Digital Dylan:
High Popular Culture and the
Digital Modern Times of Bob Dylan


Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2020, Volume 19, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2020/brabazon_redhead.htm

 

Tara Brabazon
Flinders University, Australia

Steve Redhead
Flinders University, Australia


The Beatles. Bob Dylan. The Rolling Stones. The Band. The Eagles. Fleetwood Mac. Steely Dan. The catalogue of credible, corporate rock music could continue to be listed page after page after page. But what makes this old popular culture interesting in our present is how this snake of popular memory slithers into our present through commodification and consumerism. Old pop is post-pop. It is unpopular culture that continues to return and burn with familiarity, predictability, comfort, banality, boredom, and conformity.  Yet this old pop provides models and strategies to understand fandom, digitization, and the peculiar patterns and pathways for the past to both live in the present as well as strangle the new and the innovative. But further, the past that survives, which markets itself as completist, is highly selective. This is not the database of popular music that has been digitized and marketed to the present consumer. Instead, particular white male musicians, with the ever-attendant Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, continue to survive in the saturated, claustropolitan pop present. Out-takes, rare live performances, and fetishized, multiplied releases of the same song perpetuate a particular version of un/popular culture. James Blunt's out-takes are of small commercial value. Digital Dylan continues to dominate.

This article captures the old and the new, the unpopular in the popular, and watches it twist and turn through terms such as value, relevance, and importance. Appropriately, this exploration of claustropolitan consumerism – shopping at the end of the world – uses Bob Dylan's reissues as a font, example, and model. Dylan remains unpredictable in his predictability, and unfashionable in his fashion.  Significantly, his capacity to sell (out) and buy (in), and sell out once more, while committing to new musical interfaces to sell the old, remains significant in a time when fan studies remains wedded to representation. 

 

 

Positively Van Gogh

Modern times?  Bizarre. Confused. Disordered. Disoriented. And very much digitally remastered. Strangely, among the best music released in 2013 was Sony's Volume 10 of The Bootleg Series, an enterprise begun in the early 1990s, entitled Another Self-Portrait (1969-1971) by Bob Dylan. The music was forty-three years old. The outtakes of the sessions – covering Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning – are evocative and resonant, revelling in their digital remastering. Many are heard properly for the first time in forty years, and feature Dylan and musicians like Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg demonstrating a wide range of styles, which puts to rest the still pervasive mantra that Dylan is a fine songwriter, but a challenged singer. When listening to the never before released versions of "Went to See The Gypsy," "Little Sadie," "Pretty Saro," "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue," "Thirsty Boots," and "This Evening So Soon," the vocal capacity of Dylan is revealed.

Buried in the Deluxe Edition of Volume 10 of The Bootleg Series is a digitally remastered recording of the August 1969 performance by Bob Dylan and The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival. Listening to Dylan and The Band's hour-long set – fifty-one years after the live event – many audience members will find it comparable to the Manchester Free Trade Hall Judas concert from May 1966 (also included in a Sony Bootleg Series release on Volume 6). This set remains significant and unusual, comparable to the unreleased Supper Club gigs in New York from November 1993. This Isle of Wight concert from 1969 has been written about infrequently,1 but the event was generally panned by critics at the time and in subsequent years, partly because of the wretched quality of the rare "highlights" that were released. Dylan was using his "country" persona at the time, evident on Nashville Skyline, and this move was widely regarded as a political sell-out. Put more bluntly, Greil Marcus responded to the original release of Self Portrait with the memorable, "What is this shit?" (7). From the standpoint of 1970, Marcus echoed swathes of Dylan fans expressing agony because their "radical" hero had disappeared, alongside the supposedly radical decade. Such readings are now challenged. In 2014, Volume 11 of the Bootleg Series was issued by Sony. The Complete Edition of Bob Dylan and The Band Basement Tapes from 1967 included 138 tracks, even more than had been anticipated or released on countless bootlegs since the original, and illegal, Great White Wonder from 1969. Far from retiring, 1967 was shown – through digital reissues from Sony decades later – to be Dylan's most productive twelve-month period and one that launched a new rendering of "Americana" in modern popular music culture.

The following year, another gift from the corporate well emerged. In 2015, Sony released Volume 12 of The Bootleg Series, the Collector's Edition. A completist's dream, the Collector's Edition was issued in a strictly limited 5000 pressings at a cost of $600 only available from the digital website bobdylan.com. It was entitled Bob Dylan 1965-1966: The Cutting Edge, with 387 tracks from the recordings of three albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. From 1965 and 1966, the release included every musical note and chatter recorded in the studio during those fourteen months on eighteen CDs and linked to a special digital download for the Collector's Edition 5000.The scale of this project is startling and worthy of discussion:  twenty versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" including the actual six minute plus released version or alternatively sixteen takes of the legendary but still unreleased "She’s Your Lover Now."  For fans, it is a "listen till you drop" experience. Also available on the final CD are twenty-one lost recordings of poor quality, gathered from hotel rooms in Glasgow and London in the UK and Denver, Colorado, in the United States. These fragments have attained mythical status among Dylan fans worldwide since 1965 and 1966.  Even "Positively Van Gogh," which Dylan pronounces as "go," features in three versions here. The rationale for this scope and scale will be discussed in the second half of this paper.

