Bob Dylan and the Paradoxical Tradition of Antiestablishment Art

At the beginning of the 60s, popular music was not considered to be a serious art form in America. Rock and roll of the 50s was popular on the airwaves and had a massive following among the teenagers but it was largely believed that only these teenagers had eardrums thick enough or souls insensitive enough to enjoy it. Despite his outrageous popularity, no critic ever thought of Elvis Presley to be a serious artist. The 60s however, brought about a fundamental change in the views of the American society at large, forcing it to consider popular musicians as serious artists. Popular music, an umbrella term for various styles such as folk, folk rock, hard rock and blues was seen to be different from earlier forms as perceived by Robert Rosenstone in his essay, "The Times They Are A-Changin': The Music of Protest" where he writes, “Popular music can only be understood broadly as the old music classifications have been totally smashed, and the forms now overlap in a way that makes meaningful distinctions between them, impossible” (132). In the preceding decade, Popular music was about individuals yearning for love, who populated a strange and vague world where no one ever seemed to work or get married, which led John Gunn to describe this setup as the “fag end of the Petrarchan tradition.” Suddenly in the 60s, artists started to talk about anti war demonstrations, civil rights, censorship, drug experiences, sexuality, and one man was at the very centre of this metamorphosis: Bob Dylan.

For his generation, and for perhaps others that followed, Bob Dylan was a prophet, a cult figure in the counterculture movement who helped his followers define their identity and social standing in opposition to the past. His meteoric rise and his continued celebrity is a complex and paradoxical phenomenon. To begin with, he has changed his ideological standing more times than one would believe- pioneer of the folk left, leader of the counterculture, writer of archetypal love songs and mystic, Hasidic Jew and now a born again Christian. This constant reinvention is pertinent to understanding Bob Dylan, and is also the entry point into the paradoxical tradition of being non and even anti traditional; a tradition which created artworks that espoused individuality, nonconformity and a latent distrust of authority (mind you that Dylan emerged as an authoritative figure himself in this decade of transformation). This paper then, is an attempt to understand Bob Dylan’s pivotal role in shaping the popular culture of the sixties through his ever changing political stance and his obsessive tinkering with his own public image. The larger goal is to understand the times and how they were a-changin’ to create fertile ground for Dylan to manifest.

When Dylan started out in the early 60s, he was embedded in the tradition of the folk genre of songwriting whereto critique of society was overt but it lacked nuance. Dylan’s earlier hits such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” were potent verses in themselves but they tended to follow a black and white model of public morality. Dylan was quick to realise the limitations of this template and reinvented his style by writing state-of-the-nation-esque songs such as “A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall” and “It's Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin’” which established him at the forefront of the anti-establishment tide as he succinctly described the anguish of the american youth. To better understand Dylan’s socio-political critique, Tony Fluxman in his article, “Bob Dylan and the Dielectic of Enlightenment: Critical Lyricist in the age of High Capitalism” studied Dylan’s songs in conjunction with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dielectic of Enlightenment. Dylan’s profound critique of the structures of domination in the late capitalist society can be better understood once we have a look at the failed promise of the capitalist enlightenment and the paradox associated with it. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that enlightenment was an emancipatory idea wherein scientific knowledge and technological assistance was to overcome the myths that kept humanity in a perpetual state of fear. Enlightenment displaced speculative fancy with scientific facts. But instead of the promised emancipation, new structures of fear, myth and domination were erected. The scourge of war, and nuclear annihilation was overt but there was also an ongoing crisis of individuality which Dylan and his music managed to articulate. This articulation was based on the idea of expanding one’s mind, i.e to explore one’s subjective consciousness. Although it had spiritual undertones, the idea of mind expansion rested squarely on the use of psychedelic drugs such as cannabis and LSD, non-conformity, celebration of human body and sexuality. This embracing of oneself and creating a drug fuelled alternative to reality was a successful attempt at bridging the gap that lay between the promise of enlightenment and its reality. The critique then also targeted the socio-economic system that was put in place by the workings of the said Enlightenment.

The critique of the mass culture by popular music was inherently paradoxical as popular music too was a form of this mass culture. Critics have pointed out that this fault at the very heart of this counterculture movement made it nearly impossible for the movement to gain anything tangible except fill the coffers of the artists and the record company producers. They termed the movement to be shambolic as it was an instance of high capitalism making tonnes of money by allowing a cursory critique of itself. Going ahead with this chain of thought, critics indicated that popular music only acts to siphon out the rebellious feelings that otherwise cumulate under the surface. The category was thus seen as a safety valve that renders the objectors harmless in the long run, thereby preventing the revolution from ever taking off in the first place. Republican congressman James Tustin encapsulates this very idea when he states that “Beatles and other rock musicians use Pavlovian techniques to provoke neurosis in their listeners.” Bob Dylan, a leader and prophet of the masses telling the people to not follow the leaders, sends, at the very best, some mixed signals. However, this is also a comment on the American brand of enterprise which will allow its own destruction to be preached, if the product which is doing so is profitable. Against this tirade of criticism, the question which arises is: What exactly does Dylan manage to achieve in tangible terms? Timothy Leary’s short answer to that is  “I think the whole body of rock music spreading out from the centre, with Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, involves its audience with an even more fundamental confrontation with the society. It says you are, all of you, wrong” (164). Yes, there is a clear lack of resolution or finality in the struggle between popular music and the crumbling, age old, American institutions, but what we can say with some amount of surety is that Dylan’s music emboldened the 60s generation and infused a people with belief to trust their own intuitions and feelings. As Dylan says himself, one doesn't need the services of a weatherman to figure out which way the wind blows.

