BY Erin C. Callahan, San Jacinto College
In Chronicles, Vol. One, when Dylan writes, “I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick,” it’s reasonable that he viewed mainstream culture “lame as hell” because it mindlessly affirmed hegemonic post-industrial values (Dylan 35). The “big trick” of mainstream culture is that those in control of the government, military, and economy in America, the “power elite” as C. Wright Mills designated them, exploit their positions of power and celebrity culture to distract and manipulate mass society. Mills writes, “As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power – the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate – tend to come together to form an elite power in America” (The Power Elite 9). Particularly, in the post-World War II era when Mills wrote his seminal texts The Power Elite and The Sociological Imagination, he argued that the “pace” at which contemporary society changed exceeded people’s ability to adjust or “orient themselves in accordance with cherished values” (The Sociological Imagination 4). It’s not only that American society was changing, but also the way in and the rate at which those changes occurred that caused a values crisis among Americans who felt their values threatened. Mills continues, “Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis” (The Sociological Imagination 4).
Dylan echoed Mills’ ideas in Chronicles when he described post-World War II America. He wrote, “The world was being blown apart and chaos was already driving its fist into the face of all new visitors. If you were born around this time or were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and a new one beginning” (Chronicles 28). Part of that change was caused by atomic anxiety and the other was caused by the centralization of power via the power elite. Both led to the conformity of the 1950s, a homogenization of culture and society largely through mass media transmission and consumption. Dylan’s formative years in Hibbing, Minnesota, a town “that looked like every other town out of the 40s and 50s” provided little opportunity for rebellion due to its brutal climate and proximity to the Hull-Rust Mahoning Open Pit (No Direction Home 4:23). However, a radio with a turntable in the basement of his childhood home provided the escape he needed (No Direction Home 4:50). Listening to “Drifting too Far from the Shore,” Dylan describes that “the sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else” (No Direction Home 3:56). Radio stations streaming from across the country exposed Dylan to songs that weren’t played on mainstream radio stations. These were the songs that opened his mind to possibilities outside of and provided intellectual and artistic resistance against mainstream culture. In Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan states “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important” and that “Ricky [Nelson] made rock and roll part of the family… magically transforming the image on a black and white television into the American Dream. But mostly it was the records that did it” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 9, 52). Subsequently, in The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan also demonstrates how the songs he included and deconstructed, many of which he likely listened to on that radio during his youth, challenge the zeitgeist of their social and cultural moments.
There are several ways in which Dylan employs Mills’ theories. First, he does so through an examination of how mass media serves the interests of the power elite. In Mills’ assessment, centralization of corporate media markets through radio, television, and movies diminished the quality of public discourse. As a result, “with the increased means of mass persuasion that are available, the public of public opinion has become the object of efforts to control, manage, manipulate, and increasingly intimidate” (Mills The Power Elite 310). This creates a single national media market that shares fluency in, is influenced by, and responds to the signs, signals, logos, slogans, and jargon of corporations and mass media. The result of this increasing influence, according to Mills, is that it gives people in mass society an “identity,” “aspirations,” technique to fulfill their aspirations, and “an escape” (The Power Elite 314). That ideal reinforced heteronormative, patriarchal, middle-class, consumer culture. It provided a template of how modern men and women should look, act, dress, what jobs they should have and what they should purchase. Mills asserts, “The chief distracting tension is between the wanting and not having of commodities or of women held to be good looking” (The Power Elite 315). Americans aspired to own a home in the suburbs, have a family, own the newest appliances, cars, or clothes based largely on the wave of new media in their lives. Simply stated: to “keep up with the Joneses.” That lifestyle was most successfully achieved through men securing a “good” or “stable” job, while women took care of the children and the house. This led to anxieties and frustrations as people attempted to achieve the ideal, of those who failed to “live up to” it, and alienation of those who failed or refused to conform. Second, by applying Mills’ theories to the songs in The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan demonstrates how ideas communicated through the songs – nearly all of which achieved success on one or several of Billboard’s charts – provided intellectual resistance to the power elite in plain sight.