With the analogue packaging carrying thousands of sonic fragments, out-takes, and rarities, ironically the high resolution digital link component for the Collector's Edition experienced some digital delay, and provoked comments from a host of very frustrated customers. The decades of waiting were forgotten as immediate sonic saturation was required from the audience of this corporatized un/popular culture. The initial approach, pre-release, to customers was positive. A support team email to all 5000 customers worldwide ordered:

"Thank you for ordering The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 Collector's Edition Box Set! Below you will find instructions to redeem your High-Resolution download of the full audio from the box set you purchased.

Please read ALL instructions carefully before proceeding.

You MUST use a desktop or laptop computer to download. Downloads are not available on mobile devices or tablets. You are allowed 1 full download and must select a single format.

To redeem your download, please follow these instructions:
1. Click link below
2. Select desired format
3. Click 'Add To Cart'
4. Click 'Checkout' (The item will now appear at $0.00 in your basket)
5. Click 'Proceed to checkout'
6. Enter email address and billing address
7. Click 'Submit Order'
LINK: [redacted]

Please click the Download Manager only once, and wait for it to respond.

This download is a very large file, so please be patient and allow the download manager time to launch and to complete your download. You can always relaunch your download if it times out or is interrupted by following the steps listed above. You will be given the option to download the files from the start or resume where you left off.

Please reach out to customer service if you have any problems with your download."

Unfortunately, shortly after release there was a serious problem which the support team identified. The subsequent email proclaimed: "We have been experiencing some technical difficulties with the digital downloads and are working around the clock to fix this. As soon as these issues have been resolved, we will notify you via email. Thanks for your patience and our sincerest apologies for the inconvenience."

Both emails were sent from the "Shop Bob Dylan Support Team." The designation and use of the adjectives in that description is noteworthy.  "Shop Bob Dylan" is an unusual combination of words. Significantly though, the digital component of this newly delivered Digital Dylan was dysfunctional.  Conversely, the Collector’s Edition Box, with distinctly lo-fi artefacts such as nine mono singles released by Dylan in the 1965-1966 period, took only a few days to arrive at our home in regional New South Wales after being sent through the postal service from the United States. The analogue objects arrived before the digital download was delivered.  As Lewis Tennant argued, “the internet has altered notions of space and place" (1).  The claustropolitan consumerism necessitates immediate digital satiation even – as in this case – fans have waited decades for these recordings.
 
This interplay between analogue and digital, time and space, has been part of Dylan's iconographic and sonic palette through much of his career, but intensified through the 2000s. Modern Times was the title of a strong and poignant Bob Dylan studio album from 2006 and obliquely references Dylan's fandom of Charlie Chaplin. As a man highly influenced by Old Testament prophecy, for Dylan, the "modern" is also a time of apocalypse and catastrophe, the end of the world. But "modern times" has many more meanings in a Dylan context. Dylan himself is a "modernist" in many ways, not least because the best of his music demonstrates how it was made. The scaffold of its construction is clear and visible. It wears its methods of meaning creation on the outside, revealing the conditions of its internal production. This modernism carts some troubling cultural baggage. Often over the length of his career, when sources have been checked, Dylan has been accused of plagiarism. He "borrows" from a wide range of musical, literary and cinematic sources, but so does the musical tradition in which he works. The range and complexity of citation and borrowing in Dylan's back catalogue is much more than "theft." However, his blatant copyrighting of "traditional" songs is a persistent problem.

Dylan's "mod" aesthetic activates a pure modernist simplicity. The entire construction fits together like a sonic jigsaw puzzle in the 1965-66 period: "subcultural" mod fashion/music/style slammed against bohemian put downs, in-jokes, and youthful arrogance. The photographs in the Collector's Edition summon this visual history. One of the lavishly illustrated booklets acknowledges this modern aesthetic, but in a lo-fi way. Throughout the high cultural presentation, there is a recognition that much of the sonic and visual material was not meant to be released, heard, or seen by consumers. One purpose of The Cutting Edge is to illuminate studio processes. Through this release, there was no attempt to reshape finished, glossy recordings. The sound and vision are modern. They are incomplete. The sonic skeletons are revealed. Readers, listeners, and viewers move inside the making of this modern art in Studio A in New York or in Nashville while the outside is left exposed. The extensive release of studio recordings on the Collector's Edition is significant because it shows the process by which the Dylan pop-art form was constructed, which includes the false starts, breakdowns, rehearsals, and studio chatter all of which feature strongly on The Bootleg Series in general, but the Collector's Edition in particular.

The chatter in the studio is especially important, historically and sonically. The engagement between the producer, Dylan, and the musicians shows the often-spontaneous process by which Dylan constructed his 1965-1966 "cutting edge" music. The tapes capture Tom Wilson, Dylan's producer on "Like a Rolling Stone," mysteriously dropped afterwards in favor of Bob Johnston, saying to Al Kooper, the guitar player mischievously sitting at the Hammond organ having noticed that Paul Griffin had moved to piano: "What are you doing there?" Scholars – and fans – know from Kooper's memories, showcased in the Collector's Edition booklets, in book form, and through interviews archived on YouTube, that Wilson was at that very moment called away to the telephone and the rest is part of much discussed pop history.3 Kooper uses the time to create the organ part of the song. This contrapuntal refrain is as much associated with the track as Dylan's voice.

