Corona does have a symptom for the uninfected, and that must be this summery slumber. These days, the sunlight burns moth holes through the curtains, making the 93 million mile trek just to wake me, a mummy wrapped in linens. Dog days were carved into our biological clock at an early age. Usually a favorite of school kids for their hibernation, this semester is loved for its sprinklers, ice pops, and 3 AM crickets picnicking out on the lawn. Overall, it’s somntastic, but the harvest time slug doesn’t seem to fit this summer well, considering at least what it’s been harvesting.
THE TALKING HEADS PARASITE
A few months back, scientists discovered that COVID had mutated into a second, more contagious strain. Now these two strains alone, SARS-CoV-2 and the L-type, have infected nearly 300,000 Americans. Then, the minute the coast seemed clear, states reopened only to have to close again. This has sparked conspiratory dissent with anti-maskers and their sudden weaponization of the first amendment. Few of us seem to remember that free speech isn’t just free talk as in “anything goes.” The right means nothing without accurate information, free unbiased listening, if one can call it that. This should especially tug on the conscious when the numbers in case involve actual life and death, not anyone’s agenda or philosophy on the subjects.
The pandemic won’t end this summer, but having flipped through the same McGraw-Hill history textbooks as everyone else, some innocent part of me didn’t think that people would be the issue this time around. Speaking of people, you’re telling me that the ones who murdered Breonna Taylor still haven’t been arrested? Why has her case been deduced to Instagrammers reminding other Instagrammers via aestheticized injustice? Why are these the only people doing in action?
Yet, those doing “their part,” don’t seem to be doing any good - here at home, ICE now threatens to deport international students, all the while still holding 50,000 immigrants in detention camps. Elsewhere, China has thousands of ethnic Turkic Muslims in prison camps, using “re-education” to rebrand cultural genocide. Meanwhile, our children in Yemen are still starving, 11 million Syrians are still in need of humanitarian assistance, and millions more across the map, from Venezuela to Afghanistan, are still suffering the same fate. The fact that I’ve had to morbidly mush all this together, with the curtness of some far-off future anthropologist, should definitely disturb you.
So let’s look carefully. It’s tempting to approach each tragedy one by one, as we should of course do physically. However, for the millions whose only feasible power at the moment is to read these headlines, we must do more than form an opinion to sing. But just what is the current anthem we’re humming?
Like an anthropologist, we’re guilty of dividing and studying ourselves not only through numbers, but through our words. Basic global rhetoric at face value is just hieroglyphic ABCs and funny chirps. Take “humanity” for instance, a hot word at the moment, though all it does is flash vague images of the planet’s top ten moments of compassion. Therefore, we regard “inhumanity” as a completely separate animal, when it’s literally the same word. So we can’t help it when both sides of these syl-la-bles - good/bad, beautiful/ugly, point/counterpoint - harden into our reality, like a diamond chiseled through the scorching heat of human automacy, the real humanity in question. We listen, talk, and act through this sparkly reality. Essentially, we’re rendered incapable of seeing things for what they really are, whether that be crisis, people, or you, as if those select ideas didn’t give way to each other.
The Talking Heads Parasite, the People Syndrome, the Word Disease, or just plain division, call it whatever you want. When it comes to doing our part, we can spend another millennia trying to pin the blame on particular someones, but chaos is always committed by geared hands of greed, inattention, and inaction - institutionally persistent as long as it is personally persistent. Multimagni-eyed, we don’t seem to change fundamentally. We replace our words and tunes for kinder ones, bolder ones. All we’ve done is mutate, like a virus.
A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM?
There’s this feeling in this day of all-round distress, that a summer bop wouldn’t hurt. But of course, an anthem is so much more than that because it explicitly calls for order, a message implicit in other forms of art - song, painting, film, etc. Boiled down, these entertainments, national and casual, leave one with the impression of “that’s life.” As mentioned earlier, when conceptualized - when you’re satisfied with the l or the i or the f or the e - actual life stops breathing.
An anthem has an air of the militaristic, unifying at best and conforming at worst. Whatever the genre, the appeal of these songs is mantra-like, convenient slogans for a dose of identity. Side effects include potential stubbornness and side picking. It may seem like I’m going out of my way to disclaim anthems, but that’s because I know how much we love music. First there’s the word - the lyrics - swaying enough on its own. Then add a tune, chords and notes pulling heartstrings in ways that have completely alluded mankind since the very first beat of the drum. Absolutely hypnotic. Any headphone junkie will get that a traditional anthem, given the way we digest song, would just be a diversion from our problems.