To start, Dylan’s critique of the power elite centers on their exploitation of individuals and society’s institutions through their monolithic control of American life. He indicts them as “common criminals” in Chapter 10, “Jesse James”: writing “Criminals can wear badges, army uniforms, or even sit in the House of Representatives. They can be billionaires, corporate raiders, or stockbroker analysts. Even medical doctors” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 47). These figures possess institutional power in which they control laws, justice, the economy, and defense. They also benefit and profit from their relationships with each other and reciprocal protection of the institutions they control (The Philosophy of Modern Song 47). They are the “aristocratic establishment, the upper-class landowners” in Dylan’s chapter on “Pancho and Lefty” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 59). Similarly, Dylan’s analysis of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” depicts the bourgeoisie middle-management using Mills’ language – “chieftain” and “overlord.” The boss man overworks his employees and is unphased by “labor unions, uprisings, revolts, empty threats” because he “is above it all.” In Chapter 4, “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” Dylan again uses Mills’ language to describe the collapse of old values to moral ambiguity. He writes, “this song presses the panic button” and that the “newer beginning … is a garden of corporate lust, sexual greed, gratuitous cruelty, and commonplace insanity” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 17). The “masses of people” Dylan refers to have undoubtedly been “hypnotized” by mass media, consuming it without considering its meaning or the consequences of their mindless consumption (The Philosophy of Modern Song 17). The characters in these songs recognize the ubiquitous influence of the power elite and either reject participation outright or ask to be “delivered” from it.
Similarly, throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan highlights the centralized economic control of corporations in American life. During this period, national chains replaced local small businesses and local ads were replaced by national commercials. This consolidated brand identity, brand recognition, and consumer appetites. Additionally, corporations provided stable employment with opportunities for advancement, benefits, and a retirement plan. Each of the sixty-six chapters includes an aspect of American consumer culture. Dylan uses words like “merchandise” “manufactured,” and “cars” and refers to specific cars associated with affluence like “Cadillac,” designer watches like Rolex, smart phones, Les Paul guitars, record stores, movie theaters, and flat-screen televisions. His descriptions of products and fine clothing are accompanied by corresponding images. The readers’ mass media literacy aids in making those connections between image and word – sign and signified – effective. The title of the book’s first song, “Detroit City,” is paired with a photo of the Ford Motor Company factory that reinforces Dylan’s analysis. The character in the song left his rural hometown to secure employment and the American Dream in the city. Dylan writes “[w]hen this song was written, Detroit was the place to run to; new jobs, new hopes, new opportunities” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 5). However, the singer’s fantasy to “go home” and leave the monotony of his days in the factory and nights at the bar expresses his desire to escape modern life and return to something familiar and comfortable. The singer isn’t really a “dreamer,” but someone who is “caught up in a fantasy of the way things used to be” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 5). He is Mills’ modern man, the same person Dylan referred to in Chronicles affected by the swift changes in American life. The song “works,” as Dylan writes, because listeners can relate to the anxiety and disillusion expressed in it. This man could easily be Jackson Browne’s “pretender,” a man “who has sold himself for a bit of the American Dream,” whose “life is a broken record” of home and work, of “success depend[ing] on being someone he’s not,” of being “trapped in the lesser world” in which he abandons a life of passion, music, and art (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 61). Dylan describes the pretender’s middle- class life as “single-minded,” a “capitulation”: “buying everything in every window display and … commercial ad” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 63). Dylan’s version of “The Pretender” appears in “Ball of Confusion,” performing a prescribed role described as a “new form of oppression” and every symbol of institutional power is a corrupt failure (The Philosophy of Modern Song 76). In “Big Boss Man,” Dylan describes the overworked employee as “modern man,” “servile,” a hypocritical ass-kisser” a “yes man” who finds escape through movies – movies that reinforce images of who he should be, but who he is not. These figures depict unsatisfying or unfulfilling images of those who have achieved or strive to achieve success in post-industrial middle class America or the American Dream.