The modern pop-art for Bob Dylan invoked a long construction. Blonde on Blonde was the third in the trilogy of mid-sixties albums, and the output of at least fourteen months of writing and recording starting with the first in the trilogy, Bringing It All Back Home, and mutating through the second, Highway 61 Revisited. Digitization has many effects on the teleological revisioning of this process, but what is particularly striking to the listener of The Cutting Edge is the elongation of Dylan's modernist (albeit low modernist) construction. Nothing becomes something, eventually. Digitization probes, questions, fragments, and transforms the previously accepted form of single and album, which are shown in this collection to be completely arbitrary. Albums can be nearly 400 songs in length. Singles can span only a few seconds, as revealed in the breakdown of songs like "Like A Rolling Stone," often heard in this collection in fragmentary form. The "thin, that wild mercury sound, metallic and bright gold" (Heylin 239), which Dylan confirms he was searching for in the mid-sixties, especially with instrumentation of harmonica, guitar, and organ, was finally achieved with the release of Blonde on Blonde in May 1966. Dylan certainly saw it as his "art." However, the term "pop art" remains more accurate, as he was "hanging out" with Andy Warhol and The Factory at the time. "Queen Jane" in "Queen Jane Approximately," with seven versions on the Collector's Edition, from Highway 61 Revisited has been "outed" as Andy Warhol himself. Several Blonde on Blonde songs – "Just Like a Woman," "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat," and "I Want You" among them – are said to be about ill-fated Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, who Dylan knew at the time. Sedgwick was blonde – as was Rolling Stone Brian Jones who had met her and Dylan around the writing and recording of the album. Hence, for some commentators, the blondes align with Blonde on Blonde. Conversely, the acronym of Blonde on Blonde spells Bob. 

Clearly, Dylan was working the space between pop↔art and pop↔rock. This was his modern, modernist, contemporary art moment. The construction and scaffolding were always present in the original recordings, but are revealed in their confused, fragmented, slam-cut reality in the re-issue. This is a key creative moment for Dylan. 

Later in the 1960s, he began to paint. His self-portrait adorns Self-Portrait and he has continued using this art form throughout the rest of his life. But painting was always more problematic for him as he became engaged in an even greater, damaging, controversy over plagiarism and theft with what he called the "Asia Series" shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2011. Dylan scholar Stephen Scobie, when comparing the art of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and Bob Dylan, has written:

Plagiarism is a serious matter, a serious charge. But so is its defence. When Dylan uses lines from other sources, he may or may not have intended the borrowing to be spotted. But he certainly makes the implicit claim that the borrowing enriches, rather than diminishes, his own text. Plagiarism attempts to steal credit; Dylan and Godard attempt to incorporate and extend credit. They may, in strictly legalistic terms, live outside the law; but their art remains honest...The controversy surrounding Dylan and plagiarism resurfaced in an even more pronounced form, in relation to the paintings of his "Asia Series" exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2011. (It should be noted that the word "Series" already recalls its use in Dylan’s "official" release of The Bootleg Series – as if "Series" should already evoke, in the alert reader, the word "bootleg"). Dylan's paintings in this exhibition were purported to be a "visual journal" of his travels in Asia. Yet...most, if not all, of the paintings in Dylan's exhibition are modelled directly on photographs of staged setups, taken by photographers as well-known as Henri-Cartier Bresson. There seems to be no legal question here. Reportedly Dylan secured and paid permission fees from the photographers and/or their heirs (though whether he did so before or after the controversy arose remains unclear). But the ethic and aesthetic questions remain. Despite the equivocation of its wording, the implications of Dylan's original statement remain clear: the claim is made that these paintings derive from the artist's personal observation. And this claim is patently false. Moreover the "borrowing" in these paintings is not partial but wholesale. (200-201)

Painting, in Dylan's case, was more fraught with difficulty than his music, which itself had attracted quite enough debate about appropriation, use and theft, and had substantially damaged the Dylan legacy.

The Cutting Edge period of 1965-1966 was a modernist highpoint for Bob Dylan.  After this time, Dylan self-consciously rewound music and recording techniques of an earlier era. "Modern times" is a pregnant phrase. For Dylan, it is also an implied criticism. His favorite music and recording techniques always existed in earlier eras. The 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were the "time" for Dylan. Pre-rock swing, country, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Appalachian folk, British folk, multiple jazz and crooning styles pervade Dylan's Modern Times album from 2006, as they do in his other twenty-first century output. The sound, deliberately staged by Dylan in his persona as producer Jack Frost, is from a pre-1960s sonic landscape. Modernity, in many ways, stops for Dylan in 1966. To make his modern art, there is a huge database to plunder from the past, and at 79 he is still plundering, recording, and touring. Pop time seemed, for some participants at least like Dylan, to have stopped sometime in the 1960s. Clearly though, 1966 is a pivotal year. The 1960s marked the "postmodern" turn for many critics and fans although it would be better to label it as an important node in the development of "accelerated culture," if it is really true that we have never been postmodern, as Steve Redhead has argued elsewhere. History as a whole, not just pop history, was about to oscillate, reverberate, reverse, erase, and decenter. The past was cleared and wiped so that nothing was left of "authentic" value. Dylan staunchly resisted this erasure, and set about preserving a particular pathway through popular music history.

Since the late 1940s and early 1950s, pop history had seemingly unfolded, scene on scene, genre on genre, layering itself into a rich embroidery worked over and over by music journalists, academics, and fans. In this version of pop history, rock 'n' roll was followed in fairly slow succession by pop and then rock. From the 1950s to the late 1960s, the change was relatively leisurely given what was to flow, burn, and stall in the present day. But pop time, or what may now be termed "Digital Modern Time," shows itself to be, in the logics of the present argument, cyclical, rather than linear. Instead of a line drawn from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to the present, unfolding into the future, it seems that pop history repeats back on itself, endlessly in ever decreasing – corroding or cannibalizing – circles.

