Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the definitive songs of the 20th century and certainly one of the most loved and written about songs in American history. Part of the song’s resonance, some theorize, has to do with its use of the second person.
Greil Marcus’ study Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads poetically reflects on what the song means with the use of the word ‘you.’ In light of the shifting culture of the 1960s, Marcus believes, Dylan sang to an America that “used to laugh about everybody hanging out” but was no longer talking so loud, nor was it quite so proud. Foregrounding the tumult coming to America (as well as the rest of the world), “Like A Rolling Stone” proved to be the perfect indictment of an age. The official Bob Dylan historian, Sean Wilentz, has shown how culture — in various forms — influences Dylan on and off his records. Bearing these two scholars in mind, the new, much ballyhooed music video for “Like a Rolling Stone” presents the continued value of Dylan’s concepts of American culture.
The new video, which should be judged more directly as a multimedia presentation, allows the viewer to flip through different channels, which feature various depictions of “real-life” television channels, like ESPN and the History Channel, and features real people we recognize from TV, like Marc Mahon and Drew Carey. While each channel’s characters go through standard narrative formations — selling on QVC, flirting in a romantic comedy, anchoring a news channel, etc. — the actors all lip-sync the lyrics to the song. One thing to note right away: The videos-within-a-video reveal that the culture being portrayed and produced on television is passively consumed. Consider how easily we can watch the plots play out while still being mesmerized by Drew Carey’s ability to lip sync.
I will not counter the narrative that the song is one of the finest pieces of music of Dylan’s oeuvre, even if I’m more partial to “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Instead, let’s focus on how intimately Dylan has engaged with American culture. His ability to convey that race is a primary concern of 20th century America in the “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” without ever mentioning race once in the song, proves his ability to reflect on historic events but also to inform the listener of a real problem. Distilled in less than six minutes, he reveals the inequality in America’s judicial system, the labors of Black women, and goes after the armchair intellectuals that cannot see the real detriment of American racism.
And in one of the earliest music videos — called promotional videos at the time — Bob Dylan turned the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into an opportunity to parody beatnik culture by replicating some of the play on words and typeface and the appearance of Allen Ginsberg.
Although there have been many times that Dylan actively avoided references to culture, this new video can’t help but show how much Dylan himself is a figure of culture. The first thing that comes to mind is how tried and true “Like a Rolling Stone” remains as a bar song – a song that exists as a possible karaoke or closing time song. But in the video, watching the song treated so ubiquitously can’t help but loosen jaw of the viewer. The universal quality of the song’s “you” turns the apparent monologue of the speaker into a dialogue — a quality used to great effect in almost every scene. The speakers in the video either address one another or the viewer.
In this new take, we get a sense that Dylan is stilled deeply concerned in culture and its implications, even as we move to a television-less society. If anything, we can also see in this video a concern with what was new in the 1960s – the television – which is now being replaced with the more personal choice of Internet video viewing. The chance to flip through the channels is being replaced with multiple opened tabs in a browser, switching between videos, pausing and returning as we please. The real enjoyment in the video comes in replaying it and seeing what we missed the first time around. This Dylan video, then, gives us a chance to experience not only his music, but to reflect on the fading away of television and a world that moves even when we’re paying attention to something else.
photo credit: F. Antolín Hernández, Creative Commons/flickr