After a lifetime of changing masks and roles and jobs, Dylan has finally encroached onto my territory by entering the field of music criticism. The Philosophy Of Modern Song crosses over with his Theme Time Radio Hour with Bob Dylan project, in that many of the sixty-six essays lay out the history of the singers, songwriters, and songs that Dylan loves so much. But it’s also clear that this is as much a creative project for him as any other thing he’s done; most of the essays start with a few paragraphs or pages that use the song as a jumping-off point for a second-person short story, conveying the mood and story of the song in a different format and often adding details (for example, he decides the woman in “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is a massage therapist who works nine to five). It’s an interesting and slightly alien way of approaching music to me; I don’t often write in second person because I don’t presume to speak for my audience, but I can see the appeal, mainly because this books forced me to see it from Dylan’s position.
I chose to listen to each song before each chapter, and I quickly found that not only was this necessary, it was only the first step in the process. I always write under the principle that the audience must be able to understand as much of my essay as possible without having to actually see the work in question. Part of this is me hoping that I invoke your curiosity and you’ll seek it out; part of it is that I like writing about things that are hard to find or engage with (like old video games); part of it is just because writers I admire (like Abigail Nussbaum) professed it as an ideal of critical writing and made it a big part of what I enjoyed about their work. Dylan makes no such concession, and indeed I quickly found the second-person declarations only – only – made sense to me if I had a preformed interpretation of the song; usually, associating it with a specific memory. From there, Dylan’s short stories became as much a way of looking at those experiences as the songs themselves.
Obviously, we get chunks of his views on songwriting, though it takes up significantly less of the book than you’d expect and is entirely unsurprising if you’ve listened to TTRH or read any of his interviews. He generally downplays technical proficiency; poignantly, at one point he rhetorically asks who understands a song better, someone who has studied music theory or someone who cries at a sad song. I still believe I could be a better music critic if I knew more theory, but I get it – in the middle of reading this book, I ended up struck down by a bad flu that left me unable to concentrate and, consequently, crying at old pop songs, and wondering how much my reason gets in the way of true appreciation. Dylan’s advice and perspective are more about trying to cultivate soulfulness, and he observes that formulas, cheap tricks, and a general adherence to technically-correct rules and polish can get in the way of that; indeed, he frequently remarks that songs cannot be explained, only felt.
In TTRH, I noticed that Dylan would very rarely offer more than the most superficial feelings on a subject, keeping his own perspectives to himself with no intention of lecturing the audience (the only exception I can think of is when he questioned the need to medicate children with ADHD so much); in this, he’s much more willing to offer personal perspective but still filters it through a genuine empathy for all the writers and performers he engages with; there are a few pot-shots (my favourite being this absolutely out-of-nowhere shot he takes at Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements Song”, although I also enjoy the poetry of his negative take on “Do You Want To Know A Secret” by The Beatles) and of course he lavishes praise when he wants to, but for the most part his goal is to connect his soul to that of the performer in some way. That means there’s no critical distance in his criticism and no irony – only compassion, which is enormously refreshing. There is no high art and no low art – as soon as you pick up a musical instrument and start playing, you are a musician.
Interestingly, this extends to his politics as well. There’s a surprising amount of current commentary; he stakes his claims in that he cheers on women’s lib, queer rights, and racial minorities fighting against oppression (in discussing “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore” by John Trudell, Dylan points out how often the plight of the Native American is left behind by other American minority groups), and there’s a surprising section where he dismisses the Iraq War as a horrific crime – trite coming from anyone but Bob Dylan. But he also frequently drops the phrase ‘make America great again’ and genuinely grapples not just with the questions that implies (was America ever great? If so, for whom?) but with the people who ask it. He identifies with the fear and anger they feel and the sense that the world is slipping from under them, that values they hold dear seem to have no weight in the world anymore, that everything they understand is now dust. They might see it from a different point of view, but they feel the same. The most delightful moment of Dylan’s compassion comes when he talks about Millenials – not just the jokes made about us, but the fact that they’ve become hacky, which is like the Lincoln Memorial looking down at you and saying “Yeah, I see that shit too.” The way he talks about us, you can tell he remembers when his generation was slapped with insults and labels not too dissimilar, and he’s not going to do that to us.
I find it interesting to see a connection between that view of art and that view of politics – to actively and compassionately project one’s own experiences onto another person just as much as a song. It’s common for projection like that to be seen as a bad thing – like a white person feeling entitled to the sympathy they believe a black person must receive based on the assumption their suffering is equal (or more). Or, perhaps worse, to think that this means one has a solution to a problem one has no direct experience with, like men who believe that if women just dressed right and said the right thing that they would not be raped. This is not how Dylan approaches it – it’s not based on his ego, it’s not based on proving what he deserves, it’s not about him at all. It’s a reason to love and cherish another human being. Surely we’ve all suffered enough! Like a lot of famously complicated things, I think Bob Dylan’s views are actually pretty simple – love God and one another and make cool art. It’s a viewpoint I find easy to surrender to.