After 1966, Bob Dylan deliberately increased his search for the debris of the past – in order to further his career which is at the time of this writing – still flourishing fifty years later. His immediate musical enterprise after the motorcycle accident he sustained in Woodstock in the summer of 1966 was to play daily with The Band either at or near his home for most of 1967 – producing the 138 tracks appearing on Volume 11 of The Bootleg Series as The Basement Tapes Complete. Although many of these songs are Dylan originals, which themselves sound like traditional songs, many of these songs are "traditional" songs, which Dylan actively sought out or remembered from listening as a child and teenager to the radio in Duluth, Minnesota. These cover almost every conceivable popular musical genre. 

What we call "Digital Modern Time" accesses and moves recognizable genres and iconic figures. To borrow an appropriate song title from Maroon 5, it "Moves like Jagger." It chops. It slices. It discards. It accelerates. Acid House and Rave, for example, from the late 1980s and 1990s, were revived numerous times in the succeeding years until reprised for a short time with Nu-Rave in the late 2000s. If there is a characteristic of our age, then, it is that these pop "cycles" are increasing in speed. As Jon Savage confirmed, writing about pop music in the period from 1977 to 1996,

the impulse to speed is at the heart of post-war pop. In the words of famed producer Guy Stevens, "All rock 'n' roll speeds up." You can hear that within the tempo of punk staples like Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line," the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," Patti Smith's "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together," the Clash's "Brand New Cadillac," the Saints' "This Perfect Day." You can also hear it in the way that pop genres have evolved ever faster: Mod into the Ramones and Punk; Chicago House into Acid and Hardcore; Rare Groove and Breakbeat into the serious time damage that is Jungle. The cycles come and go, from motion to entropy, but the impulse to up the ante, to go faster than anyone else, is inherent in the twinning of technology and the adolescent psyche that occurs in Western consumerisms. (6)

This process has – appropriately – accelerated in the last fifteen years since Savage's commentary. What is now required is an investigation of the speed at which New Pop becomes Old Pop. Dylan understood this process so well because of his association with Andy Warhol and The Factory. He may not have liked the silk screen that Warhol gifted to him, swapping it with his manager Albert Grossman for a utilitarian domestic item, but he was as much a hipster Pop Art icon as Warhol himself in the Cutting Edge years. As the cultural commentator and novelist Michael Bracewell, has observed, for Andy Warhol, as an aesthetic and a style, "Pop was the totality of popular culture, of which popular music was simply a strand" (24). Dylan understood this context and framing of culture. The relationship, as Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys insisted to Michael Bracewell in an interview,  "goes back to the start of Pop Art in the 1950s when artists in Britain and America began to respond to pop music" (30). Tennant confirmed with a perceptive skewer that, "people in pop music really enjoy the celebration of everyday life, the artifacts and fame and all the rest of it. Because they're a part of it, they reflect that in their music...it's the same sort of attitude found in Pop Art. Also, pop musicians relish the easiness of it – the fact that it's just about an idea, because that's what pop music is" (qtd. in Bracewell 30). Pop↔art captures and capsulizes ephemera and allows it to move, twist, change, and – for a few signifiers often detached from their signified – they hook (or cling) into a historian's footnote.

After 1966, Dylan moved away from the Pop Art context of Warhol and also the global counter-culture which he is said to have inspired (see McDougal).  The Woodstock festival in 1969, a short drive away from his house, was met by his decampment to the Isle of Wight with his family and the Band to play his own festival event. With consciousness, he disconnected from the future that the image – not the reality – of “Woodstock” would summon. The Digital Modern Time/s which pervades popular music after Woodstock – for the next forty years – barely touches Dylan. His modernist highpoint was achieved in these Cutting Edge years, 1965-1966. The question remains though: how did this modernism corrode, calcify, only to be reborn as hyper-consumerist, high popular culture, with digitization as the midwife?

 


High Popular Culture and the Google Effect

Digitization dances – oddly – around Dylan. For old popular culture, Google transforms how digital materials are preserved, discarded, discovered, and used. Founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, full text searching was enabled, which meant that conversational words and phrases could allow consumers to find texts, images, and video. Through this change, digitization was corporatized. Shopping replaced searching. While the search function was disintermediated, with searchers directly finding materials delivered from an intuitive search engine, reintermediation increased through the 2000s and 2010s through Amazon, iTunes, and a range of social media applications, including Facebook and Instagram.  Therefore, information literacy was minimized, truncated and flattened. A culture of equivalence was created between highly differentiated sources. A scholarly monograph can be found as easily as an Instagram influencer, promoting a particular brand of mascara.  What Tara Brabazon has termed the "google effect" – the flattening of expertise – has resulted in popular culture being accelerated, truncated, contracted, decontextualized, and shredded. As witnessed through Donald Trump's mantra of "fake news," the consequence of the google effect is a flat culture. Like walking on a flush footpath, digital, and digitized, music is convenient and mobile. It is easily downloaded, uploaded, shared, and heard. The diversity of musical genres, formats and forms expanded, no longer requiring a visit to a specialized, High Fidelity-inspired, record shop. A long tail was created (see Anderson and Celma). But also, popular music exists within a colonizing, expansive present. The past is wrenched into the present without context and is for immediate sale and download. It is also hooked into the present and lives in genres, mixes and remixes. Future pop uses the present pop to react, respond, and mobilize past pop. Most importantly, the historical archive is accessible.4 It is no longer past. It is edited, discarded, censored, simplified, and sold.

