[Marxism] Why we are still turning to Dylan for the soundtrack to out demonstrations?
hooverm at scc-fl.edu
Sat Nov 12 18:00:39 MST 2005
Why are we still turning to Dylan for the soundtrack to our demonstrations?
Saturday November 12 2005
It already seems so long ago that hundreds of thousands turned out in the streets of London, New York, Rome, and many other cities to protest against the war in Iraq. I was in Manhattan during that cold winter, two years ago, and watched the protests on Washington Square. There were people of all ages, including some venerable greybeards from the 1960s. But most were too young to remember, or perhaps to have even heard of Martin Luther King's long march to Washington or Chicago '68. And yet the curious thing was that the musical accompaniment to the protest in 2003 was almost all at least 30 years old.
I heard no rap, or Eminem, or Oasis, but old songs by John Lennon and Bob Dylan. It was if there had been no culture of protest since those heady days when Vietnam was the focus of popular outrage. Not that politics had stopped, or opposition ceased: the turnout in 2003 belied that. But where were the words and the music to express contemporary feeling? Why did people have to reach back so far?
The absence of a contemporary protest culture explains, perhaps, the cult status of Bob Dylan, which has reached a pitch of religious idolatry, where every scrap, every scribble, every concert ticket is deemed worthy of publication. Many of Dylan's songs are wonderful, of course, but one feels that there is an element in our contemporary Dylan worship of faute de mieux. The same might be said of the American success of George Clooney's latest film, Goodnight and Good Luck, about the radio and television journalist Edward Murrow, who took on Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witchhunt in 1954.
Like Walter Cronkite a bit more than 10 years later, Murrow was a legendary figure, whose broadcasts from London during the blitz had made him a household name. When his famous voice went on air saying that "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent," its impact was felt all over America. Where is the Edward Murrow of today? Certainly nowhere on any major US television network.
The irony of Dylan's status as an iconic protest singer is that this is not what he ever wanted. As we know from Martin Scorsese's brilliant documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan was baffled, annoyed, and upset when the media built him up as the "voice of his generation", whose protest songs would change the world. In live performances, he would pronounce "protest songs" with the exaggerated drawl of derision. To him, they were songs. He was an artist, not a spokesman or a politician. Protest was one of the idioms he used, because it was an outlet for his musical passion.
Or so he claimed. There was perhaps a certain disingenuousness about his statements. Unless he was a total cynic, which I don't believe, it wasn't just opportunism that made him stand on the same platform as Martin Luther King, in front of more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington DC in 1963 to demand civil rights for black people. His songs had a profound message for those people. Dylan's genius was to match the music with words that expressed the hopes and the anger of millions. Of course, Dylan knew this perfectly well. He just didn't want to be pegged. He is an artist, and he don't look back.
The protest culture of the early 1960s, like all culture, also reached back into the past. Dylan was inspired by the songs and vocal mannerisms of Woody Guthrie. As a young singer, he honed his style by poking around old blues, country, and folk songs, for the particular vein of popular American feeling he was after. He found it in Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and others more obscure. But Dylan made the old songs sound new, transforming them into something unique to him. King's speeches, as much part of the protest culture of the 1960s as Dylan's songs, also drew from old sources, specifically the Bible, as interpreted by black southern Baptists. His rolling waves of repetitions, his marvellous verbal crescendos, these were part of the same tradition that produced spirituals and rhythm and blues - a tradition that also inspired Dylan. Like the great rhetorical artist that he was, King refreshed this tradition and gave it a thoroughly modern meaning.
One thing Dylan understood much better than the reporters and earnest folkies who pestered him about switching from "protest" to rock'n'roll was the nature of popular music. He once said, in a fit of exasperation, that everything he did was protest. In a sense this was true. Striking a blow for freedom against oppressive authority does not mean you have to sneer about the "masters of war" all the time. The words are not always what matters. Jazz or rock or any form of dance music can be politically loaded. For a whole generation, Glen Miller's In the Mood was the anthem of liberation - and not just from Nazism or fascism.
Dancing to clandestine jazz music, forbidden by Hitler as "nigger music", was one way for German youth, the so-called Swing-Jugend, to claw back some sense of liberty in the Third Reich. In countries under communist dictatorship, jazz and rock music probably meant a great deal more than it did at Woodstock or the Isle of Wight. The Swing-Jugend, as it were, of Warsaw and Prague, were dissidents just for claiming the freedom to let themselves go, to dance the way they wanted. For us in the west, rock was fun; for them it was essential.
Vaclav Havel, for instance, was perhaps more deeply affected by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones, than he was by more overtly political expressions from the west. Lou Reed was one the first people to visit Havel, after he was elected president of Czechoslovakia. They appeared on stage together in a somewhat awkward colloquium about politics and music. Havel could talk eloquently about the subject for hours. But intellectual reflection is not the strong suit of most rock'n'rollers. Reed muttered something about "becoming like Kafka" if he had lived under communism. Kafka never did, of course, but one sort of knows what Reed means.
