The Spirit of the Time
“The really unusual thing about Bob Dylan was that, for a moment in the Sixties, he felt like the future.”
Rolling Stone’s 7th greatest singer of all time recently gave an interview, his only interview in promotion of his impending album, “Shadows in the Night,” to AARP Magazine. It’s a funny sort of place to go to, isn’t it? He could have gone to Rolling Stone, of course. Made the cover of that magazine, or Time, or People or Vice. The notoriously private singer gave his first interview in three years to the American Association of Retired Persons. In other words, his generation.
Then again maybe it isn’t so funny. Maybe it’s a genius move to reach out to the only segment of the population likely to be familiar with the American Songbook classics he covers on his new album. Either way, at 73 years old, he’s still something of an enigma.
After pouring over this interview several times, I dove head first into all things Bob Dylan as a way of bridging the gap, wanting to understand the Voice of this Generation. Both his and mine. You see, I’m a millennial. A Gen Y’er. And what does that mean? Lazy and Entitled and Delusional. This mysterious Generation Y. Who is my voice? Why don’t I have a ‘Bob Dylan’ to call my own?
I can’t help but see so many similarities between millennials and their parents, the baby boomers. As we enter the job market, inherit the Earth so to speak, 80-million strong, doesn’t this whole place just look like it’s on death’s door? Let’s pull out our compare-and-contrast graphs and data and line them up, shall we? The 60s, a time of political and social unrest, a time when the youth culture, considered to be a “spoiled generation,” came into their own and took it upon themselves to create a counterculture. These young men and women, hailing from “an era of unparalleled affluence,” the greatest period of prosperity in US history at that time, coming forward to march, protest and fight social and cultural paradigms. Civil rights, nuclear disarmament, an unpopular war, women’s issues. They had new technology: LSD, a birth-control pill and a televised war. Their movements were helped along by charismatic leaders (MLK, Robert Kennedy), and ushered in by the election of a popular, young president (JFK). They saw the passing of a life-altering, generation-defining event, the first collapse of Camelot, the assassination of JFK. They denounced materialism, competition, conformity, they had “impossible dreams.”
“The ‘60s had much more to offer than romantic, or even political idealism; the youth movement had a definite sense of movement. Like the youth of any era, they weren’t always certain what they were fighting for, but they were certain they should be fighting for something…moving forward as part of a progression.”
Fast-forward to current day, to the kids of those revolutionaries. Millennials are a spoiled “Me Me Me” generation. They were born into a period of prosperity, defined by Sept. 11, the incident which would spark the erosion of faith in Country and Culture, saw the proliferation of an unpopular, deceptive war, the birth of unprecedented technology, a charismatic leader (Obama), the need to fight for social issues and last but certainly not least, the sense of overwhelming and inescapable doom. While this isn’t 1962 and we aren’t hiding under our school desks awaiting the drop of the atom bomb (wasn’t it just yesterday Obama said to be accepting of Iran’s nuclear policy?), we are in the midst of an ecosystem that is breaking down, an energy crisis, rising sea-levels and oh wait… a potential nuclear war. I read on a blog that one out of seven people do not think that humanity will survive their lifetime. (Proved impossible to source, but still the ring felt true.)
Now maybe that’s because of The Walking Dead, or proliferation in general of other zombie/post-apocalypse stories. Maybe it’s the Death Clock, which in January moved two minutes closer to midnight because of global warming and the accumulation of nuclear weaponry. It is as close to midnight now as it was during the Cold War. “This is about doomsday; this is about the end of civilization as we know it. The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon,” said executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kennette Benedict.
Either way, the apple appears to fall not far from the tree! How happy our parents must be that we have picked up where they left off…
But back to Bob. While he has refuted time and again that he is NOT the voice of his generation, not a topical singer at all, in fact, the world in general, or his fans I should say, insist that he is. (Sorry Bob, we’re keeping you.) I’m not one to disagree. It is no wonder the kids were so taken with him. Not only is he a brilliant lyricist, noted most for his contributions in writing, but he seemingly invented, defined and immortalized cool. He was the perfect packaging dream. If you watch his old interviews (via No Direction Home on Hulu) you can see what a ham he was. Simultaneously not giving a fuck, the original improviser.
In reading his AARP interview (try this link in case the first doesn’t work), I was inspired by what is a brutally honest and authentic voice. His manner of speech so removed me from our current time–from his description of radio days, “I think I was the last generation, or pretty close to the last one, that grew up without TV,” (sound familiar, millennials?) to the destruction of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s. “There must have been some elitist power that had…to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented—not least of all it being a black-and-white thing. Tied together and welded shut. If you separate the pieces, you’re killing it.” And his thoughts on modern-day virtue and the lack of romanticism: “People’s lives today are filled with vice and the trappings of it. Ambition, greed and selfishness all have to do with vice. We don’t see the people that vice destroys. We just see the glamour of it.”
