After 50 years of performing, Bob Dylan finally received a stamp of approval from the Chinese Culture Ministry and made his first Chinese stage appearance in Beijing Wednesday.
Dylan, who has been refused and had Chinese tour dates canceled in the past, played under a stipulation that he only performed approved content. In front of a 5,000-person crowd at the Worker’s Gymnasium, the 69-year old singer-songwriter croaked out a 17-song set list that mixed modern and vintage pieces, ranging from the hugely popular to the virtually unknown. Highlighting the performance were famous hits “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up In Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Missing from the set list, as many critics noticed, were his trademark protest songs, especially “Times They Are A-Changing.”
(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 persecuted artists)
Many criticized him for not playing protest songs and thus surrendering his ideals to the will of the Chinese government, which has attracted press coverage recently for cracking down on activism. But it’s unclear how much meaning to extract from his set list. Certainly fans would hope that the often politically-subversive artist would seize the opportunity to not-so-subtly share his opinion. But after 50 years in the public eye, experts really only know one thing about Dylan: he’s wildly unpredictable. Additionally, Dylan’s web site reveals that he hasn’t played “Times They Are A-Changing” in concert since the summer of 2009.
Those studying his set list may be able to find some of the snark that critics seem to crave. The Culture Ministry accepted his song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” perhaps because it’s often examined in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But lyrics like “I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’” may reflect a call for government reform. Not convinced? In the same song, he speaks of a land “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,” bringing to mind poverty and pollution prevalent in modern China.
NewsFeed doesn’t claim to know Dylan’s intentions–because really, only one person does. But while Chinese censorship remains high, he’s somehow managed to slip through the cracks and is slated to play again, in Shanghai, on April 8.
(More on TIME.com: See 1966 pictures of Dylan)