Rock and pop played a central role in the protests on Tiananmen Square. One of the leaders of the Beijing demonstrations was a Taiwanese pop singer, Hou Dejian, whose hit song, Descendants of the Dragon, was the unofficial anthem of the Chinese protest movement. Another figure to appear on the square was Cui Jian, who has been compared variously to Bruce Springsteen, Dylan and Lennon. None of them quite fit the raucous, rather melodramatic style of this Chinese rocker, who plays guitar as well as trumpet. His song, Nothing to My Name, belted out in hope as well as frustration, was played over and over, live, on loudspeakers, and private cassette players. The lyrics are about unrequited love, but to the rebels on the square they meant much more than that:
I want to give you my hope
I want to help make you free
But all you ever do is laugh at me, 'cause
I've got nothing to my name.
Cui, whose performances are routinely banned in China, except when his fame can add lustre to an official campaign - for the Beijing Olympics, for example - did not suddenly rise in 1989. He was part of a culture that developed soon after the death of Mao. Students began to organise debating societies in university dorms.
At the same time, urban kids found an outlet for their frustrated energies in new, barely tolerated western fads, such as break-dancing. These are the words of a shop girl in Tianjin (quoted in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin's New Ghosts, Old Dreams): "When I'm break-dancing I feel passionate and uninhibited ... I'm normally very quiet and soft-spoken ... But when I hear that entrancing music ... The last drop of adolescent shyness evaporates as hot blood surges through my veins. After all, I'm a child of the 80s!"
The Chinese are no different to us. The appeal of Cui and other Chinese rockers was not their political message; it was the attitude, expressed in the music, of defiance. This was political enough. Discussing liberal democracy was for the Beijing University students. Other Chinese were less articulate, perhaps, but they knew what it felt like to be oppressed by authority.
As one of them famously said on Tiananmen Square, when he was asked by a foreign reporter what he wanted: "All we want is what you have, and we don't."
Attitude is what the Rolling Stones had, even though their overtly political songs were usually ham-fisted. Street Fighting Man summed up the nature of western youth rebellion brilliantly: "What can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock'n'roll band, 'cause in sleepy London town, there's just no place for a street fighting man." Of course, Beijing in 1989, or Prague in 1968, were anything but sleepy. But neither was the US at the height of the Vietnam war, which is why this Rolling Stones number came blaring from the windows of every dorm in Berkeley.
Why, then, didn't I hear contemporary songs on Washington Square in 2003? Am I simply missing something, because I'm too old? Am I the Mr Jones of Dylan's song, who knows something is happening, but doesn't know what it is. This is entirely possible. But I think something has happened to inhibit the kind of protest culture that lit up the 1960s. First of all, it has to do with attitude. Part of what made Dylan or Reed or Zappa hip was their refusal to act like politicians.
The very idea of Dylan going to the White House, or world summit meetings, to discuss the fate of the world, was ridiculous. Even accepting an honorary doctorate at Princeton was really too much for him. Yet this is precisely what the most political rock stars of today are doing: accepting medals, having meetings with presidents and prime ministers, receiving knighthoods. What is a rock'n'roller like Bono doing when he gives out official statements from the G8 summit praising George Bush for his generosity to Africa? And what about those "signed copies" of Bob Geldof's photographs made during his African journeys? This is politics too, of a kind, but it is not exactly fizzing with protest against the established order.
This is not to say there is no music out there with attitude. Hip-hop and rap have lots of that. The behaviour - and lyrics - of such groups as Public Enemy (Fight the Power!) or 2 Live Crew (Me So Horny) have been more subversive and violent than anything Sir Mick Jagger ever came up with. They are also closer to real experience, in the harsh black areas of New York and Los Angeles, than the songs written by middle-class white men. The Stones, as well as the early Dylan, really relied on a kind of impersonation. They took the experience of poor, mostly black people, and interpreted it for a much wider, mostly white audience. This is not to belittle them: they gave the musical expressions of a poor minority a universal appeal.
Rap and hip-hop are popular beyond a narrow black audience, to be sure, but are still too close to the sources, too "real" perhaps, to gain universal currency. Eminem is an exceptional white rapper, and that is one reason for his enormous success.
If the world of hip-hop is still a little too exclusive, most popular music suffers from the opposite problem of being too corporate. By the early 1970s protest culture had been absorbed by capitalist enterprise. Rock became big business. Small record labels were bought up. Big labels became part of media conglomerates. Rock songs are used to promote anything from Coca-Cola to the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel (The Stones' Angie was her campaign song.) The Sheraton hotel group, targeting the baby-boomer generation, looked for "a 1960s rock anthem" that could be remixed to "symbolise the Sheraton chain". The final choice was Let's Spend the Night Together by the Stones, a song once banned on the radio for being too lewd. So what's a poor boy to do now?
He can start a blog, perhaps. As the mainstream media, especially in the US, have become part of the same corporate entertainment empires that own most popular music, there is little or no room for a new Edward Murrow to stick his knife into the powers that be. But the blogosphere is buzzing with life. Subversion of all kinds, much of it mad and malicious, has been privatised, as it were. If hip-hop and rap fill large niche markets, internet journalism fills millions of niches, some of them no bigger than the author him or herself. Quite how this will translate into the words and music of a new culture of protest no one really knows. In the meantime we will just have to make do with movies of how it was done in the old days.
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