Blog Post

The times, they are a-changin'

I once held the official position that I did not understand why people blogged. I also once held the position that I did not understand why people listened to music. I suppose it is appropriate that my first forray into blogging, as with my first forray into music listening, comes in response to the man so constantly the center of my analytic and the aspiration of my aesthetic efforts -- Bob Dylan. The times, it seems, are a-changin. I returned last night from a Dylan concert in Rhode Island, and for whatever reason (call it a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions) I feel now compelled to write (that and to avoid work which, given how often I hear that sentiment echoed in thoughtful meditations, I must conclude is one of the most productive activities in our culture).

I loved the concert. It was just the write combination of "yes I love that song" and "dear god what was that?" What interested me though, and what got me thinking, was the discussion of the people behind me. I do not know their age except to say that they were older than I. The only discussion I heard was of how Dylan never interacted with the audience, was relying too much on the old stuff, just replaying that over and over, and that they didn't like the band at this particular concert and it was detracting from the experience. They left early.

What interested me was this attention called to the performance aesthetic so evident in Dylan's work. The man has essentially built an unparalleled icon-status by continually shocking and disapointing his fans. Electric at Newport? Moreover, his attitude towards any who would try to understand his work -- to criticize or to praise -- seems to be a constant dismissive hostility. It might not be correct to say that Dylan does not seek attention or approval from his audience, but if he does, he does so in a way qualitatively different than most public figures. It took me several verses to even recognize the profoundly mangled "It's Alright Ma." Dylan was not reinterpreting or representing that well loved song to refresh it or repackage it for his audience. It would surprise me if most of the people in that stadium even knew what was being played. When those notes hit the air, they did so in a profound declaration of newness. None could claim them, because they were not the songs anyone remembered. I think it is worth considering a read of Dylan's aesthetic in terms of a word I know people around here like to throw around a lot, but which I think principally defines Dylan's style and his song: ownership.

If Ricks is right in suggesting that "sin" is the appropriate handle with which to pick up Dylan's work, then perhaps ownership is a loose strap that one might use to keep the reading secure. Dylan once said that he doesn't write political songs, he writes love songs. One near constant theme that runs through Dylan's song that I think makes it resonate so powerfully with its listeners is the constant desire for freedom even from those you love. Dylan does not exalt the bliss of love or the excitement of its pursuit, nor yet does he quite mourn the tragedy of love unfulfilled or gone wrong. These emotions are divine. They are classical. In Dylan, love is human. As a rule, it has seemed to me that love in Dylan centers on the demands it makes on lovers -- on obligations that bind them, and on the constant need to be free.

"if you get close to her, kiss her once for me / I always have respected her, for doin what she did and gettin free" -- if you see her say hello

"me I'm still on the road heading for another joint / we always did feel the same we just saw it from another point / of view" -- tangled up in blue

"I ain't sayin you treated me unkind / you coulda done better but I don't mind / you just kinda wasted my precious time" -- Don't think twice, it's alright

I certainly wouldn't say that this is the only message about love in Dylan. I'm sure he would say I've got it all wrong, and its probably not about love anyway. However, I think it provides an interesting way to look at things both in and outside of Dylan's work. Let's talk about ownership. We are, as a culture, with IP and copyright and so on so precise about wanting to know precisely who owns all things at all times that I think most of us have forgotten why we cared to begin with. Were inventors and businesses supposed to make livings off their work and copyright was to encourage innovation? The debate that goes on now seems more about the philosophical right to all profit than about the pragmatic protection from unethical business practice.  The AP wants people to read but not to reproduce. Inert statistical processes get blamed for stealing material. Amazon pulls 1984 over whether the bits comprizing the text on your screen came from a country with or without an existing copyright protection in place in an existential nightmare that would make the greatest theorists of the last century cry in frustration. And content. Everyone wants it, and they want exclusivity. They want to own it. Think about ownership for a moment like Dylan thinks about love. Content with the capital C is the maiden with a thousand suitors. Perhaps Content can stay a while in the relationships it finds itself in, but sooner or later "the bottom falls out." The demands of this bond are taxing and holding it against its will, well that isn't love. News content, any content grows out of date. It stops being news. Once the copyright holder and his Content have enjoyed their time together and profit has been made, it is cruel to keep Content chained to one place. It is restless. It has other places to see and other lives to live in other kinds of projects, but as long as it is bound, it cannot move on. There is something unnatural about a law that dictates "not even at death do we part"

