Dylan, Dowd, Bjork, and Beijing: More on Foreign Artists in China

Earlier today I mentioned that the on-scene reaction to Bob Dylan's recent concerts in China was quite different from the tut-tutting and "outrage" that many Americans were expressing  over Dylan's alleged sell-out to his Chinese paymasters.

Two further reactions from Westerners with long experience in China. First, from Luddy Harrison, who himself works as a musician in Beijing and whose musical partner is the Chinese singer/songwriter Pan Luoyi, 潘络绎. He contrasts Dylan's tour (and the recent Eagles concert I mentioned) to Bjork's Chinese concert tour a few years ago:

>>There's another aspect to this whole question, namely, what is in fact the most effective thing for a foreign performer to do, if they hope to increase openness and democracy in China? I was at Bjork's concert when she muttered 'Tibet' a few times in the encore. It was off-mic and hardly seemed courageous to me, in fact I couldn't make it out and didn't understand what had happened until I read the papers the next day.

But this much I am sure of because I experienced it on the ground: the reaction was for the government to shut down visiting Western performers almost altogether, and to notch up the pressure on foreigners in the Chinese music business (i.e., expat musicians). About a year later Ticketmaster left China. If it's fair to evaluate an action by its results, then any fair assessment of what Bjork did would have to conclude that it didn't work, to say the least. It backfired. (Reuters photo from the tour below.)


It has been the steady stream of relatively quiet concerts by artists who come to China, touch their audiences and then leave that, over time, have made the Chinese music audience aware that there is an enormous difference between the sanitized fluff they are served up locally and the music that comes from abroad. The Eagles with their dated pop tunes probably did more to nudge the door open than Bjork with her "courageous gesture".

A final point: it ought not to be the case that every artist in the world should have to turn from the proper subject matter of their art, whatever it is that inspires them to create, to politics or revolution or agitation for democracy instead. This is unfair to art and to artists. Some like [the recently detained] Ai Weiwei may naturally feel that democracy in China is the subject matter of their art and the purpose of their life. Others naturally don't (thank goodness). I don't much like the idea of setting up the idea that every performer who comes to China should challenge the government overtly from the stage! It's not only a counterproductive thing to do, it's not very good art or music either.<<

Below and after the jump from Glenn Mott of Hearst, who recently spent a year in Beijing as a Fulbright scholar and now is in Hong Kong:

>>I flew up from Hong Kong for the concert. A young woman sitting next to me at Worker's Gymnasium held a short stack of paper on her lap. She was busy reading through and annotating these when I found my seat. She said she was a 22 year old student from Jilin Province studying in Beijing. Slender and stylish with Northern features and hair like Joey Ramone, she'd come alone, paying 480 quai [about $75] for her ticket. She asked me if I thought Dylan was going to play any "vintage" songs.
Vintage? You know, like "Blowin' in the Wind." I asked to have a look at the lyrics she printed out. Yup, vintage Dylan from the first albums, mostly Freewhellin' and The Times They Are a-Changin'. I told her in my experience he rarely played these in a way that wasn't truly conceptual--though I've heard him sing straight renditions of "Tambourine Man," and he did "Blowin' In The Wind" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn a couple years ago (which rocked the Park Slope radicals).

Then, underneath these sheets of paper I saw that she'd printed several pages of prose. Asked what these were she showed me MLK's "I have a dream" speech. Why did she bring it? Because I just like it, she said.

Was she disappointed that I had to name each song for her as Dylan sang it? Or that she couldn't recognize any of the lyrics as English--a combination of bad acoustics on top of Dylan's vocal styling? It was historic, she said. Bob Dylan in China doing his own work. He wasn't trying to make nothing out of something.

But for those like Maureen Dowd who want their "protest" songs, there is a famous franchise bar in the Gongti [Worker's Stadium] parking lot, which after the concert was playing "Blowin' in the Wind" over loudspeakers to shill their tapes.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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