Operas are usually dramatic, to say the least. There are songs of emotional torment, followed by florid suicide scenes, followed by songs of emotional torment over florid suicides. In 1987 composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman premiered their opera, “Nixon in China,” which used Nixon’s “opening” of China as the storyline for a new opera that Adams saw as “part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing.”
On April 6 singer and songwriter Bob Dylan appeared in concert in China for the first time. It seems that some felt that Dylan’s appearance should have had some of the elements Adams ascribed to his work, and more of that classic opera drama. Alas, it appears that “Zimmy” simply showed up and did his professional job, and then went home. But in the crushed expectations of those taking Dylan to task for not somehow providing a more transcendent moment in China, maybe we are provided with a transcendent moment of another sort.
The highest profile Dylan-in-China basher might have been New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who turned her gaze away from a planet on fire with rioting and war to take a 69 year-old folk singer to task for not singing the right “anthems” while he was inside a “dictatorship.” Dylan allowed Chinese officials to pre-approve his set list of songs, and Dowd says this means that Dylan has “broken new ground in selling out.” Later she turns Dylan’s own lyrics on him, implying that “All the money you made / will never buy back your soul.” Thanks, Ms. Dowd. We now have our emotional torment, or at least, yours.
There’s so much to contemplate in the expectation that Bob Dylan must carry a specific message into China that I’m not certain I’ll give Dowd’s angst proper consideration here. But let’s start with the general notion that because Bob Dylan authored certain works of gripping beauty at the time of the American Civil Rights movement, he somehow disappoints us when he doesn’t perform those specific works in the China of today. And Dowd was clearly disappointed, citing Dylan’s “whole new kind of sellout” as worse than “Usher crooning to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.”
Full disclosure: I was absorbed with Dylan in my college years and fairly studied the guy in the books available then. That culminated in hitch-hiking to Hibbing, Minnesota with a roommate to see Dylan’s hometown. So I feel I can speak with some credibility on Dylan’s roots. In high school, Dylan wanted to be Little Richard. He allegedly broke the pedal off of a school upright piano in an attempt to get more sound out of it during a student talent show. It was always going to be about rock music.
But when Dylan arrived at college, he quickly assessed the situation: Folk music is what “goes over” right now. And he didn’t need to gather a band. He bought a harmonica holder and started writing songs. Not to take all the romance out of the music of our lives, but Dylan made a business decision. An impressive number of those folk songs turned out to be truly great, with melodies that stayed in mind and messages that hit the center of the storm. At the time Bob Dylan was crafting careful and meaningful poetry meshed to melody, most Americans were listening to the Beach Boys, Leslie Gore, Al Martino, and Bobby Vinton. Skeeter Davis had a big hit right around the time of “Blowing in the Wind” with “The End of the World, ”although it was hardly the nuclear-blasted end Dylan’s emerging constituency would later contemplate.
Dylan, especially these days, might be the first to tell you that he’s never seen himself as all that different from Skeeter Davis. And Davis was no pushover. In 1973, during a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, Davis dedicated a gospel song to street evangelists arrested by Nashville police. America was divided during those last days of the Nixon administration, and The Grand Ole Opry had conservative management. Thanks to her “political” commentary, Davis was suspended from the Opry. We’ll never know if she would have stood up to interference with her set list in China.
Dylan has never accepted that he has a role he must play. But as an artist, and not just a building contractor or advance man for KFC, did Dylan have an obligation to create a confrontation between his most inspiring work and the political reality of China?
There are creative people who view all of their output as an opportunity to say something. And it’s not unexpected that we hold those artists to a higher standard than, say, the writers at any animation factory turning out the third or fourth sequel of a once-charming idea. But I believe Dylan created a significant event simply by performing in China, and further that he acknowledged the complexity of his world view in defying any one categorization of his appearance. Maybe the man feels that as an American he has no business lecturing other countries right now in light of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, or the cupidity represented by the Gulf oil spill. And that would be very different from Maureen Dowd, who feels there’s no problem taking time off from any number of serious crisis situations to hector Bob Dylan in the New York Times, for which she will be handsomely paid.