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Bob Dylan in China

His disappointing, hypocritical concert.

In memory of Farah Ebrahimi. 

Times are indeed a-changing: Bob Dylan, who became an American icon by “speaking truth to power,” just gave a concert in China, one of the most repressive countries in the world. While there, Dylan not only failed to express solidarity with the Chinese dissidents in jail; according to The Washington Post, he also agreed to perform only “approved content.” 

The scenario becomes even more ironic when you consider that, while Bob Dylan sang “Love Sick” in mainland China, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, a potential Republican nominee for president, spoke in his farewell address about the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and others. He added, “The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur.” The problem is not that Dylan should not sing his love songs in China; rather, the problem is that Dylan was just fine morphing into Barry Manilow in Beijing, when he was his old self just three days prior in Taiwan, signing “Desolation Row” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” 

Artists are only human. They have many sides to them, they can be fickle, and they are mortal. What endures is not the singer but the song. Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence. 

Some may say in defense of Dylan in China that age mellows us. I agree age does or should do this, and that it can also make us more self-consciously aware and critical of ourselves. It is also true that too much fame and power, too much wealth, can change our attitudes toward the principles we once believed in. But, for some, age, fame, power, and wealth can be means to becoming more humane and to helping others find their voice. Take Joan Baez, for example, who, in maturity, has changed and grown wiser, but not lost her passion, her commitment to justice and kindness. 

Thinking of Joan Baez, one feels grateful and hopeful that certain things in life will not be changing with the times. Yet Bob Dylan, who always had a cynicism and aloofness that Baez did not, seems to have lost something with age. In China, he seems to have struck out against his own songs, his creations. The result? A disappointing and hypocritical show—one that makes me yearn for the Dylan we once knew. 

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books and Things I Have Been Silent About. She is a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.