Once Upon a Time, You Dressed So Fine

The video for “Like a Rolling Stone” might be the most endlessly re-watchable music video you’ve ever seen. Yes, that is “Like a Rolling Stone” the Bob Dylan song, released in 1965 and voted among the best songs in rock music history by just about every publication on the planet. The song now has an interactive music video that appeared without warning on Dylan’s website a week or two ago. It is composed of footage from fifteen different staples of American television—from The Price is Right through reality show The Bachelor through the MTC Business News—all featuring the same people, on the same sets, that you would see if you were to actually switch on your television. You can change channels at will, again as if you were actually watching television. There is just one difference. Everybody you lay your eyes on is mouthing along to “Like a Rolling Stone”.

It’s a genuinely unparalleled experience, and it takes a while before you realise quite how much effort and cleverness has gone into this project. The most obvious aspect of the video is its sheer comedy value. Watching a newsreader solemnly inform the camera that “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine—threw the bums a dime, in your prime” is, most immediately, just plain funny. But there is a great deal more going on here. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a seething, contemptuous rebuff to the naivety of wealth, to all who live in comfortable bubbles and who are oblivious to the real cruelties and necessities of most people’s lives. For the past 48 years it has been a musical touchstone for social commentary, its meaning and its applications constantly shifting with the mutating nature of class, inequality, and all the other spectres that Dylan’s scathing tirade conjures up. Now the 72-year-old musician has taken the song back into his own hands, and placed it at the centre of a work of art that offers new meanings and new contexts for the music at every turn.

Consider the way the images frequently seem to complement and comment upon the lyrics, offering contrasts and juxtapositions that are much more deliberate than they may appear. A headline announcing that “Occupy is Back” appears behind the BBC newsreader as he asks you how you feel about “having to be scrounging your next meal”. A model strides down a catwalk as a spangle-dressed announcer remarks on “all the pretty people” who are “drinking, thinking that they got it made”. On that same channel (Look TV, showing Fashion In and Out), an array of young women drink glasses of champagne in a club—and we cut to a talking head who utters the simple commentary, “like a rolling stone.” Moments like these are endless—and as it is possible to watch the video a dozen times and see completely different things as you flip through the channels, it will take a long time before any of us has discovered them all.

We should remember that Dylan is rarely interested in advocating for social causes, and that his music has usually been more preoccupied with the personal than the political. The facile and the insincere in public life have long been the targets of his venom, but he is equally focused on individual character and human interactions. Seeing the animated cat on the kids’ show Zoey and Socks inform the sweet little girl who accompanies it that “You go to the finest school, alright Miss Lonely, but you know you only used to get juiced in it” may seem funny at first. But then, it could also feel bittersweet—and it very quickly turns jarringly and bizarrely dark, as the girl replies to her cat that “Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street, and now you’re going to have to get used to it.” The cat, normally a smiling cartoon cutie, suddenly looks lost and sad. The very notion of turning Dylan’s sneering sequence of taunts into a dialogue between two characters is striking enough, but to make this dialogue both meaningful and moving would be remarkable even if the protagonists were not a pair of animated cut-outs.

That this is a Dylan project through and through is evident in exchanges like that, as his typically sardonic black humour pokes its head up at the most unexpected moments. And then there is Dylan’s characteristic knack for packing images with deliberate, often symbolic details (a faculty to which anybody who has taken a hard look at the cover of Bringing it all Back Home can attest). You can go several views before noticing the scrolling news bar on the Wall Street market update channel, which reads partly like a sequence of headlines from The Onion (“Alert: some stocks went up and some stocks went down”) and partly like a mockery of the very Occupy-type slogans it seems to display (the statement “top 1% control 33% of the wealth” is, surprise surprise, not accurate). Like the song itself, this video contains multitudes.

Dylan has a long history of dumbfounding his admirers with sudden left turns and eccentric indulgences, some of them inspired (who could forget his delightful album of Christmas songs?), some of them dismal (check 1970’s Self Portrait). That one of the most revered songs of the 20th century has now been given a decidedly 21st-century overhaul will no doubt be greeted in some quarters, as Dylan’s unpredictable moves so often are, with shock and disapproval. Such reactions are not only unwarranted, they are narrow-minded. It doesn’t take much originality to observe that this video is manifestly a product of the internet age; but it is also a take on internet-based culture that feels entirely new. What it means—for music, for music videos, for modern popular culture—is very contestable, and will no doubt be very hotly contested. Yet that in itself is an indicator that this is a significant and original work.

There have, of course, been interactive music videos before, notably the much-publicised “Reflektor” video from Arcade Fire just a few months ago. But what Dylan has created, with its infinite-seeming variety of forms and effects, all utilising the commonplace, recognisable images of American television (it is, after all, possible to eschew changing the channels and watch it as fifteen separate, self-contained videos), is unprecedented. This “Like a Rolling Stone” is a kaleidoscope of startling vibrancy and intelligence, and a pop collage to rival anything in hip-hop sampling, or the conceptual art scene, for its ability to summon new meanings out of pre-existing content. That it demonstrates Dylan’s continuing relevance is the least of its virtues. It is an artwork built of ephemera, and yet it feels decidedly, and brilliantly, permanent.

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