These changes are transformative. The 3 Ds – digitization, deterritorialization, and disintermediation – are resurfacing the google effect. Deterritorialization of texts ensures that popular culture can gain layers and undulate in new ways through space and time. Texts can move regardless of national, regional, or city boundaries. Un/popular finds new audiences. Through disintermediation, fans/consumer/audiences can source new cultures in new ways.  As in the case of Bob Dylan, Sony is commercializing "bootlegs," working with illicit and out-take cultures to make a profit. The radical, the different, and the defiant are hooked into the cloth of conformity. Radicalism and unusual snippets of culture are used to make a profit. While – for fans – it is remarkable that such a diversity of material is available for the first time at the click of a button or the entry of a credit card, it is not housed and delivered through an open access, public, sonic library. It has arrived to be bought at a high price and not to be shared, but individually savoured.  The "unboxing" culture that exists on YouTube is part of the fetishization of these expensive purchases (and individualism). 

Through this commodification of information seeking and the confluence of shopping and searching, popular culture is warping and undulating under the google effect. It is thickening and gaining new textures. Popular and subcultures were founded on inventing – and investing in – the authenticity of particular texts, whether punks, mods, the Kinks, The Jam or Elvis Costello, yet all texts are equal before the download. All texts are popular culture in waiting. To create and/or return hierarchies to cultural forms, digitization has to be disrupted and new analogue forms fetishized. Therefore, high popular culture activates the marketization of digitization to agitate flat (packed) pop and summons expensive and excessive packaging that freezes and fetishizes past culture and repurposes it for new markets. Goran Bolin described this process as, "audiences...being increasingly drawn into the processes of generating economic value" (356). Popular culture becomes layered like skin, resurfaced and pummelled into new hierarchies, often borrowing from high cultural processes and packaging. Often this re-packaging results in high camp excesses, such as the transformation of Bob Dylan lyrics into "poetry" by the Nobel committee as well as by the lavish 2014 Simon and Schuster book. which embodies how popular culture splinters and fractures in spite of digitization and, indeed, sometimes because of it. Dylan sonic repacking follows similar techniques. Everyday cultures are shredded and the expectations of material culture are subverted. Popular culture is disconnected from banality to become special and different through digital flattening via odd and excessive analogue accoutrements. Through the miniaturization of technology, high popular culture must claim space and differentiation through excess, to squeeze meaning from the anonymity and speed of downloading cultures. 

With the tidy alignment of youth and pop not surviving the 1960s as well as post-youth culture and popular memory saturating the past-present in the present-future, music spilled into other media and interfaces. The film Bohemian Rhapsody revisioned and resounded Queen's history, just as Rocket Man reconfigured Elton John's childhood and rise to fame. Music was (only) the starting point and propulsion of this narrative.  Because of the digitized flattening of music, it requires more – often attendant visuality – to render it satisfying and complete, which is why objects such as The Cutting Edge collection, with books, vinyl singles, photographs, and cinematic stills, summon a multimodal package. Significantly, this visually saturated present is starkly contrapuntal to "the sound of decay" after September 11 (see Flota and Fisher). With the proliferation of so much music in this zombie present, the management of sonic information sources remains challenging. Corporate packaging, such as Sony's "bootlegs," organize the past, not with the epistemological rigor of a historian, but the commodification of a record company to enable sales of songs that consumers can source for free, albeit illegally. which is not preservation for public good, but corporate profit. Significantly, the problematic class-based biases of high and popular culture continue to minimize and reduce the importance of pop music. For example, Francois Pachet questioned the "value" of pop as knowledge, and then proceeded to answer his own question.

Is music a form of knowledge? Probably not, even if music is undoubtedly an important part of our cultural heritage. Music is not a type of knowledge, at least in first approximation, because music has no consensual, shared meaning. One of the main reasons why music has no meaning, as opposed to text or even pictures, is that music is not referential: music is made of elements (notes, chords, sounds) which do not refer to any objects or concepts outside the music world.Being without meaning, music is not a type of knowledge. [1192]

Such an argument ignores forty years of cultural studies theory, sonic media studies, and auditory cultural studies. It works from the basis that texts are separate from contexts and that the post-New London Group theorization of literacies never emerged. The andragogical capacity of popular culture, generally, and popular music, specifically, is clear. Fans, audiences, and listeners learn about men, women, sex, love, class, race, and so on through popular music. They learn about loss, disappointment, fear, and regret through popular music. It captures and codifies diverse experiences and renders them meaningful. Feelings are read through the lens of popular music and preserved there. Pop is not ephemeral. It is weighted by the memories in the lives of fans.  Further, popular music allows listeners to configure a history they can live with and is satisfying, rather than challenging and confronting. There is no ending, no past in popular cultural history. Post the google effect, it is the survival, not of the fittest, but the easiest to commodify, as well as the most palatable to promote.

The definition of high popular culture and low popular culture is determined by the speed and interface of delivery.  It is also framed by information literacy:  how much knowledge is required to decode the text? How is specialist vocabulary, history, and genre managed and negotiated? In these microcultures – like Digital Dylan World – this knowledge is celebrated and recognized. Outside of this technique of neutralization, Dylan is one more pair of sunglasses, one more guy with a guitar in popular culture.

