“‘The Laws of Time Didn’t Apply to You’: Bob Dylan and the Zeitgeist of the Discontent.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Court Carney, Stephen F. Austin State University


At first glance, Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song, published in late 2022, overwhelms. The book features so many different songs and interpretations. Like a giant puzzle or, from a different perspective, a Joseph Cornell box. Intricate and mysterious. Where was the key? There also was a flurry of great immediate takes along the lines of “Can you believe what this song you’ve never heard says about our history?” Yet, something throbbed from the pages, less connected to the specific songs and more akin to a threat, sadness, or dissonant inchoate hum. I began to think of the book less in terms of songs and what Dylan likes (and, by extension, via omissions, what he dislikes) and certainly removed from the language used, authorial identity, or an accounting of demographics. All worthy, important topics. And topics that will continue to spin out thoughtful and engaged work. But I kept being drawn to something else in the book’s totality. A new song began to emerge, but one of loss, searching, ambivalence, anti-modernism, or at least its cousin, ambi-modernism. I began to situate Dylan’s book within a more significant age of discontent. From films and books and infinite news pieces, the past couple of years has been defined by a particular form of cultural discontent. A gloominess brought about by the modern condition and then, of course, reflected and refracted by it. We have lost a lot along this road toward progress as defined by late-stage capitalism. And traditionalism, whether good faith or not, has collapsed too, under a shift away from decorum politically, socially, and culturally.

A look at The Philosophy of Modern Song through this lens and somewhat detached from the songs themselves allows for a perspective at once defiant and driving. None of this is new, of course, and much of this modernist contempt leeches into the soil of the blues songs and motifs that defined large parts of Dylan’s career. Greil Marcus, in a timely reprint of an old column on World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been to You: “On both records, the music is all about values: what counts, what doesn’t, what lasts, what shouldn’t.” As Dylan himself notes: “it’s about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control – watching the red dawn not bothering to dress.”[1] Dylan has long walked through this undergrowth of dissatisfaction and world-weariness. And in some ways, this entire discussion dates back to the various waves of postindustrial fears. As we have seen, nostalgia plays a role here but also something thornier. Still, I think something newer and more specific is happening. Throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan checks in with this pulse of ambi-modernism – a concept that gets at a certain vibe. I don’t see Dylan as offering a gauzy-eyed and uncritical tribute to the past, or that there was necessarily some eternal truth in 1949 or 1957 or 1961 that forever was corrupted. He’s more nuanced than that. But there is a sense of loss or a feeling that something has been lost in terms of options or, as Marcus notes, “what counts, what doesn’t, what lasts, what shouldn’t.”

We see this throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song.

On “Detroit City”: “Like thousands of others, he left the farm, came to the big city to get ahead, and got lost.”[2]

On “Pump it Up”: “Why all the monotonous and lifeless music that plays inside your head?”[3]

On “Take Me From this Garden of Evil”: “But you’re in limbo, and you’re shouting at anyone who’ll listen…you want to be emancipated from all the hokum. You don’t want to daydream your life away, you want to get beyond the borderlands and you’ve been ruminating too long.”[4]

On “Money Honey”: “People with no discernable income buy flawless knockoff watches with one letter misspellings to thwart copyright. And then wealthy people buy the same “Rulex” [sic] so their six-figure real watches won’t get stolen when they are out at dinner.”[5]

On “My Generation”: “Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before with the same arrogance and ego-driven self-importance that the previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.”[6]

On “Nelly was a Lady”: “You’ve reached the station in life where the work is meaningless….Now you live life absent-minded and distracted, but you won’t give in to emotions, if you did you’d be sunk.”[7]

On “Ruby Are You Mad?”: “But people confuse tradition with calcification. We listen to an old record and imagine it sealed in amber. A piece of nostalgia that exists for our own needs, without a thought of the sweat and toil, anger and blood that went into making it or the thing it may have turned into….A snapshot can be riveting and artful, but it is the choice of the single moment plucked from the stream moments that makes it immortal.”[8]