Of course, art isn’t on this planet just to serve as a distraction, though we may treat it as such. Are there songs that don’t impose principle, merely causing us to settle? Songs that instead inspire us to look at our own lives with more honesty? More energy? There is the potential of seeing through art, instead of attaching oneself to it. Given the heavy romanticism in popular music though, more often than not we end up as milder versions of Francis Scott Key, the lawyer who wrote “Star Spangled Banner”... and owned slaves. When we don’t actually learn anything from that which we sing, is music really anything more than catchy propaganda?
Listeners beware! Is there a person who belts with such transparency, that the words themselves fly? Is there someone who didn’t take the poetry of verse and strum so superficially? A musician so sensitive that he orchestrates not more parasitic banter, but something a little closer to the silence we could all use during this hot, hot, hot American summer?
LET’S RESURRECT BOB DYLAN
(NOTE: the man’s not actually dead :) )
A comprehensive Wikipedia introduction would be useful right about now - who is Bob Dylan? I’m not entirely sure myself, given that he was nothing more than a name up until about three days ago. Spiritually speaking, he’s you? (I’m sure that’s exactly how he introduced himself at parties.) Anyhow, a personal bio is besides the point, and he thought so too. Around the time his career was just revving up, “[Dylan] began weaving a myth about his past, including stories about being a circus hand and a carnival boy, having a rock band in Hibbing that performed on television, and running away from home and learning songs from black blues artists. He was, as he continued to do throughout his life, reinventing himself” (The Political Bob Dylan by Peter Dreier, Dissent Magazine 2011). In all his elusiveness, Dylan’s boyish quirks gave way to a gorgeous, melodic soul.
Like I said, up until recently, I only had an idea of the man. One that, as it turns out, was surprisingly accurate. How do I explain this? Kids like me who’ve immigrated to this country, especially those between the malleable, pudgy ages of 3-7, are welcomed into this family via a very special kind of cultural initiation. We were perceptive to the subtlest, unspoken Americanisms. For instance, happy meals are yum, but no good for the tum. TNT fireworks are cool, but the illegal ones are wayyy better. And Bob Dylan, you’ve always sorta known him. You’ve heard his stammering playing at the liquor store, and so he’d come to be this folksy martyred silhouette at the bottom of your tiny patriotic heart. Little did I know that he left this exact impression on lots of Americans.
Amidst the political uproar of the 60s, Dylan gained clout through his provocative songwriting. His lyrics were so precise to the younger generation’s struggle, that he was regarded as a spokesperson for his fellow youth, eventually being labeled as a “protest singer.” He hated this, even going as far as criticizing performer Phil Ochs for his musical activism - “The stuff you’re writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. You’re wasting your time” (Dreier 2011).
Dylan wrote over 350 songs over the span of his career, and dozens of them are potent to this day. After pouring myself into his lyrics, it became apparent that his geopolitical resonance was just the inevitable result of an honest artist living in radical times. To regard his music as purely “political” is a dangerous trap. This angle cements politics as some trivial game, entirely separate from the vastness and personal urgency of humanity. At a point, he took on an “anti-political mood,” and expressed that “he no longer wanted to sing about ‘we.’ He wanted to write about ‘I’” (Dreier 2011).
I’d recommend that you listen to as many of Dylan’s recordings as possible. Before this, I'd never heard a full song of his while consciously knowing, ahh, that's Bob Dylan. So in a strange, new way, I found myself falling in love with his guttural ruckus. They don’t paint the listener in a certain way, as too often is the case. Rather, they create more of a mirror, one as clear as any songwriter could possibly compose. The songs below are some of the more striking ones; take them like you would a daily vitamin. Good for your health, especially during this
Psychedelic Deja-Vu of A July
1. Subterranean Homesick Blues
“Twenty years of schoolin’, and they put you on the day shift.” That’s right, they actually did! This song screams through the labyrinthine maze that is young adulthood in this country. At a point, one comes to realize that as a citizen, what you really are is a cog in a big hurtlin’ wheel. By the way, “Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose” is a direct warning to protesters of police brutality. Subterranean Homesick Blues gives you a good feel for Dylan’s preaching idiosyncrasies about industrial life. But don’t just take his word or mine for it - after all, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Turn the volume all the way up, this one has a lot of horsepower behind it. Dylan’s wit transforms into a thriller within the course of this ballad as he takes us through the false accusation of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter was tried for a 1966 murder in Paterson, NJ. His trial was the perfect recipe for racial injustice - the loose, non-existent evidence; the forced witness testimony; and the plain, hapless persistence of police in trying to pin a crime on an obviously innocent man. “Put him in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been the champion of the world” is the case of all those wrongfully convicted and snuffed of their existence. Your face contorts with anger if you listen closely enough, and Dylan’s verses righteously give you no consolation - “How can the life of such a man be in the palm of some fool’s hand? To see him obviously framed, couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.”