The scope and scale of old popular culture is not a problem, but the challenge is how that proliferation is accessed, contexualized, and rendered meaningful.  Simply digitizing content is not sufficient. The questions are how that digital moment and text finds micro-audiences, and how popular culture is differentiated to high and low pop. The layering and texture of popular culture creates a differentiation that blocks and shreds the simple binary oppositions of high and low culture – instead creating undulating, digitized, smash cut, time-shifting, customized texts.  The packaging matters because it lifts a digitized file into a specific space where information literacy can inform and infuse it.

 


Digital Epilogue for Analogue Death

All articles have meta-stories, analyses that could have been included and interpretations that could have been offered. This piece contains tales of looping temporal trails. It started with Dylan and then – appropriately – used his longevity, role in popular memory, and capacity to corporatize his "authenticity" to offer a conceptualization of post-digital high popular culture. Therefore, the unwritten story of the article is part of the argument, in a tragic, unplanned, but productive way.  While this article up to this point has been co-written, one author – Tara Brabazon – has written this final section as a sole author, for reasons that will soon become clear. Third person identifiers will be used for intellectual clarity and to summon professional grammar.

Part of what made The Cutting Edge intriguing is that it deployed analogue and material culture to sell digital fragments. Multiple interrupted shards of out-takes, studio chatter, and versions are sold for completist fans of Dylan. This was not about quality, but offered high popular cultural credibility to the fans rich enough to afford the Collector’s Edition. This completist knowledge could then be shared through social media, of which the unboxing videos on YouTube are the archetype. Clearly, shards and fragments are important. They tell an incomplete history, a narrative that will never be known, a story without an ending.

This article was a fragment. A shard. This is one of those rare and tragic articles where the researcher died before it could be completed. Indeed, this was one part of a twin project. "Digital Dylan" – with its earlier working title of "Positively Van Gogh"  was meant to be a singly-authored piece by Steve Redhead, to match Tara Brabazon's "The Cutting Edge" article, that explored the unpackaging cultures on YouTube, using Dylan as the example. Often Steve and Tara wrote in this way.  As married professors, they may have ordered different books from Amazon and downloaded different articles from Google Scholar, but their divergent interests would be read by both. The resultant research would resonate, duel, and dialogue. Steve pumped the ideas through a pessimistic, post-disciplinary cascade of high theory. Speed. Acceleration. Cycles. Movement. Tara would slow down the scholarship to explore popular memory or the intricate interfaces between the analogue and the digital. For example, Steve wrote Paul Virilio:  Theorist for an Accelerated Culture at the same time as Tara produced From Revolution to Revelation:  Popular Culture, Generation X and Popular Memory. Speed versus memory. Acceleration versus decay. For this Dylan interlude in their research, Steve wanted to leverage his long-term passion and interest in Dylan with his excitement yet ambivalence at the corporate culture feeding his fandom. Typically, Tara was interested in packaging, how fans manage to subvert, transform, challenge, and break the smooth surface of capitalist popular music and create their own pathways through the dominant readings of the culture.

All was going well. Just over three thousand words were produced by Steve by June 2017. Tara was completing the unpackaging piece and was about at the same stage. Then, Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis of this disease is the death sentence with treatments either transitory or not possible. Steve made a decision to keep the illness private. Tara looked after him at home and in secret where he continued his research. He was writing Theoretical Times, his landmark intervention in the traditional disciplines and their gatekeepers, and had an array of articles and book chapters to complete in digital leisure, deviant leisure, and football studies for which he had been commissioned by editors. Steve and Tara were also working together on what would be his last book, Trump Studies.  The first draft was completed before his death on 8 March 2018. It was published in October 2018. This was one of many posthumous books, book chapters, and articles researched and written in the period between his diagnosis and death. Ironically, Steve had a higher level of publication in the year after his death than most living academics.

Tara kept writing, but her prose was infused by Steve's death. She wrote the 24,000 word Prologue to the second edition of The End of the Century Party that was re-issued to commemorate his scholarly life and logged the tragedy of the death. Her component of the Dylan research couplet, "Blunting the Cutting Edge," was placed under review while Steve was sick.  By the time the referees returned their decision to publish the article, Steve had died. The revised article therefore included a new section, "Analogue Endings." She wrote, "The YouTube video of his [Steve’s] unboxing of The Cutting Edge has outlived his analogue body and analogue fandom.  Such authentic inauthenticity – such zombie fandom – demonstrates that digitization has transformed fan studies and the way in which it is studied.  Scholars now have many more sources of affect, commitment, love and devotion to popular culture.  New strategies are required through unobtrusive research methods to study this un/popular fandom and un/popular culture." The scholar-fan/fan-scholar video with Steve, including his Northern pessimism and popular music scholarship duelling with excitement in opening the package, remains the gift of digitization. It is a gift to see him well, self-deprecating and jousting with his feminist wife stunned at the excesses of male, white, middle-class fandom. 

Through his illness, Steve wrote every day, finishing profound interventions in leisure studies and deviant leisure, football cultures and the political economy.  He continued to podcast until six weeks before his death as his energy and voice started to weaken. He continued to supervise Ph.D. students, reading a final draft of a remarkable research masters degree that deployed Zizek to the retheorization of theology the day before he was admitted to hospital. The decline was rapid. There was no warning. One day he was writing an article at his desk. The next day he was immobile and in hospital. Throughout his illness, he stayed outside of the medical system until his final three days. This meant that he had completed almost all of his writing deadlines, commitments, and goals. On his final day, this was the paper he was writing.