On “Your Cheatin’ Heart”: “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything…Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.”[9]

On “Blue Bayou”: “You’re looking forward to contentment and happiness on Blue Bayou, although right now you’re friendless, all by yourself, and feel marooned, ill at ease and edgy.”[10]

On “Midnight Rider”: “The midnight rider wants to return things back to a pre-corporate economic order and wipe the slate clean….The midnight rider has sympathizers.”[11]

On “Everybody’s Crying Mercy”: “[This song] offers a jaundiced view of the current state of the world – both when the songs were written and, sadly, now.”[12]

On “Feel So Good”: “Put it on repeat….and maybe if you’re wondering what happened to the late, great country you grew up with or how you can make America great again perhaps this record can give you some idea….Of course, this was before America was drugged into a barely functioning torpor…but it’s always hard to recognize yourself in someone else’s photo.”[13]

On “Big Boss Man”: Modern man is your employee – servile and hypercritical, he’s the informed citizen, the rational being, the yes man and the ass kisser, and his temple is the movie theater. He’s working for you around the clock, and he’s dehydrated. It would take oceans of water to cleanse him from his previous lives. He needs his rivers of poetry and music, but you won’t let him pause or stand down for a second from his chores…. You’re the Cyclopean giant – you’re on the right side of history. The supreme oligarch, the Generalissimo, the over-the-top Overlord who treats the whole world like butlers and chambermaids. You’re a man of distinction. You should be happy that people want to emulate you.”[14]

On “Strangers in the Night”: “Tramps and mavericks, the object of each other’s affection, enraptured with each other and creating an alliance – ignoring all the ages of man, the golden age, electronic age, age of anxiety, the jazz age. You’re here to tell a different story, a bird of another feather.”[15]

On “Saturday Night at the Movies”: “Sequels and remakes roll off the assembly line nowadays with alarming frequency and astronomical budgets but they still can’t recapture the wonder and magic of the originals….Those who dismiss movies from before their time as merely simplistic are missing out.”[16]

On “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”: “This song is a remembrance of things past, you’re looking back to olden times, to things that have happened before now.”[17]

You have these constant repetitions here: the unconventional life destroyed by normalcy – the constriction of creativity. The fear of being hemmed in, of being suffocated, vitality snuffed out by all the thou musts and thou shalts. It’s all about escape, reinvention, obsolescence, out-of-date, despair, suffering, mistranslation, generational shifts, generational static, and desperation. The noise of the Now drowning out the What Could Be or Could Have Been. Not negative, nor positive, optimistic, nor pessimistic: a more self-assured Zen take on loss. What have we lost? And who are the heroes? The deserter, the outlaw, the hobo, the maverick, the tramp. The enduring heroes of Dylan – no surprises here – but clearly, this book has a thumb on the scale in terms of values and needs and desires. Early reviews of the book took the title as a joke or an oversell. How do these songs cohere to something resembling a philosophy? And yet, from a distance, at least one perspective yields something definitive. How do we deal with the modern world? Here are several dozen songs that perhaps provide a path.

At the end of 2022 and into 2023, several prominent media pieces began to build a constellation of sameness: something was going on with Gen Z. After years of millennial handwringing over millennial destruction of all things holy, such as dairy to doorbells, a new culture of Not For Us, we demanded something different, something new, something that was commonplace 25 years ago. In December 2022, the New York Times ran a piece on “Luddite” teens. Every new generation discovers Kerouac, but now it’s poetry and flip phones. The Luddite club, which wanted a reprieve from constant connection and social media, soon encountered the Privilege Backlash. “You follow your kids now,” one parent said, “you track them. It’s a little Orwellian, I guess, but we’re the helicopter parent generation. So when she got rid of the iPhone, that presented a problem for us, initially.” “Well, it’s classist to make people need to have smartphones, too, right?” Mr. Lane said. “I think it’s a great conversation they’re having. There’s no right answer.”[18] Just a few weeks later, in January of 2023, the New York Times, featured teens who craved standalone digital cameras – not quite reliving the Polaroid/Lomography craze of the 00s and 10s. “Over the past few years,” the reporter notes, “nostalgia for the Y2K era, a time of both tech enthusiasm and existential dread that spanned the late 1990s and early 2000s, has seized Generation Z.”[19] “When I look back at my digital photos” – from his actual camera – “I have very specific memories attached to them,” Mr. Sondhi said. “When I go through the camera roll on my phone, I sort of remember the moment and it’s not special.”[20]

