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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dylan and The Beatles as Art History

By Misopogon

So I took all the Dylan albums I have and put them in chronological order as a play list, and listened all the way through.

I did the same with The Beatles.

It's a fun exercise since you can really feel the progression of the artist over the time, and how some things seem to be cyclical (like going back to blues riffs after six years of stardom) and other things are progressive.

With lyrics in particular, I noticed both The Beatles and Dylan followed the same artistic progression. Granted, they both changed as the '60s changed expectations, but that doesn't account for everything. In this way, it seems to mirror the progression of cultural movements in the 19th through 20th centuries:

1. Nominalism/Classicism: Things are what they appear to be. The Beatles are good-looking guys singing about how they want to fall in love and dance with girls. Dylan is a disheveled working class boy who sings about working class stories. Topics are taken from predecessors in their respective genres.

2. Renaissance/Mannerism: As stardom comes do either band, the artists get their "sound" -- Dylan with his harmonica interludes, The Beatles with the minor progression. Lyrically the topics range away from the direct and instead start to make the statements that the band itself want to make (compare "Money: That's What I Want" to "Money Can't Buy Me Love", or the shift from Guthrie covers to "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."

3. Baroque/Exaggerated: Now the artist has his "Sound" so well-established, he perfects this. We're into Help and Rubber Soul for The Beatles and The Times They Are A-Changin' for Dylan (who was always about 1 year ahead of The Beatles).

4. Rococo: Dylan goes electric and releases Highway 61 Revisited. The Beatles release Revolver. The shift is the important thing, not how well it's styled. And like Rococo, the idea is to be really really loud about it. It's notable, however, that it's really really emotional at this point. Dylan is singing "HOW DOES IT FEEL (bitch)?!?" and the Beatles are cooing "GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE (like right f**king now!).

5. Romanticism: This is the point in which they're both really into what they're doing. It loses a lot of the emotion and replaces it with scale. The Beatles go into Strawberry Fields Forever and Sgt. Pepper's, while Dylan has gone stoned and selfish in Blonde on Blonde. Lyrically, it's more suggestive than direct, at some points bordering on whimsical. This gets progressively larger in scope and weirdness (Magical Mystery Tour, then Yellow Submarine).

6. Neoclassical: After playing out on the edges, they both strip away a lot of the B.S. and try out revised versions of stuff from their Nominalist periods. Dylan's John Wesley Harding and subsequent Nashville Skyline goes back to acoustic, while The Beatles' White Album kicks off its two sides with the bluesey "Back in the USSR" and "Birthday." But at the same time the neoclassical celebrates the old stuff, the new is mixed in heavily. And the disregard of the audience -- like they're making fun of the listeners -- is still readily apparent. For The Beatles, this lasts through the recording of the stripped away Let it Be.

7. Modernism: This is "Self Portrait" to the T, and is also where The Beatles left off in Abbey Road. They're not really experimenting so much as trying out what everyone else is up to. They focus on fundamentals, and the most apparent thing is influence from other musicians and movements. They're trying to stay atop the curve.

8. Postmoderism: For The Beatles, I think this happens after they broke up. It's self-reflective and very 1970s. It's a return to the spiritual and done with more humility. Think of Lennon's Imagine, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." Fundamentals are discarded, and the songwriting is deconstructed. For Dylan, this is Blood on the Tracks, especially with "Shelter from the Storm," which I think is the embodiment of the whole Postmodernist ethic of "holy s**t we survived that!"

9. Utter crap (post-post-modernism): Wings. Street Legal. George W. Bush. This is the reversion, the conservatism that comes with having survived a tidal wave. It's spiritual in a holier-than-thou way, and doesn't take much thought, because thinking is what caused all of that discomfort in the first place. This reactionary period can be generally skipped. It ends when something shakes the pretty world and reawakens the bulls**t meter.

10. Neo-Nominalism: This is the honest end. Dylan's Modern Times, and The Beatles' post-mortem releases. No more pushing limits -- the material is a rehashing of what's been done in the past and what it really meant, no more and no less.