I won't say that information should be free. I know there are problems with that and people with problems with that. I think that in some cases information benefits from the realities of ownership. Sometimes this ownership is exactly what allows it to grow and even come to be. However, what is sweet at the beginning of such a union may eventually turn sour. I have been working this summer in computational linguistics. I need lots of information. Thousands of news articles. This has been an incredible difficulty to obtain, with each news organization being so over protective, and lexisnexis fearing that I might try to steal their information and profit from it. I don't need or even want the text of these articles. I want the statistics within them. I want to know how often a noun comes after "the" I want to know how often victims are mentioned in articles about plane crashes. This is not the content that lexisnexis, the AP, or anyone strives to protect, this is information that wants to move on but cannot for it is bound to the relations it inherited from the history of its creation. Copyright has become far more than an economic policy. It has become a dogma and a culture. There is no reason that the relationship I wish to have towards the news media's content prevents or inhibits anything any news organization does. I am not distributing it, I am only reading it--digitally. Yet, the mere act of possessing this information on my computer terrifies these organizations, because I am threatening not their ability to profit, but their copyright. Intellectual property rights have come to justify themselves outside of any critical measure of their worth. I do not think all information should be free, but I hope that when Content decides it is time to be free, the AP and everyone else can respect her for doing what she did.

It seems to me that at least mixed in somewhere in what drives Dylan's constant reinterpretations is an attempt to do what he does so often in his songs -- to get free from the fans that so admire and adore his work. Who does not know Dylan's work? And who does not agree that his songs have shaped generations? People identify with Dylan and they feel that his music speaks to them, but while Dylan allows this sometimes -- like a rolling stone was unmistakable -- sometimes too he sings songs with the express purpose of stating that you, as his audience, do not own his music, you do not understand his music, and you must respect its wishes to be free of the attempts of so many to interpret it and to make it theirs. Cruically though, I think that there is more to this. I think that Dylan fundamentally does what this culture does not accept or understand and presents a different model of ownership. He profits from the well known songs he has written -- in adoration and record sales -- but he does not exhaust those songs, profiting from each success to the full extent of the law. He continually reinvents his songs in ways his audience often doesn't understand or doesn't like, and in doing so he creates new ways for new audiences to come to know his music. Dylan is the principal repurposer of his own content. He plays all styles, and it is in this that I see the possibility for a reimagining of society's relationship to its property. As much as american business wants the narrative of copyright to be the protection of the vulnerable american innovator, it can also run counter to its philosophical purpose when it is legal wrangling instead of innovation responsible for profit. Instead of desperately and jealously clinging to anything that could be considered derivative work, suppose copyright, as a culture or a law, was more willing to see original work repurposed and reimagined. It is not obvious to me that this would be any less in the spirit of the law. Yet, it is a law that is firmly tied to its history, and it is a history in which these concerns play little part. Copyright came from a different time, but now, I think, the times are a-changin.

 One last observation I'd like to make of Dylan is that by continually divorcing these songs from their origins, he continually denies the nostalgia that they would otherwise be affixed to. When Dylan first sang those words in 1963, it was true; the times were a-changin. The times now may very well be a-changin too, but perhaps we need new language to describe it. Maybe in these times we won't sink like stones or the loser now will not be later to win. Maybe what Dylan is telling us is that the old metaphors are no longer new -- that we must always be looking for new metaphors and viewing the world around us in a new way. We cannot hold onto these songs because what they are now is not what they were. Their meanings long to be free as they once may have been. I found it appropriate in this context that willie nelson opened the concert with the words "this is for my generation" and proceeded to sing " I ain't gonna need this body much longer / I ain't gonna need this body much more." I think in a lot of ways a paradigm that defines this modern moment is this: we look to the past and believe nothing has changed. We misconstrue Darwin, call it law, and legislate on what we believe to be human nature. We read classical authors and discuss what it means to be human, now and then. But things have changed. Dylan understands that. He is perhaps one of the few that makes it so fundamentally a part of his "style." Copyright, information, ownership, and love, these are all things we think we inherited from the generations that preceeded us but maybe that isn't so. This is a new age, and while the "game [may be] the same... it's [most certainly] up on another level"

That's about as much as I think I can write at the moment. I don't know if or when I will write something again. If it is less a question for me now why bloggers do what they do, it remains as great a mystery the question of how they find the time. I fear the endless hunger for original content that I know exists on the internet, and so out of respect for my own time, I "dun laid around, stayed around this old town too long, summers almost gone, and it seems like I've gotta travel on"

 

 

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