Two moments help show the way Dylan taps into moments of explosive historicism. Songs tether to particular moments but then vector backward and forward to highlight the past’s impact on the present and the Now’s imprint on the Then. The expansive nature of a song connected to a popular culture moment is slotted through the lens of Dylan. The movie that best captured the tensions here was Jordan Peele’s Nope. From its opening title card to its plot protection of analog cameras and vinyl records, to its questioning of 1990s media and nostalgia, to its provocative climax at the “Winkin’ Well,” the “old-timey” non-electric large format camera, Nope prods the audience to examine, horrifying monster or not, the cultural oxygen of modern life. Peele prefaces his film with the rarely quoted minor prophet Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”[21] Seeing these words offers a call back to Dylan’s speech in 1991 after accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award:

My daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said …He said, you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.[22]

In Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan uses remarkably similar language in discussing The Temptation’s “Ball of Confusion” from 1970:

Everything is rotten and tainted, even your punch-drunk brother, he keeps talking about love, but what’s that to you? The more you think about it, the less sure you know what it means. The new Beatles record intoxicates you – but you’ve no idea what you heard. [23]

Every ten seconds another news flash, another scandal, more headlines, more news commentators and they’re giving you the creeps. Everything is spoilt dirty, everything you touch on. [24]

But then again, things might not be so simple, you may be hallucinating, making too much of it all, blowing everything out of proportion. You just might be a difficult person to get along with. [25]

This idea that everything is “spoilt dirty” resonates. Back to 1991. Back to 1971. Back to the 7th century BCE. The promise of the past shaking the foundation of the present. And the Nope trailer? Set to “Ball of Confusion.”

A similar argument can be made with a connection between Dylan and the television show Mad Men. A Dylan motif runs through the entire series. Sometimes overtly: the use of his music, two characters plan to see him in concert, and often through allusion as with assumed identities, masking, and a traipsing across a rather obdurate generational divide. Dylan: “Like with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a bit dodgy in places.”[26] “There’s lots of reasons folks change their names,” Dylan writes in his chapter on “Old Violin,” “And then there are those who change their own names, either on the run from some unseen demon or heading toward something else.[27] In 2007, AMC aired the inaugural season of Mad Men, a television show set in the early 1960s and centered on the world of New York advertising. The pilot episode culminates with Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live.” After living with Don Draper’s seemingly single, carefree Manhattan life, the audience is shown the bait-and-switch as he ends his day at home with his wife and children – the romance of Damone, then, in high contrast to the duplicity at the heart of Draper. In his chapter on Damone, Dylan writes, “maybe that’s as close as you can get with somebody. Being on the street where they live.”[28] Trouble is avoided through charisma, perhaps, but for how long? For Draper, about a decade.

The first season culminates famously with “The Wheel,” a poignant episode centered on the run-up to Thanksgiving 1960. The episode closes out with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a song released in 1963. Bob Dylan runs through the entire seven seasons of the series, if only at times as a glancing aside. Dylan’s appearance in the first season’s finale provides a multifaceted tableau of the (a)historical. The episode’s theme relates strongly to the dark gravity of nostalgia – both in terms of individual emotional life and packaging the potency of longing for an unobtainable past. As the main character imagines a Thanksgiving weekend with family and without strife, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” slides into the soundtrack. The song works on several levels in the scene. A vital element of this conversation relates to the anachronistic aspects. The season ended in 1961, but Dylan would not release the song until 1963. Critics tended to get hung up on the inaccuracy. Still, it can help frame the discussion as the anachronistic nature of its placement allows for a meta-discussion of how popular culture projects history and historical tableaus to audiences. A straightforward plot discussion quickly unravels as the soundtrack pushes against these narratives.

