Whether or not Bob Dylan sold out by playing a pre-approved set list in Beijing is beside the point.
For one thing, he didn’t. Dylan did in Beijing – and later Ho Chi Minh City— what he’s been doing for decades. Which is to play a set made up of old and new songs, to rarely speak to the audience aside from introducing the band and to hit the road when he’s done. A day’s work.
According to many indignant commentators, however – Maureen Dowd leading the pack – Dylan has committed nothing short of the ultimate sell out, in allowing the Chinese authorities to censor his set list. This is disappointing, for sure, but it isn’t tantamount to Bob Dylan selling his soul.
The fact that he is perceived by many to still carry the torch of protest – as well as the fact that his performances in China have coincided with the very troubling detainment of artist Ai Weiwei – has added to fuel to the media’s frenzy.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, for as much as Dylan is associated with the anti-establishment 1960s, he really isn’t all that political. The king of the protest song was a persona he took on for a brief period of time and wasn’t one that he ever fully owned even then. It was merely the first of many masks he has worn over the course of his lengthy career as a working musician.
He says as much himself, as Dowd cited in her weekend oped: “I never saw myself as a folksinger. They called me that if they wanted to. I didn’t care ... I became interested in folk music because I had to make it somehow.”
For a long time, Dylan’s basically been the guy who will play anywhere – including the state fair circuit in the U.S. – why not China, if there’s a buck to be made?
And that right there is the point: the buck. What these concerts are a marker of more than anything else is China’s economic rise, which is hardly a news flash in and of itself.
Over the past three decades, the Chinese economy has grown around 10 percent annually –which is a lot. China accounted for about one-quarter of global growth between 2000 and 2009, edging out the U.S. for the top spot. Today, it is is the largest exporter of goods in the world.
In other words, people in China and Vietnam now have some money in their pockets – well, some people do – and they are willing to spend that money on going to see a big Western rock star sing and dance – well, sing.
In summation: Bob was doing his thing. Asia’s on the map. Western media is having trouble getting to the point.