For cautious cadres, the times they are a-changin'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Throughout history, artists have been inspired by the big social and political issues of their era and have articulated the mood of the people in their work. Musicians in particular, with their popular appeal, have often provided emotive soundtracks to the spirit of the times. Bob Dylan, who captured the civil-rights and anti-war sentiment of the 1960s, is arguably the most famous of these. However, such popular expressions of dissent and rebellion have not always been welcomed in China. Cui Jian, often referred to as 'the father of Chinese rock', has had a career path littered with obstacles since his song Nothing To My Name became the unofficial anthem of Chinese youth in the lead-up to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. When Bjork sang 'Tibet, Tibet' at the end of her song Declare Independence, the Ministry of Culture appeared to begin scrutinising performers more closely. As a result, a number of planned concerts, including some by Dylan last year, were cancelled.

However, in spite of Beijing's anxiety over the 'jasmine revolutions' that swept autocrats from power in Tunisia and Egypt, Dylan has been given clearance to perform in Beijing and Shanghai next month. It is not known which songs he will sing, but many of his compositions contain political metaphors. Indeed, the existential anguish of one of his most famous songs, Like A Rolling Stone, in which he famously sings to his audience, 'how does it feel', has a similar emotional tone to the song that caused Cui Jian trouble. And let's not forget Dylan penned The Times They Are a-Changin' as an anthem for change.

Hopefully, the decision to allow Dylan to perform was made with full knowledge of his lyrics, and the understanding that while artists can capture the mood and articulate the desire for change, they are not themselves the source of discontent. Such songs or other artistic forms merely give expression to such discontent. People call for change because they feel a real sense of social injustice or suffer real economic hardship, not because they listened to a song. Perhaps the Chinese government now realises its efforts to muzzle singers are better directed at the sources of the discontent they give voice to.