Conversely, Dylan romanticizes an outlaw’s rejection of mainstream culture and refusal or inability to conform to it as a more honest or authentic existence. His analysis of The Allman Brothers “Midnight Rider” depicts someone who once played a role in civilized society but became a frustrated vigilante. He is “[a] sworn enemy of political bureaucracy, power brokers, election fraud, decadent union leaders, party hacks, corporate parasites, sugar daddies and other bankrollers” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 173). The midnight rider challenges the accepted order and “wants to return things back to a pre-corporate economic order and wipe the slate clean” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 173-4). Similarly, Dylan’s other outlaws, Jesse James, Pancho and Lefty, outlaws like them, or those who sing songs about them, “[exploit] their [the middle class’s] false values, materialism, hypocrisy, and insecurities” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 59). They stand alone as figures of rebellion against the power elite and the conformity of the middle class.
Further, Dylan’s discussions on war expose the military industrial complex and underscore the connection between history-making events, the decision-makers, and the effects of those events on individuals. His analysis of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” focuses on a veteran who wrestles with the “degenerate and demonic things” he’s seen and done that reduced him to “mental bondage” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Attending a “ritual celebration where he is being honored as a hero,” he feels he is “surrounded by the enemy” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 22). Dylan notes the veteran has “been betrayed by politicians” and “stabbed in the back by legislators and members of his own government” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Here, Dylan’s interpretation focuses on the effects politicians’ decisions have on individual men and women who are deployed to the warfront. The veteran experiences a crisis due to his participation in war activities that have allowed him to become “unfaithful to the human spirit” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Dylan raises the question of whether the veteran would regret or be haunted by his actions if he had been on the winning side. The passage’s opening – “It’s hard to be on the losing end of a lost cause, a lost enterprise, a cause with no object or purpose, unequivocally false from start to finish” – suggests a tenuous relationship between the abstract political decisions made to enter wars and the consequences of those decisions on individual lives (The Philosophy of Modern Song 21).
Dylan further develops this analysis in Chapter 43, Edwin Starr’s recording of The Temptations song “War,” which reads like an extension of Mills’ work, drawing a line from World War II to the veteran in “There Stands the Glass,” forward to both gulf wars. Citing a “sequence in the documentary The Fog of War,” Dylan explains how former defense secretary Robert McNamara and General Curtis LeMay would have been “prosecuted as war criminals” if they had lost the war (The Philosophy of Modern Song 214). Dylan notes, “For the rest of his life, McNamara wrestled with the question, “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 214). This, too, is the question the tortured veteran who “has a lot to answer for” wrestles with in “There Stands the Glass” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). The war crimes explained in both songs’ chapters are similar – rape and brutal violence against civilians, including women and children. Dylan juxtaposes war propaganda employed to gain public support against the immoral, yet sanctioned, acts of war justified as the cost of national security.
Shifting to both Gulf Wars, waged by the power elite in and administrations of a single family (the Bush family), Dylan stresses the dubious justifications for both wars. Graley Herren’s analysis of Chapter 15’s “Whiffenpoof Song” for the Dylantantes substack illuminates that song’s reference to The Whiffenpoofs, “an independent a cappella group at Yale University” who counted as an early member Prescott Bush, “father of George H.W. Bush” and “grandfather of George W. Bush.” Herren also notes Dylan’s references to the more secretive and exclusive Yale society, Skull and Bones, whose “members are sworn to lifelong secrecy about the group … But: alumni from Skull and Bones have gone on to exert major power in the United States and across the globe.” Similarly, in The Power Elite Mills asserts that the link among the “institutions of modern society” – “families and churches and schools” – provide the basis for and support the centralization of power and that “these hierarchies of state and corporation and army constitute the means of power” (6-7). Giving a bit of cover to George H.W. Bush because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait prompted the first Gulf War, Dylan focuses on “post-9/11 paranoia” and false claims about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction underlying the 2003 invasion under George W. Bush as more problematic and indicative of the continued consolidation and centralization of power among America’s power elite in the twenty-first century. He concludes by returning to LeMay’s thoughts on war criminals, suggesting that both Bushes would be considered as such. To conclude the chapter, Dylan also indicts Americans as war criminals for supporting war propaganda, not asking questions and, more importantly, not acting to prevent or end the conflicts.
