We continue with guest blogger and author Robert Loss, whose new book Nothing Has Been Done Before explores the idea of newness in popular music. Today, read about how he wrote his Bob Dylan chapter and how Dylan’s Nobel Prize win changed the course of his writing. Plus, a Dylan playlist.
The situation is always changing. The book you might have written five years ago about Prince would be very different from the book you’d write today. We could say the same about Taylor Swift, or retro music, or newness in general. Even deeply historical projects can experience sudden changes in what’s known. The story of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ mysterious “Last Kind Words Blues,” for instance, was given an entirely new dimension by the research of John Jeremiah Sullivan published in 2014.
The day Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature—October 13, 2016—I had already written roughly 13,000 words about him for the chapter in Nothing Has Been Done Before titled “‘Love and Theft’: Transgression and the Cultural Archive.” I thought I had the story down. When the news broke that morning, I was in New York City for a conference. My first reaction was glee, which only increased as people began wringing their hands over whether or not it was fitting for a literature award. Then it occurred to me that my chapter was outdated. It was already at least four thousand words too long. I had three months to finish the manuscript for the entire book, and it needed serious work. I was screwed.
“‘Love and Theft’: Transgression and the Cultural Archive” is the book’s second chapter, and it sets up crucial ideas about the tension between artist and culture that inform the rest of the book. Mainly I focus on the philosopher Boris Groys’ concept of the “cultural economy of exchange” in which institutions, often derided as housing the old, the mothballed, the out-of-date, actually determine what is new. In his book On the New, Groys describes how these “cultural archives”—primarily museums and libraries—engage in an exchange of values with the “profane realm,” which is nothing more than the ordinary, everyday life that goes unnoticed and unpreserved. Newness is the exchange of values, Groys argues, not works themselves. The catch is that when something is included in the archive, its opposite is jettisoned.
I was interested in applying Groys’ idea to popular music for numerous reasons. Chief among them was my desire to articulate a different way of thinking about the role of traditions and archives in recognizing and preserving newness, and thus spurring more inventions that resist or reject institutional definitions of the new. I was convinced from the start that this chapter had to be about Bob Dylan. No living rock ‘n’ roll musician has committed such a monumental artistic transgression and consequent social upheaval—Newport 1965 to Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, in sum an event not just for music, but for life—and then lived with it for so long, wrestling with it, running away from it, meeting it head-on, and breaking through to something new. Released on September 11, 2001, “Love and Theft” was that breakthrough, and not coincidentally, it’s filled with transgressions.
Anyway, now Dylan was being honored by the Nobel Prize Foundation, arguably the highest institutional honor in existence.
Coincidentally, the day before the news broke, I’d interviewed Boris Groys. I was in New York with my colleague Matt Mitchem, a philosopher who’d studied with Boris at the European Graduate School, and Matt had set up a meeting at Boris’ NYU office. We took the subway to Washington Square, bummed around outside the building, and then, even though we had an appointment, felt the need to sneak past a security guard who was checking IDs.
The point of our chat was to discuss On the New, but we more or less abandoned any plan. I’m not sure if the three of us remembered there was a plan. We did talk about pop music, narcissism, and self-objectification, and since I was already applying Boris’ theory to the institutions of pop music, this went into the book. If I’d known Dylan was going to win the Nobel, I probably would have been more insistent that we nail down every loose thread I was chasing.
Some artists will keep changing the situation, and Dylan is one of them. While there’s much left to say about his career before 2000, and while it’s maybe inevitable that the years 1961-1966 will forever dominate the official story that gets told about him, I’m of the mind that the music he’s been making in this new millennium is compelling and overlooked. That’s one reason I wrote this particular chapter in Nothing Has Been Done Before. That said, it accounts only for “Love and Theft” and, to a smaller extent, Modern Times. There’s much more to consider, from his bewildering 2009 album Christmas in the Heart to Tempest in 2012, from his treasure trove of live performances to his recent albums of pop standards, Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and Triplicate.
What I continue to find fascinating is how any artist could bear so much cultural weight and stay restlessly inventive. During our conversation last October, Boris Groys said, “What I describe in On the New is that the moment you have the archive, you lose this kind of immediate response. You become more and more reactive to what’s come before and you try not to repeat it.” As I write in my book, when Dylan looks at that archive, when he listens to it, he sees and hears himself.
The story of Dylan career’s resurgence, beginning in the 1990s and on into the new millennium, is first the story of him getting as far away from the archive as possible. Then it becomes the story of how the entire history and tradition of American popular music came into view behind him in that mirror. And his version of tradition is not about replicating the past. It’s about constant change.
Here, then, are some Dylan studio performances from this century in which tradition, newness, and occasionally transgression meet.
For more about the book, including events and a complete discography, visit: www.nothinghasbeendonebefore.com