Is Bob Dylan Drinking the Kool-Aid?
When it comes to political endorsements, you don't need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows.
It was no surprise that Hollywood experienced a collective electoral orgasm with the candidacy of Barack Obama, as the Illinois senator became the next "It" item in league with an Hermes Birkin bag or Leo's trademark Prius -- save for, of course, the Jack Nicholson montage endorsement for Hillary Clinton.
Celebrity train wrecks are just expected to throw themselves into the political moment du jour without much cause for policy analysis, much like how they show up at the soup kitchen to sling slop for the cameras on holidays without much regard to the issues faced by the homeless on the other days of the year. It's not so much the substance that matters as much as the photo op, and not so much the platform as the soapbox.
And as we're finally past primary season, artists will try to morph into pundits much like Jimmy Carter trying to morph into a statesman. But I must admit that I was as blue as a rainy day woman when I saw that Bob Dylan was now tangled up in Campaign 2008.
I grew up listening to my parents' hippie music, developing a deep appreciation for The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, etc. But I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan. Last summer I logged on to Ticketmaster every hour in the days before the sold-out Dylan show at the Orange County Fair, and snagged one ticket released at the last minute for nearly a hundred bucks. I'd never spent that much for any ticket. I've even received reader mail from conservatives criticizing me for being a fan of Dylan's music -- as if I should be the shallow center-right equivalent of the late Kevyn Aucoin, a liberal makeup artist who refused to work on the faces of Republican women.
The media eagerly latched onto Dylan's interview published Saturday in the Times of London in which he chats mostly about his art, but is asked by the reporter how he views the presidential election:
"Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval," Dylan responds. "Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up ... Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.
"You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future."
Good Lord. I expected the next paragraph to launch into a gravelly-voiced sing-along: "Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam..."
But the Times -- and other outlets -- termed this as an "endorsement." Was that actually correct? Obviously there's some Kool-Aid drinking going on there -- the poor can't be virtuous? -- and overly fawning praise of Obama. Followed by the noncommittal "we'll have to see how things play out" and a general expression of hoping things change. Which, in the world of St. Barack canonization, translates in many media circles to be as good as if Bob slung his guitar over his back and precinct walked with Obama '08 stickers. And Dylan was led into the question by a reporter who was otherwise interviewing the singer about his new art exhibit, a question asked after Dylan had stood to usher the reporter out at what was supposed to be the interview's end.
It's not that musicians jumping wholeheartedly into causes is a bad thing. Who can disrespect Bono for his work to help the world's poor, doing more than simply chiding the rich by joining forces with the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates to work toward concrete goals? Or those who are politically vocal yet put their money where their chords are, like anti-establishment Henry Rollins entertaining the troops since the start of the Iraq war?
But let's hope voters aren't going to cast their ballots based on the advice of the Top 40. It annoys me that the Rock the Vote, Russell Simmons' Turn Up the Vote, or Diddy's Vote or Die campaigns are not so much geared toward getting young people to the polls (the stated goal) as they are about getting young people to vote according to "their" issues (i.e. pick "progressive" candidates).
Yet the Bob & Barack ballad essentially heralds the beginning of a dreaded period in the showbiz duncedom: the election year. And in this circus, Bob Dylan -- whether wielding an endorsement or a fluffy '60s affirmation -- rates comparatively low on the freak scale. Consider the latest threat by Susan Sarandon to flee the country if Obama doesn't win, a celebrity tradition that is doubly bizarre because it assumes that fear of their emigration would actually influence a voter. Then consider that this act has proven to be purely fiction, otherwise Sarandon and hubby Tim Robbins would have vacated America after Bush won his first term, Eddie Vedder would have fled across the border yearning for a "Better Man" in the White House, and Alec Baldwin would have potentially (fortunately) been out of cell phone range from his daughter.
Perhaps in this time of unquestioning Obama adulation and feel-good celeb endorsements drowning out hard policy talk, it's a good time to remember that old verse from Mr. Dylan himself:
"Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin..."