Though Dylan is cynical about the purpose of the song, arguing “[i]t’s clear that one answer to the question posited in this song is the bottom line,” and links it to the earlier Motown hit “Money,” he uses this point to make parallels to war-profiteering and the atrocities of war (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). The analysis includes a reference to Smedley D. Butler whose speech “War Is a Racket” was “written by a Major General in the Marines who was an American military hero, but became disillusioned with the profiteering, propaganda, and injustice of the military-industrial and intelligence-foreign policy establishments, and came to oppose American involvement in foreign wars designed to benefit financial and industrial interests” (Butler 1). Butler “confessed to his own actions on multiple battlefronts that hurt large numbers of people to ensure the profits for a few” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). Here, we can imagine Smedley as the celebrated, yet tortured, veteran in “There Stands the Glass.” Dylan then cites labor leader and civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph who “said in 1925… ‘Make wars unprofitable and you make them impossible’” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). However, as long as war remains lucrative, news media, advertising, movies, and television will continue to romanticize it and promote it as necessary to national security.
Just as Dylan demonstrates how the songs in The Philosophy of Modern Song point to the adverse effects of media, government, corporations, and the military, he also shows readers the prescription for rebelling against the traps of modern post-industrial consumer society: art, love, and movement. Allusions to, references to, and quotes from poetry, literature, music, and visual arts stand in contrast to the over-commodified kitsch of most “mainstream culture.” His remedy for the “modern man” in “Big Boss Man” is “rivers of poetry and music” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 259). Poetry written by Poe or Rilke, literature penned by Kerouac or Burroughs, songs in The Great American Songbook, and jazz, blues, salsa, bluegrass, or country music encourage active and thoughtful engagement rather than mindless consumption. The many songs Dylan includes about love and his interspersed commentary on it suggest that love, not love as a legal agreement or social contract, but passionate love, love as connection and not conquest, is a salve. Dylan also gives us songs like “On the Road Again,” “Truckin’” “Keys to the Highway,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Images of keeping things new, of movement, of becoming, of being delivered provide an escape route to avoid the stagnancy and stasis of conformity. Being “On the Road Again,” keeps us from being “bogged down by anything,” even the monotony of daily chores like taking out the garbage (The Philosophy of Modern Song 92). Dylan’s analyses repeatedly suggest individual agency and meaningful participation in one’s life as pushback against consumer culture’s artifice.
Perhaps this is the philosophy of modern song – the place where the personal – the problems of modern life as they affect individual men and women – becomes the political – identifying and commenting on the issues of society that contribute to or cause the problems of individual people through art. To be sure, Dylan would argue that he’s apolitical. That’s fair. But you can’t ignore his critiques of conformity and of power structures that exploit and control social and cultural institutions. Though mainstream culture is generally a tool of the power elite, passively consumed by the masses without consideration of its effects or consequences, thoughtful analyses, deconstructions, and examinations of it as Dylan has provided in The Philosophy of Modern Song reveal substance that challenges its typical reception. That may be the signal point. Art, even art conceived, produced, and consumed in mainstream popular culture, serves as intellectual and artistic resistance needed to survive the artifice of contemporary society.
Butler, Smedley D. “War Is a Racket.” Heritage History. https://www.heritage-
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
—. The Philosophy of Modern Song. Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Herren, Graley. “Come You Whiffenpoofs of War.” Dylantantes, Substack, 22 November 2022.
Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1956. With a New Afterword by
Alan Wolfe, 2000.
—. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, 1959. With a New Afterword by
Todd Gitlin, 2000.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Directed by Martin Scorsese. American Masters. PBS, 2005.