All these vectors converge in the book’s final chapter in an essay centered on “Where or When” by Dion and the Belmonts. This particular song, so simple on the surface but endlessly deep on repeated listens, underscores the metanarrative of The Philosophy of Modern Song. “This is a song of reincarnation,” Dylan writes, “one repetitious drone through space, plugging the same old theme, nonstop over and over again…where everything is exactly alike, and you can’t tell anything apart.” “History,” Dylan argues, “keeps repeating itself, and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.[29] Memory, too, matters in all of its fallibility and, thus, its potency. “But so it is of music,” Dylan writes, “it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space.”[30] As a preface to the chapter, the book includes an uncited photograph of two young lovers on a bench beneath L’Heure de tous, a striking sculpture outside the Gare Saint- Lazare in Paris. Created by French-American artist Arman, the piece is a fusion of bronze clocks, each set at different times. Where or when?

The creaking ropes of the buried camera in Nope spit out chemical images of the metaphoric and real. The nostalgia of Mad Men, with its slide projector clicking and shuddering through personal memories, scatters psychic wounds against a blank screen. We see this, too, in two paintings that help set the scene. One is by Norwegian painter Harald Oskar Sohlberg, currently in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. And a second is by Bob Dylan, based on a film still. Sohlberg’s Country Road (1905) shows a dirt path bisecting a dark, twilight landscape of stillness. Yet, the eye is drawn to the telephone poles spiking the center of the frame. Sohlberg crushes the past and present (and anticipated communicative future) into one image of striking ambivalence. The painting’s deep purples, browns, and greens evoke a spectral scene of change and continuity. The poles pose both a threat and a promise. Seemingly built out of the wood from the trees surrounding the road, the telephone posts beckon and fade simultaneously. Dylan’s painting serves a similar purpose, though from a different direction. The scene in Texas Boneyard centers on a dilapidated drive-in movie theater with a wrecked screen and faded marquee standing as silent monuments to the entertainment of the past. The marquee sign in transition also shows up in The Philosophy of Modern Song, as a worker replacing Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis’s war picture Kings Go Forth (1958) leaves “FRANK SIN” in midair.[31] In their dreamy blues and greens, both paintings suggest time passing with technology spreading and dividing the scenes in challenging and complicated ways. Nostalgia. But for what? Perhaps anti-nostalgia. But to what end? The emotional sentiment (shy of sentimentality) of both paintings forces the viewer to register past/present/future while maintaining a grasp on their connection to their contemporary moment.

Dylan’s painting comes directly from the final scene in John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), where the two main characters, following a rather uncomfortable moment of awareness of blood realization, stare into the ruined drive-in (the El Vaquero). Forget all that stuff. Forget the Alamo. A film obsessed with the falseness of memory ends with an admonition to forget everything that came before. Dylan, too, must have been struck by that scene and its fever of wistful forgetfulness, the ambiguity of the half-remembered. It’s the ambiguity here that must be evoked. Not new, but still, a nuanced ambivalence runs through this book – a theme and a mood that reaches back to earlier anxieties about earlier industries and technologies. Put another way, as Richard “Rabbit” Brown sang in “James Alley Blues,” a song caught on tape by a young Dylan on the cusp of fame: “Times ain’t now nothing like they used to be.” On a related note, in his discussion of John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore,” Dylan hits directly at this point. “How do you identify with a world that has set you aside, a world that took everything from you without asking, a world that’s asleep, bedded down and deep into slumber- land taking one long endless siesta?” “You’ll go into the mythic land of rebirth,” Dylan argues, “stare up into the mirror of the night sky and talk to your ancestors. They’re wide awake.[32]

