Last month, on the 29th of May, the 71 year old Bob Dylan was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dylan, whose career of more than fifty years stretches from his early acoustic folksongs in the sixties to his recent electric rock albums, has produced 34 studio albums and 58 singles.
At the event, President Obama said of him, “there is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.”He continued to praise Dylan’s voice for its “weight” and “unique gravelly power” that redefined “not just what music sounded like but the message it carried and how it made people feel.”
The medal, established in 1963 by President Kennedy, recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”.
For people who recognize Dylan as the “icon of the 1960s counterculture” or the “historical figure of the anti-war movement” this award makes perfect sense. But to anyone who has read Dylan’s Chronicles, possibly the same isn’t true. In these memoirs he notes “the world was absurd … I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of. “The fact that Dylan was actually a very reluctant spokesperson for the civil rights movement might come as a surprise to some but he never concealed his complicated relationship with the protest generation. By 1964, he stated his case clearly when he told the New Yorker: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know – be a spokesman.” At the time of this interview he had distanced himself from his explicit protest songs like ”Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” – both anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements.
A 1968 interview should have clarified matters for those still in doubt about Dylan’s position within these movements. During the summer of this year, when the anti-war movement was getting ready for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Dylan surprised the interviewer when he defended a friend who supported the war: “People have their views. Anyway, how do you know that I am not, as you say, for the war?” In the last 48 years he wrote only two other protest songs, 1971′s “George Jackson” and 1975′s “Hurricane.” Yet Dylan will always be associated with righteous causes and with the protest movement.
Dylan doesn’t stand alone, many other artists are forever associated with social causes that they have not explicitly allied themselves with. Which makes you wonder: maybe it isn’t always about the message protest songs implicitly or explicitly carry, so much as the way certain songs make people feel. And even when there is an overt social or political meaning to a song – to quote the British folk singer Billy Bragg – “Only the audience can change the world – not the performers.”
Only the audience can change the world – not the performers
This is why our current issue themed “Rhythms of Rebellion” focuses on the experiences of the audience and the question in what ways music can become a vehicle for social change. Most of the contributors attended the inaugural conference “Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change” in September 2011 at London Metropolitan University. Over 120 people representing 20 countries from across the world attended this exciting interdisciplinary event.
Based on the work presented at this event, our contributors have written articles about a variety of topics related to the study of subculture, popular music and social change. A colourful selection of outstanding research is published in this issue, discussing topics from Cuban underground rap and Christian punk rock to Joni Mitchell and skinheads in Eastern Europe.
Our new United Academics Journal of Social Sciences, themed ‘Rhythms of Rebellion’, is out now. Read it on: www.united-academics.org/journal