Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Dylan the Brand

Anne Ream

No Faith in the Market – Part II

To read Part I, Click Here >>

Anne Ream

Back to the music. In one of the angriest anti-love songs ever written — “Positively Fourth Street” — Dylan places his former lover squarely on the side of the privileged: a tool of and a stand-in for the worst excesses of the capitalist conformist:

You’ve got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just wanna be on the side that’s winning

It’s not only Dylan’s former lover, but also upwardly mobile middle class culture that seems here to be indicted. The song’s resonance rests in how perfectly it balances rage and restraint. What’s fascinating about “Fourth Street” is how neatly the lyrics foreshadow the language of labor organizer Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic, Rules for Radicals, a primer for organizers and advocates for the poor and exploited (and reportedly an influence on president Obama). When Alinsky entreats the middle class (who he witheringly refers to as the “have-a-little-want mores”) to reject traditional notions of upward mobility and identify with the poor instead of the powerful, it’s hard not to hear shades of Dylan’s “Fourth Street”:

I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem

Cambridge Companion to Bob DylanThe song may have been written for a former lover, but the words ring true as a plea to a middle class that does not understand what its devotion to upward mobility has cost those on the lower rungs of the class structure.

Yet despite – or was it because of? – his history as a reliably anti-capitalist and non-conformist voice, Dylan’s decision to “go commercial” by entering into a partnership with Victoria’s Secret was met with nary a shrug. Sure, the blogosphere, true to form, was good for a bit of umbrage, and the media served up an endless, aimless round of puns (“Tangled up in boobs,” was a particular low, courtesy of Slate). But the general reaction was mild. You could almost hear the high and low cultural shrug. “What would you rather have Bob Dylan sell, ladies underwear or cat food?” asked a New York City disc jockey for whom the question seemed to be not “if” but “what.”

…the general reaction was mild. You could almost hear the high and low cultural shrug. “What would you rather have Bob Dylan sell, ladies underwear or cat food?”

Even feminists, who might have found much to criticize in Dylan’s embrace of a lingerie brand long derided for its objectification of women, remained surprisingly mute. Of course, feminists have never been much invested in the work of Dylan. They had no faith to lose, and perhaps he knew it.

Yet when one considers the biography of Dylan, one might argue that his late career embrace of the market, like the other two publicly “transitional” moments in the singer’s life – “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and converting to Christianity in 1978 – were interdependent, and even inevitable. The recurring theme is conversion: his rejection of the folk movement at Newport a transition in musical style most often perceived as an ideological rift, and his embrace of Evangelical Christianity a revolution in personal consciousness. Both, of course, were nods to the zeitgeist.

Dylan’s most recent shift – a public embrace of the market machinery that he has long derided in his work, though not in his actual career – was not so much revolutionary but evolutionary, putting a fine point on the fact that Dylan the lyrical anti-capitalist has often co-existed with Dylan the relentlessly marketed (and often self-marketed) “brand.”

To read Part III of No Faith in the Market, click here >>

About The Author

Anne Ream

Anne Ream is a Chicago-based writer and a contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan (2009). A past finalist for the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Documentary Prize, Ms. Ream...

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