In his interview with Dylan in December 2022 for the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Slate asked how he listened to music. “I listen to CD’s, satellite radio and streaming,” Dylan replied:

I do love the sound of old vinyl though, especially on a tube record player from back in the day. I bought three of those in an antique store in Oregon about 30 years ago. They’re just little, but the tone quality is so powerful and miraculous, has so much depth, it always takes me back to the days when life was different and unpredictable. You had no idea what was coming down the road, and it didn’t matter. The laws of time didn’t apply to you.[33]

With its specificity and invocation of the magical, this response sums up much of the discussion in The Philosophy of Modern Song. So much of the book focuses on this connection of life to music via technology, and however complex and even infuriating the technology piece is, it remains the bridge between lived experiences and memory and art and existence. Writing on “Where or When,” Dylan argues that “music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.”[34]

The laws of time didn’t apply to you.

The outmoded camera, the rickety slide projector, the drive-in movie, the stacked clocks, the telephone poles bisecting nature, bisecting time. Is it a rejection of the new and a grasping of the old? Is it fetishistic? It is interesting that young people want to recover the cameras of the past – the cameras from 2008, from 1998, from 1958. They seem to seek better approximations of their lives in yesterday’s warped, woozy imperfect photos. Of course, in a generation, the filtered Instagram world of 2023 might seem hopelessly authentic to those similarly trapped in their current search for authenticity. The archive of memory rejects any simple cataloging. These images run through Dylan’s book, and it is here where he clearly delineates the contemporary moment of cultural discontent. The “philosophy of modern song,” indeed.


[1] Greil Marcus, “Days Between Stations” (December 1993).

[2] Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 5.

[3] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 8.

[4] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 15.

[5] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 35.

[6] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 43.

[7] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 113.

[8] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 144.

[9] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 165.

[10] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 170.

[11] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 174.

[12] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 209.

[13] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 223.

[14] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 259.

[15] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 301.

[16] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 314.

[17] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 319.

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/15/style/teens-social-media.html

[19] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/07/technology/digital-cameras-olympus-canon.html

[20] nytimes.com/2023/01/07/technology/digital-cameras-olympus-canon.html. Of course, the rise of AI (especially across college campuses) has driven new conversations about old topics. Earlier this year, Medium published a piece: “AI and the New-Luddites.” https://medium.com/electronic-life/ai-and-the-neo-luddites-6e154260da28. But more noise was felt in art and film, for the films of 2022 defined much of this discourse. Tár’s take on generational critique and criticism. The Fableman’s take on childhood nostalgia/anti-nostalgia and film. And White Noise, released just a couple of weeks after The Philosophy of Modern Song with its satire, by way of 1985, of consumerism and consumption. LCD Soundsystem provides a mission statement of this feeling in their “New Body Rhumba,” written for the soundtrack (and featured in the film’s choreographed ending). “The distance is growing but so is the longing,” James Murphy sings, “which leaves the in-between.”

[21] Nahum 3:6.

[22] https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/int/grammiesspeech.html

[23] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 76.

[24] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 77.

[25] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 77.

[26] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 23.

[27] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 147.

[28] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 134.

[29] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 327. “Life in the wasteland, where there’s no tomorrow and it always seems like only yesterday, where we share the same faults over and over, where reincarnation overtakes you. Where the past has a way of showing up in front of you and coming into your life without being called….Where if it’s not happening now, it wasn’t happening ever.” Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 329

[30] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 334.

[31] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 337.

[32] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 196.

[33] https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/. “How do you discover new music these days? Mostly by accident, by chance. If I go looking for something I usually don’t find it. In fact, I never find it. I walk into things intuitively when I’m most likely not looking for anything….Obscure artists, obscure songs.”

[34] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 334.