What I find interesting is Dylan’s style and the constant and conscious changes he made so as to stay ahead of the curve when push came to shove. I believe Dylan was aware of his position within the mass culture and understood its limitations. By way of content, he didn't have much to add to the already expanding discourse of anti-establishment art. So what he changed was style. He turned his gaze inwards to retain the individuality and his style became increasingly impressionistic to make meaning more and more subjective. Dylan genius lay in his attitude where the songs were meant to be understood according to the listener as per their own interiority. This was Dylan’s clever manoeuvre to bypass and consequently subdue the mass in mass culture. As a result, Dylan’s songs, to his audience, seemed to possess a meaning which went beyond the circumstances of their creation. Emphasising on Dylan’s stylistic genius, folklorist Ellen Stekart wrote in 1966, “Dylan has progressed to the present where his songs no longer have content, they simply have style. It is the Dylan style that is now doing the talking, not the content” (96). The debate between form and content is an ancient one and by now we are familiar with the idea that form is content. Dylan connects with his mass audience but on an individual basis and that is because of his style where he predominantly looks inwardly. By turning the gaze inward, Dylan is able to reach out to his fans who find his songs to be profound at the same time when many others call those very songs gibberish. This peer to peer connectivity that Dylan’s music envisions is what sets him apart in an industry which is driven by sheer numbers.

Dylan stuck to his guns when he was criticised by many as he used electronic instruments in the folk genre - a transgression of style. This impudence is now part of his legend and this is the idea on which pivots his legacy as an anti-establishment artist. The idea here is a platonic one that a change in style cannot happen in a vacuum and that it brings about a fundamental and all inclusive change in taste itself. 

Forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways...the new style quietly insinuates itself into manners and customs and from there it issues a greater force to attack laws and constitutions, displaying the utmost impudence, until it ends by overthrowing everything, both in public and in private.
— Plato

Thus, Dylan’s significance lies in quietly bringing about a change in the tastes of his target demographic which makes categorising Dylan most impossible. A great avenue to see some of the above mentioned ideas at play is the song “My Back Pages” from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. This song chronicles the introspection that Dylan underwent after his first wave of success in the early sixties. Back then he was wedded to his folk background and this extended to both style and content of his songs which, by his own admission, made him sound preachy:

the essential bob dylan.jpg
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My existence led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
— Bob Dylan (My Back Pages, 33-38)

Dylan’s thought process indicates that he has understood the problem in his earlier approach where an appeal to non conformity cannot coexist with him being promoted to an alternate source of authority. This paradox is the cause behind the said mutiny. By preaching to the masses, his message would appear to be at cross purposes with itself. He realises that he cannot be effective if he continues to talk to others and therefore he must turn his gaze inward in order to be more effective. In the final stanza of the same song, he admits that though there are external threats to individuality, one must fight these off by themselves i.e. the poet can’t be a saviour for anyone but themselves. Others will have to fight their own battles against the external threats and find their own definitions of good and bad. Thus, Dylan frees himself from the self imposed obligation to save the masses and once that weight is lifted off his shoulders, he feels he is young again:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
— Bob Dylan


Fluxman, Tony: Bob Dylan and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Critical Lyricist in the Age of High Capitalism. Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, No.77, Aesthetics and Ideology (May 1991), pp. 91-111

Gleeson, Ralph: The Greater Sound.The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 13, No. 4, Politics and Performance (Summer, 1969), pp. 160-166

Gremore, Robert: The social roots of imagination: Language and structure in Bob Dylan’s Baby Blue. American Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (fall 1980), pp. 95-107

Rosenstone, Robert: The Times They Are A-Changin': The Music of Protest. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 382, Protest in the Sixties (Mar., 1969) pp. 131-144

Denisoff, Serge: Protest songs- Those on the Top 40 and Those off the Streets. American Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 807-823

Noland Carrie: Patti Smith and Rimbaud- Style as Social Deviance.Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1995), pp. 581-610


Anunaya Rajhans

Finished a Master's degree in English Literature and now teaches Critical Writing to an exceptionally eccentric bunch. Research interests include memes, cyber subculture and internet humour - so as to make sure to not be taken seriously. Loves trivia quizzes and hates people who like La La land.