Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Attempt to Articulate the Appeal of Inarticulation

I see that my audience now doesn’t particular care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.

The above quotation is from Bob Dylan, excerpted from a recent interview posted on his website (done to publicize a forthcoming album). The quotation might seem puzzling to someone unaware of the extent to which Dylan's previous work has been subject to "interpretation." Starting in the 1960s, there was a sentiment that Dylan's songs contained brilliant but hidden messages commenting on and even prophesying about political and social issues. For example, Black Panther Huey Newton believed "Ballad of a Thin Man" to be a statement about race relations in America (this was portrayed to humorous effect in the 2007 film I'm Not There). Dylan was not the only one subjected to this treatment, of course. People played Beatles records backwards in order to decode hidden messages, and Charles Manson supposedly constructed his deranged ideas of race relations on the basis of his understanding of The White Album.

Even in the somewhat less turbulent 1970s, the notion that Dylan's songs contained an elaborate symbolism didn't go away. A notorious yippie published a "Dylan word concordance," in which he revealed not only what each Dylan song "meant," but what each word in Dylan's lexicon stood for.

So with that history in mind, the above quotation makes perfect sense. He seems relieved that his work is less likely today to be subject to wild appropriation by others. But fortunately, his interlocutor was not content with this statement and pressed Dylan to follow-up. And we get this exchange:

In what way?
Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it.
Like a locomotive, a pair of boots, a kiss or the rain?
Right. All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.

Of course, when he says things "are what they are," it made me think of my blog post a few weeks back, in which I explored the phrase "It is what it is." I argued that the phrase has risen in prominence as a result of a decline of "Freudianism." After considering the context in which Dylan uses the "are what they are" phrase, I am even more convinced that these trends are related. But I think I can now also make some observations about general societal changes that have resulted in Bob Dylan being able to worry a lot less about how this album will be received, in contrast to those he put out 30-40 years ago.

I was intrigued, while reading a 1970s novel awhile back, by the use of the word "analyst." It really stuck out, since almost all references today would be to a "therapist." Of course, we still expect that therapists are analytical, but the change in nomenclature indicates to me a de-emphasis on locating and interpreting "symbols." In the past, images (such as those glimpsed in dreams) were considered to be signs pointing to ideas--ideas that could only be fully articulated verbally. Now (perhaps partly because of shifts in technology) we are more likely to perceive images as ends in themselves.

Of course, the absence of language implies that there is a different sensibility to the perception of images, and I think this is what Dylan is getting at when he says his new audience "feel[s] style and substance in a more visceral way." But though the consumption of the art is "felt" and it is "visceral," note the explicit statement that the art itself still possesses both style and substance. And Dylan proceeds to tell us what makes some works of art more substantial than others: "It's the way you move them [the images] all around that makes them work."

This last quote also helps to reconcile two ironies/paradoxes: 1. That we are talking about images in the context of an aural art form and 2. That Dylan is acknowledged as a master wordsmith. The words are useful because they evoke images (in this sense the artist is diametrically opposed to the "analyst"), which are then "moved around" not just in juxtaposition of one another, but in tandem with the music, in order to evoke a visceral feeling. And experiencing this visceral feeling is what leads one to truly discover what a song "means."


Blogger Eileen said...

that's so weird about dylan being considered so deep and "mystical" when everyone else just regarded him as a drug addict spinning rhymes from his drug-induced stupor... at least that's what I always remembered hearing about him. It's nice to know that out of all the haze (pun intended haha) there was some truth and meaning out of it all.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is that a picture of?

12:29 PM  

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