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Elton John and Bjork
John: Zhang Wei/AP • Bjork: Zhou Junxiang/ImagineChina/AP
Elton John and Bjork

In their faces

Music | Elton John’s China rebuke stands in a long line of singer statements of dubious value

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

In February, the British newspaper the Guardian published an article headlined “China Tightens Concert Rules After Elton John’s ‘Disrespectful’ Beijing Show.” According to the story, China’s culture minister, Cai Wu, had reacted to Elton John’s dedicating his November 2012 concert in Beijing to Ai Weiwei, an outspoken Chinese artist and human-rights activist, by demanding “that only stars with university degrees be allowed to play in China in future.”

The story went on to mention a similar incident in 2008, when, during a Shanghai performance, the Icelandic singer Bjork repeatedly chanted “Tibet” while singing a song called “Declare Independence.”

Follow-up stories in various publications questioned the veracity and the official gravity of Cai’s statement. But by then several issues had been raised: Where, for instance, does one’s responsibility to “speak out” against injustice end and one’s responsibility to “hold his peace” that slower but more effective forces for change may proceed? When, if ever, do cultural differences trump political ones?

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Reflection is in order.

In 2003, the conservative pundit Laura Ingraham published a bestselling book titled Shut Up and Sing. The expression captured the mood of conservatives who’d grown tired of the tendency of liberal musicians such as the Dixie Chicks and Linda Ronstadt to sandbag their fan base with left-wing pronouncements from the stage and other public forums.

Now, conservatives such as National Review’s Jay Nordlinger are praising Elton John and Bjork for not shutting up and just singing—because the government they’ve criticized from the stage is China’s communist one. “Good for Elton John,” wrote Nordlinger in a recent online posting. He went on to commend implicitly Bjork’s 2008 Shanghai surprise.

Let’s start with the obvious. China is inching toward capitalism and its attendant freedoms as verifiably as the United States is inching toward a centralized government that is at least socialist in letter and arguably communist in spirit. Whether either country will ever arrive at its destination, let alone meet in the middle or swap places, remains to be seen. But the timing is God’s.

Meanwhile, John and Bjork, after having had their say in China, got to return to their nations of residence while the people on whose behalf they claimed to speak suffered the consequences of their speaking.  Similarly, the actor Christian Bale must have known that his decision to visit the house-imprisoned Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng in 2011 while filming a movie about Japan’s “rape” of Nanjing might do more to further his own career (and humanitarian reputation) than it would Chen’s freedom.

Leaving aside the question of whether Chinese citizens will be worse off for not getting to witness live performances by Josh Groban, Tim McGraw, or Bruno Mars—current chart-toppers bereft of university sheepskins—there’s also the Asian cultural issue of “saving face.”

Yes, part of the face-saving concept is rooted in an unbiblical concept of pride. But equally unbiblical is causing unnecessary offense when there are bigger fish for fishers of men to fry. John and Bjork embarrassed an embarrassment-sensitive government. Neither of their pronouncements guarantee that China’s ultimate easing of its restraints will arrive sooner than later.

In May 2008, the Contemporary Christian Music veteran Steven Curtis Chapman performed and sang about Jesus in the Chinese cities of Shenyang, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. He wasn’t asked to censor his set-list in the interests of government atheism. And he didn’t.

He also didn’t publicly speak out against the oppressiveness of his communist host country. He shut up, in other words, and sang.

The seeds of Chapman’s forbearance, one suspects, are still bearing fruit.

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