All of this brought me back to a deficit in our society. In our generation. Maybe it’s naïveté, nostalgia or just pure stupidity to want a new uniting idol. And it’s for sure lacking in any understanding of how impossible this would be for this many-voices, media-inundated time. But still: Is it wrong to want a voice for Millennials? Every movement needs a leader, right? “Someone who implicitly under[stands] how concerned young Americans [feel] about nuclear disarmament and the growing movement for civil rights…” One exception might be the Occupy movement, which denounced leadership positions, but Occupy was a long time ago in millennial years. It is said over and over again in article and documentary-alike that Bob Dylan put a voice to the way everyone was feeling. The Spirit of the Time. He articulated what they couldn’t, and that’s why they loved him, that’s how they found their Movement–at least initially, in those early formative ‘60s years.
One thing you’ll note about Bob Dylan, he’s very clear on his influences. Where he came from. I’ve asked several people who the voice of our generation is. I’ve researched it on the web, too, resulting in a variety of answers. The most obvious, and for some the most angering, is Lena Dunham. Obvious because in a genius move she announced it of herself in the very first episode of Girls. “I don’t want to freak you out,” she says to her parents, “but I think that I may be…The Voice of my Generation.” She put it out there, everyone commented on it and it became part of the dialogue. Other answers: Buzzfeed.
Now to me, this second option rings pretty true. Because in looking over the vast commentary on the majesty that is Bob Dylan, there’s one element that tends to stick out: Dylan “defied existing pop music conventions.” Defied convention. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 noted “his profound impact on popular music and American culture.” In the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Bob Neuwirth said not once but twice, “No one had heard anything like this before. No one had heard anything like this before.” Dylan reinvented an entire culture–not unlike technology. “Bob Dylan did what very, very few singers ever do. He changed popular singing…from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.”
Call me cynical, I just don’t see this happening again. I don’t see any one artist reinventing the form. And frankly, that’s what this person would have to do to catch the attention of a mass amount of Millennials. Because while there are similarities between now and then, the differences are far too staggering. Could someone pick up his baton and carry on in a similar fashion? Sure. I think what’s more likely is a multitude of voices, hopefully coming together.
It’s the future, and everybody is world famous for 15 minutes. There’s a multitude of platforms–Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, WordPress–with which to get yourself out there. There’s the sense that if you don’t, you don’t exist. DirecTV has 500 channels and everyone has a niche, some place they’ve decided they belong. We don’t have radio anymore to look to, like our parents did, a place “where all of our prophets and leaders [are].” No, those are dominated by corporations who decide what popular music is. Salon commented, in the wake of Time Magazine’s now infamous millennials cover, “The rise of entertainments made by millennials, from books to websites to Lena Dunham’s Girls—an SEO-ready flashpoint in the ‘millennials’ discussion—has fueled an ongoing discussion over the 2010s about what exactly we can know about millennials. Perhaps, indeed, they are unknowable.”
In the same article, one of many that blasted us as being “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents,” we were also found to be the saviors of the world. The Next Greatest Generation. Optimistic, idealistic and destined to do good–doesn’t that sound nice? Even so, I think it’s true that it is unlikely we will have one uniting voice. But what is possible, is the coming together of several distinct voices, that can collectively unite a disenfranchised whole. Maybe each with their own YouTube following, I don’t know.
As the ‘60s unwound, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some mystical hand guiding all those violent interactions. It’s hard to believe there wasn’t some mystical hand guiding Bob Dylan’s rise to stardom.
“Folk music came at exactly the right time in my life. It wouldn’t have happened 10 years later, and 10 years earlier I wouldn’t have known what kind of songs those were…I had gotten in there at a time when nobody else was there or knew it even existed, so I had the whole landscape to myself. I went into songwriting. I figured I had to – I couldn’t be a hellfire rock ‘n’ roller. But I could write hellfire lyrics.”
Have we missed our pocket? Or is it still coming? Or will it never come? Will our technologies and social medias be the distraction of our undoing? Are we so inundated with voices, music, ideas, calamities that we’ll never break the surface and do anything substantial in the way of lasting and meaningful change? Will we be the Next Greatest Generation That Never Was. Falling in line alongside our parents, who Jack Newfield called “the generation of might-have-beens.”
Allen Ginsberg has said that he cried the first time he heard “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” because he knew the torch had been passed to a new generation. Now who out there is crying for us?