Folk and Its Discontents

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

For me, someone like Dylan contributed more to defining postmodernism with the (now rather pathetic) title to his 1964 opus The Times They Are a-Changin’ than a dozen obscurantist Lyotard essays ever did. If taken in a purely ironic way, postmodernism is the true advent of Dylan’s declaration, for it’s precisely this album—arguably Dylan’s most valiantly self-serious and tragically sincere—that stands to remind us all of just how little times had really changed and how silly it was, and still is, to expect signs of change from pop music. Stripping away the ideology, we can finally see how this premature rallying cry of The Times They Are a-Changin’ was really nothing more than a futile yearning for postmodernism’s true cultural arrival.

Dylan’s real triumph, I claim, was in overthrowing the foundations of his own career, and it’s this move which finally undoes my heartstrings for him by Bringing It All Back Home. Looking at him then—Afro-donned, sliding about in all black through the warehouse districts like a kid virgin—it’s just so painfully obvious how this album, with all its tell-tale dualism, was the precise moment when he finally realized that, all along, the joke was on him. Dylan was never more than a facade of Guthrie’s barefoot heir; not the new folk hero wielding a fascist-killing machine; no: just another cog of the fascist machine itself. Pink Floyd may have said it best, but let’s not forget that they too, even with their infinite post-sarcastic dream, were a self-contradiction.

The great irony of popular folk reveals itself when one realizes that, in order for Dylan to rebel against the machine, he would have to rebel against himself, and that was to rebel against authenticity itself. Eventually that would mean having to rebel against his fans—the very people (the very folk) who made him popular. When Dylan shouted, “I don’t believe you …. You’re a liar!” to accusations of “Judas!”, he wasn’t just denying the claim itself; rather, he was questioning the very grounds on which his so-called fans would choose to view him in that way.

What Dylan eventually understood but his fans did not was how nothing could have widened the field of establishment influence and control more than the popularity of Dylan himself and that he was nothing more than, in his own words, “a pawn in their game”. While there still definitely seems to be something poetic about utilizing the medium of a pop ballad to criticize pop ideology, there is always, at the same time, something self-defeating about this (now rather commonplace) thematic device. In short, works like his pre-“Judas” LPs provided the establishment corporate apparatus with a covert license to re-appropriate any authentic revolutionary/activist sentiments into the facsimilous, non-volatile domestic species capable of being mediated by figures like Dylan and Baez. The result of this highly successful placation is known nowadays through the Baby Boomer “identity”. In other words, while the ’60s public seems to have embraced a rebellious savior of sorts, what they were actually embracing was the disguised masthead of the status quo. To be fair, it is really up to debate how it is even possible for a public in general to actively embrace the work of any artist without at the same time, as with Dylan, falling under the whim of corporate interests; especially when considering the nature of distribution and publicity and, even further, Capitalism itself. But if art is always created in part by an audience, how is it ever fair to blame the public for betraying a work of their own creation?

Perhaps the most difficult question for anyone siding with Cordwell, the “Judas” heckler, to ask themselves is: what exactly did happen in the 1960s? Is it really so hard to believe that nothing changed? Is it really so hard to imagine a machine so ubiquitous—so resilient to assault—it can replicate the very appearance of social rebellion within itself, reterritorializing it into Capitalism’s striated space? It is not so far of a stretch or “conspiracy theory”, I claim, when we can at last admit to ourselves that the ’60s phenomenon of protest music was all along nothing more than that particular era’s model perpetuator of cultural stagnation—or, at least, standardization.

By essentializing the anti-establishment protest sentiment into fetishized figures like Dylan, the entire Western social change movement suddenly found itself reduced to a dimensionless likeness, or pure image, of itself—a commodity to be bought, sold, and marketed like any other. In effect, social change became sublated into its opposite, forcing a self-contradiction and undermining the urgency of a call to action. Not only did the illusion of mainstream progressive involvement first surface, but also, even more threatening, was the emerging notion that the mainstream progressive represented the progressive in its only proper sense, that is, by euphemism a “progressive” and not a revolutionary.

Indeed, what greater empirical proof is there than Dylan’s uncannily immediate integration into the consumer market? Both his ruggedly authentic The Times They Are a-Changin’ and his first full electric album as  so-called folk traitor Highway 61 Revisited charted precisely the same in the UK, and both reached platinum record status in the US. Though his efficacity as a corporate money well remained unchanged, the formal substance of his music could not be more different.

It seems that, by maintenance of our beloved paradigm of self-consistency alone, there could never be such a thing as pop protest music in all seriousness. A true work of pop protest music must always contain a minimum of irony deliberately directed at itself, both the interior matter of the work and the medium it inhabits. In other words, Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home was his first authentic protest album, since it rejected its own claim to social importance. It was, as Chesterton would have put it, a “rebellion against rebellion”.

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