Therefore, considering its topic, it is appropriate to complete and share this digital fragment. As with The Cutting Edge, the slices and components are important and resonant. Steve had completed a draft of the first section, with one phrase – digitization and high popular culture (although it was digitisation and high popular culture) – positioned in what would be his second section.  Hopefully, the editing and additional sections Tara has added have not replicated the luscious and inappropriate layering from Phil Spector on the Let it Be recordings. Steve and Tara had written together before Trump Studies.  Indeed, when Tara was required to be in Canada for a month each year as part of her job as Head of School at Charles Sturt University, they gave each other an article to write together while they were apart.  Research on the British Bauhaus and Lady Gaga emerged. Steve would provide sections. Tara would write sections and then edit them into alignment – duelling Steve's long sentences with her staccato short ones. In many ways, this piece is no different. However, this time, there is no long-haul fight separating them. There is no homecoming to anticipate. It is zombie scholarship: writing with the dead.

For decades, the phrase "new media" has reified and simplified the complex weave between analogue and digital, past and present. Similarly, the move to creative industries and the return to creative arts has squeezed the spaces available for popular cultural studies. Steve, too, drifted from writing on popular music. In an interview conducted with Steve and published after his death, Leanne McRae asked him why he changed his focus.

LM:     In your early days you wrote quite a bit about popular music. You don't seem to write tremendously about music anymore. Obviously, you have bigger ideas filtering. But I want to ask you first why you are choosing to no longer write about popular music and secondly, if you feel that there is a space for these bigger ideas to filter through a reinscription of how we understand popular music and popular music theory.

SR:      It’s a great question. Umm...I think as I got older...I definitely always thought of popular music as youth music (maybe that's wrong thinking) and as I got older I thought "nobody is going to want to hear me write about youth music" and I do think that is a problem because I had always argued you have to have ethnographic work and that's what the Manchester Institute for Popular Cultural Studies was. All my PhD students were doing ethnographies. People like Gonnie [Hillegonda] Rietveld. You know they were part of bands, Quango, and they were part of the Hacienda and so on. They were writing about music from within and I think those ethnographic methods are much more difficult to employ as you get older. So that's part of it. But also I think popular music and popular culture changed. One of the things that is pointed out in Britain for example at the moment is how popular culture and in particular popular music has become less working-class-based, and that was what I was interested in. I was interested in the working-class drive behind popular culture – the excluded suddenly finding this arena of struggle and in some ways that was what I was particularly interested in. I liked the music and I liked the aspects of postsubcultures that I was talking about. I was a fan but I also think the most important thing politically was that were was something going on there where working-class culture which had been excluded everywhere else exploded in popular culture. The opposite is happening now in Britain and there’s been a lot of work on this, where say Mumford and Sons, they are the sons of bankers and they’re public school boys, which at an individual level doesn’t matter but actually sociologically working-class culture is being excluded from popular culture and there’s quite a lot to say about that I think. I think that’s less true in a country like Australia, but where popular culture and what we would call popular cultural studies is going is in a direction where popular music studies is really interesting. People that are interested in it should do it. But where it was more cutting edge I think in the past is that it had that clash of working class and other cultures and I think that’s been lost. So, I guess I am less interested in writing about it because of that.5

The use of "cutting edge" in his interview with Leanne McRae conveyed different content and a distinct connotation from Dylan, and Steve's later work on Dylan.  What is clear is the passion for working class culture and popular culture, and the modes of exclusion and resistance. This interview straddled life and death.  He was healthy when this interview was recorded and the article sent to the journal. The editor suffered a personal tragedy and the History of Intellectual Culture produced no new editions for two years.  Upon returning to publication, Leanne McRae informed the editors of Steve Redhead's passing.  Such fragments are a jutting reminder of time, looped memory and death.  They also demonstrate the capacity of digitization to preserve, to hold, to move ideas from the past and into the present, and from the dead to the living. This contrapuntal tale in the writing of this article reinforces the lessons from Digital Dylan, and the meta-lesson about high popular culture from this jewel-rare article. 

For Stuart Hall, the humanities were and are always in crisis. But like the apocryphal and incorrectly designated cliché from Harold Macmillan, Hall – and the humanities – "never had it so good" when Hall published those words. Hall and his colleagues in the Birmingham Centre "suffered" through a crisis with permanent academic work, research time, autonomy, and the capacity to write books and articles without having to sell their politics to an "industry partner."  

Similarly, popular culture was simpler to define, study, and constitute. Its relationship with audiences rose and fell with the charts and predictable metrics. Youth and pop danced together like love and marriage. Through the stem-ification of higher education and the digitization of popular culture, the spaces for innovation, transformation, edgy excitement, and the provocative destruction of disciplinary boundaries and genres have been truncated. 

