Today (May 24, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. For anyone who listens to popular music and wants to understand its history, Bob Dylan is without a doubt one of the three most important figures to study (the other two are John Lennon and Paul McCartney). As University of Chicago economics professor David Galenson wrote in his 2009 article “From ‘White Christmas’ to Sgt. Pepper : The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”:
During the mid-1960s Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney created a new kind of popular music that was personal and often obscure. This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters.
For more information on what it means for popular music to be transformed from an experimental into a conceptual art, consult that article (search Google Scholar for “The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”, including the quotes) as well as Galenson’s “Understanding Creativity” (Journal of Applied Economics, Volume 13, Issue 2, November 2010, pgs. 351-362). From that latter paper comes an excellent quote from Bruce Springsteen, who at Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, said:
Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.
In honor of Dylan’s birthday, Tyler Cowen, another economist who studies arts and culture, discusses the highlights of Dylan’s career.
What strikes me the most about Bob Dylan is how incredibly young he was when he made his biggest contributions to popular music. Only 23 when he released “Blowin’ in the Wind” (ranked #14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”) and was acknowledged as the king of the American folk music scene, Dylan was 24 when he precipitated the “Electric Controversy”, and later that same year he released “Like a Rolling Stone” (ranked #1 on the aforementioned list). It’s worth excerpting Galenson again to explain the importance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
“Like a Rolling Stone” rejected the traditional clarity and universality of popular music, using a novel synthesis of folk music, blues, and Symbolist poetry to create a personal, complex song that became a radical new model for rock music. It led directly to the introspective and elusive imagery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and inspired generations of singer-songwriters.
Reading Galenson’s papers (or quickly reading his Wikipedia page), it is clear that Dylan’s relative youth during such transformational events is no accident. Dylan is a conceptual innovator, like Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Orson Welles, who starting innovating young, made art by synthesizing other art forms and works, and broke the rules of his art in such a fundamental way that everyone else had to take notice. Like other conceptual innovators, Dylan peaked early, which is not to say that his later work is worthless, but rather that his most influential songs and albums were from the mid-to-late 1960s. Here’s Galenson one more time:
In 1966, when Robert Shelton asked Dylan if his songs were influential because he broke the rules, Dylan responded, “I don’t break the rules, because I don’t see any rules to break. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any rules.”
With the inescapable benefit of hindsight, it is sadly too easy to understate the magnitude of the impact Bob Dylan had on the development of popular music. (I originally phrased that last sentence wrong. Thanks, Language Log!) We’re still living in the musical world created by Dylan’s innovations.
So, Bob, how does it feel to be seventy? I don’t expect you to answer any time soon, but until then, many more happy birthdays!