himself has bragged that he has left out of his albums more material than most artists record in a lifetime, and the nine volumes (and counting) of “bootlegs” bears this out with a vengeance (his website lists 458 songs that have been “released,” but that figure includes several lyrics not written by him). So picking out the absence of one or two songs out of a twelve or fourteen song setlist and extrapolating conclusions from that is hazardous, at best.

That led me to poke around the Internet a little and I must confess that I was amazed by the sheer mountain of information that spilled out after a little absent-minded googling. Dylan’s own website has a wealth of information, including (amazingly) the exact dates and number of times that he has played every single one of his songs in every single concert. Perfect. If the exclusion of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is meaningful (i.e., due to censorship), it would make sense that it is a part of his regular repertoire.

However, reality fits the censorship narrative less easily than one might expect. The data on indicates that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (unambiguously a protest song) has been off and on a part of his repertoire throughout the decades (637 plays), well ahead of other civil-rights protest songs. For instance, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (one of my favorites) has only received 272 plays in live gigs over five decades. To take another example, a song that features prominently in the Dylan legend, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (about the white supremacist who killed NAACP organizer Medgar Evers) has only been played eight times (the last time was way back in October 10, 1964). Even more surprisingly, Dylan only played “The Death of Emmet Till” in public once, a whopping forty-nine years ago in Montreal, on July 2, 1962.

OK, so far so good for the censorship narrative. The problem is that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” abruptly fell off the recurring setlist almost two years ago. The last time Dylan and his band played it publicly was two years ago, in Fresno, California, on August 14, 2009. Ergo, its absence can hardly be attributed to Chinese censors. 

The hacks would have been on firmer footing if they had focused on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” First of all, it is also unambiguously a protest song, a “get up and do something now” call to political action (albeit more wistful and allusive). Secondly, it is only one of a handful of Dylan songs that have featured more than 1,000 times in the live repertoire (1,027 times). Thirdly, it has been played by Dylan and his band much more recently. It showed up consistently in live concerts as recently as 2010.

Crucially, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was not heard in Beijing. However, it did show up in the gig that immediately preceded Beijing, which was held in a very significant place. Dylan chose to perform this bona fide protest song about oppression in none other than Taipei, the capital of a free country where presumably censorship was not a factor.

So was the Taipei list the setlist that Dylan would have rocked in Beijing if the censors hadn’t stepped in? Was he sending a sly message to democracy activists, the detained artist Ai Wei Wei or people working for Tibetan independence? Beats me. Trying to come to facile conclusions about what artists try to communicate through their art, or in this case, through meta-musical elements like a setlist, is tricky. And in this episode the evidence is mixed, at best. After all, the Beijing set included one hard-core Christian-themed lyric, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking,” which includes these verses:
Jesus said, ‘Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come’
He said, ‘He who is not for Me is against Me’
Just so you know where He’s coming from.
And all this in a country where, if I understand correctly, religions such as Catholicism and the Falun Gong are actively persecuted.

To which one must add one salient fact that even Rolling Stone overlooked: Bob Dylan is a strange and unpredictable man.

When he was invited to the concerts to fight the Ethiopian famines, he took advantage of the spotlight to call for a set of similar concerts to help out farmers (a noble sentiment, albeit slightly out of place). Then there was his speech while receiving the Tom Paine Award in the sixties, when he insulted the people giving him the award for being old and made cryptic remarks about Lee Harvey Oswald. My favorite anecdote is when the first Traveling Wilburys album was being recorded in his home in the eighties. Instead of being excited about the project, he apparently grumbled continuously about the expense of having to feed “all those people.” And just watch those press conferences where he runs rings around reporters with half-smugness and half-contempt. Let’s face it. Dylan is a weird dude. And he doesn’t like explaining himself. You just have to take him as he is: “But my heart is telling me, I love ya but you’re strange.

The interesting thing for me is how shaky information gets around at the speed of light. One nugget that would have given this pseudo-story a little more oomph would have been confirmation that the setlist was actually dictated by Chinese censors. To sort of get to the bottom of this, I had to make several hypertext jumps before arriving at a piece from The Irish Times. It is a very well-written article and, I suspect, the source of the censorship hullabaloo, since it is the only one written by a reporter who was actually at the concert. The author reports that:
The ministry of culture reportedly snapped up 2,000 of the 18,000 seats. The set list had been strictly vetted to make sure there were no songs that could be interpreted as a message to Ai or as supportive of the “jasmine revolutions” sweeping the Middle East.
Which I find a little strange. The ministry of culture “reportedly” bought 2,000 seats and also censored the show? Oh, well. Who exactly is the source for the datum that the Orwellian bureaucrats approved the list of songs? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

Ultimately, I think the entire story is plausible but rests on shakier foundations than (mostly second-hand) articles reported with bated breath. All in all, the entire episode reveals more about lingering Romantic views of art than about Dylan or China. The idea of the divinely inspired poet-troubadour who unleashes a revolution with his immortal words remains alive and well. That is not to say that art doesn’t matter. And Dylan, at his age and with his standing, surely could afford to make a couple of waves. But has anyone actually claimed that the average Chinese netizen doesn’t have access at the click of a mouse to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and thousands of songs that are perhaps more subversive?

I think the Irish Times correspondent is on firmer ground when he very vividly depicts the social ambience of Dylan’s first Chinese gig:
It was bumper-to-bumper sports-utility vehicles and white BMWs outside the Workers’ Gymnasium as China’s new rich arrived to see the world’s most famous protest singer, Bob Dylan, make his debut in China.
Ah, music is business. It’s only rock’n’roll, after all. The nouveau riche of Beijing came out to listen to a dimly known American legend whose best work was produced while their country was undergoing the hurricane of the Cultural Revolution. Even the English-speaking reporter had trouble understanding the lyrics of the septuagenarian’s "catarrhal death rattle." In a world where the self-immolation of a fruit vendor can topple governments, perhaps the Chinese would have been wise to censor the setlist. But it is a little childish to believe that even the most powerful lyrics would have created more than a ripple before an audience of eighteen thousand in the most populous country in the world. And, believe you me, it’ll take a teensy bit more than “Blowin’ in the Wind” to spring Ai Wei Wei from prison.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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