Surprisingly though, the spaces that are outside corporatized and commercialized universities and popular culture have expanded. To survive and operate in these difficult spaces is challenging. As Irvine Welsh confirmed, "you're either right outside society or you're exploited" (144). Therefore, the precariat workforce has time for experimentation and autonomy, but not a subsistence wage.  Similarly, digitization provides a long tail of diverse and intricate textual materials that are available to activate complex political discussions, but information literacy is required to locate them.  Instead, the google effect and search engine optimization continue to return satiating images, ideas and perspectives that reinforce the stability and rightness of a particular world view, excluding insights and observations that may jar, question or confuse. We now live in Gresham Sykes and David Matza's Neutral Zone, fuelled by their "technique of neutralization" (664). When this theory emerged in the 1950s, it was deployed in criminology to understand how drug dealers, pedophiles, and sex offenders justify their actions. But digitization, which allows the world in profound diversity to be delivered to a laptop or mobile device, has shrunk plurality, alternatives, and debates. Trump's Twitter feed can be followed, ignoring the CNN correctives as "fake news." Dylan fans can stay in Dylan World, satiated by the continual arrival of commodified texts from the past, and an attendant array of social media platforms to discuss, interpret, and analyze his life and music. They can remain untouched by current music, except through accidental locations like supermarkets, elevators and waiting rooms.

Through such a lens, un/popular culture increases in size, depth, and intensity.  It is made, organized, and disseminated through deterritorialized and disintermediated methods, compressing the spaces between producers and consumers, while widening the cultural productions available outside of corporate interests. Because this proliferation has fuelled techniques of neutralization, consumers/fans/citizens can stay satiated in their microworlds, fetishizing and celebrating dead media that continues to live in the present. With new communication patterns in place, cultural value has shattered and scattered.  As Baudrillard argued:

We are all obsessed with high fidelity, with the quality of musical "reproduction"...Where is the high fidelity threshold beyond which music disappears as such?...it disappears into the perfection of its materiality, into its own special effect. Beyond this point, there is neither judgment nor aesthetic pleasure. It is the ecstasy of musicality, and its end...Immediate high-powered broadcasting, special effects, secondary effects, fading and that famous feedback effect which is produced in acoustics by a source and a receiver being too close together and in history by an event and its dissemination being too close together and thus interfering disastrously...the petit musique of history also eludes our grasp today...it vanishes into the microscopics or the sterophonics of news. (5-6)

Digitization ensures that the event and dissemination are too close together. The release of music and its shared digital commentary and feedback are too tightly bundled. The spaces for media literacy and information literacy are vanquished. Populism trumps popular culture.

While configurations of the apocalypse and end times are dominated by visual media (see Masterson), sonic cultures are offering "secondary effects" and blurring the relationship between an event and its movement beyond its moment. What is also clear from Baudrillard's analysis is that the "quality" of sound results in its own disappearance. To maintain the commodification of un/popular culture, visuality must attend to the sonic and – indeed – dominate it. These husks of nothingness prevent redundancy and invisibility. These husks include the excessive packaging of The Cutting Edge. To stop Dylan being one more loop in the mix, the visual and the analogue must intervene in the banality of downloading and streaming cultures, create separation and space, and make him distinctive, high popular culture. High pop slows down the cultural clock, allowing knowledge, expertise, and information literacy to flood the space between text and culture. 

Zombies permeate our popular culture. There is something about the living dead that enables a reflection on the pointlessness of consumerism and capitalism, warns of environmental damage as well as the ruthlessness of pharmacological industries, and the unintended consequences of the militarization of daily life after September 11. Zombies make as much sense as the normalities we have accepted post-COVID. But dead culture – old pop – provides many gifts, including a capacity to revise and theorize popular culture for apocalyptic times. It allows cultural studies theorists – like the band of survivors through the zombie apocalypse – to discard the redundant theorizing of the Birmingham Centre and pre-Global Financial Crisis discussions of "cultural value" and "creative industries." This mocking of old ideas has an edgy, gritty honesty, recognizing that the survival of these ideas and scholars from more benevolent times has continued because they were simple and remain palatable to corporate publishers, their textbooks, and edited collections. In creating barriers – spaces – between texts and consumers, opportunities are opened for thoughtful dissemination, rather than endless "shares," and reflection on ideas through verification and argument, rather than assumptions of accuracy.  High popular culture has never been more important.  Perhaps this is Bob Dylan's final gift to us. His highly corporatized, re-alignment of analogue and digital, music and its packaging, has created an excessive, fragmented, and uneven space to think differently and defiantly about old popular culture in new times.  We now have the room to create new theory for these new times. 

 


Notes

1. For instance, Howard Sounes devotes five pages to the event in Down the Highway, pp. 252-255, 268, 406, and Clinton Heylin has six pages on it in Behind the Shades, pp. 306-310, 315, 482. The promoter of the event, Ray Foulk, also published a memoir about the whole 1969 festival: When the World Came to the Isle of Wight, Volume One: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock.

2. The video of Steve Redhead opening the The Collector’s Edition box in regional New South Wales, Australia and talking about its contents is available here.

3. There is a book devoted to the single (and first track on Highway 61 Revisited) and its powerful effects on pop culture. See Greil Marcus's Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Marcus was able to listen to the many different studio versions of the song before he wrote the book.

4. For example, Alan Lomax's remarkable sonic collection is now available online.  Beginning in the 1930s, Lomax used the most advanced technology of the time to record musical in rural communities. He used instantaneous discs in the 1930s for the Library of Congress. He moved to tape recorders in 1946. For more, see Rose and Shockley.

5. Please note:  this article was published at the conclusion of 2018. The editors of the journal had suffered personal tragedies and the editions were lagged. The piece was submitted to review in 2016. Tara wrote the preface to it in 2018 after it was accepted for publication, and after his death. 

 


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