3. The Death of Emmett Till
Your own tears will be an apt description for this ballad, which recounts the 1955 murder of a 14 year old Emmett Till. You might’ve actually seen Emmett’s face recently. Tweets have gone viral comparing Emmett with Tamir Rice, and the resemblance is uncanny. Emmett was tortured to death and drowned in a river by two adult men, all for supposedly flirting with one of their wives. The way Dylan sings this song is almost cruel, and maybe that was the point - to preserve its blatant terrorism. “If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust/ Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust/ Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood, it must refuse to flow/ For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!” I hope that hits a nerve. “Hurricane” and “The Death of Emmett Till” weren’t the only songs that Dylan wrote about Black death and discrimination. Just look up “Who Killed Davey Moore,” “Oxford Town Paths,” “George Jackson,” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Each piece sharply points out a hate-run culture’s ironic identification with justice.
4. All Along the Watchtower
I chose this rendition because the song, perhaps the snappiest of the bunch, should only be played at max voltage, aka by Jimi Hendrix. “‘There must be some kind of way out here,’ said the joker to the thief.” If you pull out some encyclopedia it’ll tell you that the joker and the thief are ancient archetypes, but I’ll tell you plainly, they often cameo as the voice in your head (the art of theatrical drama didn’t come outta nowhere). The haywire fable reminds me of ancient Hindu philosophy that, for one - touches upon this idea of role-playing, and two - says the world, with all its convolution and contradiction, is in constant decay. It’s a blunt, yet vital reminder. Dylan’s verses, mixed with Jimi’s playing, conjure up an unexpiring elixir for those who do seek radical change. Shout out to all my protesters! This one goes out to you - “outside in the distance a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl!” Om Namah Shivaya.
5. Only A Pawn In Their Game
Dylan was only 22 here when he performed at the March on Washington. Practically a baby, it is with babe-like simplicity that he serenades us through Medgar Ever’s assassination. He’s expressing an important half of the narrative here: the one of the poor white man who doesn’t understand he’s being used for his beloved politician’s agenda. Dylan was a no-leader sort of man, understanding the sickness of worship, admiration, and dependency. Sixty years later, the song still makes one question all authority, including our own built-in commands.
Nominee for The New National Anthem
6. Changing of the Guards
If I had to choose a national anthem, it would be one that dismisses authority and a new order contrived from the old. We’ve had all that before. You can extract a whole thesis paper from “Changing of the Guards” and its Biblical depth (I really appreciate David Weir’s verse analysis here , if you want to dig a little deeper.) In essence, the song tackles the real conflict, the one that runs deep into mankind’s talkative history - division. “Sixteen banners united over the field/ Where the good shepherd grieves/ Desperate men, desperate women divided/ Spreading their wings ‘neath the falling leaves.”
Despite all of our efforts against each other, disorder prevails. We consume so much entertainment, psycho-analysis, theology, philosophy, and political propaganda that we’ve only ever formed ideas of unity, and never thought to seek the actual. Why are we so satisfied with words? With sounds? Even our own musings should be run through reasonable doubt. With every new revolution, an anthem calls for modified order. Dylan stamps this out cleanly -
“Gentlemen, he said/ I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your
shoes/ I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards/ But Eden is burning, either brace
yourself for elimination/ Or else, our hearts must have the courage for the changing of the
Nearly half a century ago, Bob Dylan understood human automacy. Thus, his approach wasn’t anthropology. It was crystal clear poetry. He didn’t have to look outside when all of history, and therefore our future too, was contained inside of him. The man penned thousands of lines revealing the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the humanity, and inhumanity - all the contradictions that make us a people inseparable from our culture. So what really needs to change? I can’t answer that for you, and neither can Bob Dylan. But if anything, we can blare his music this summer and finally bring you to the spotlight.