by Robert Horton
1. You are free to debate whether “Like a Rolling Stone” is the best song of the last 50 years, but it is certainly the Catcher in the Rye of pop music. On the one hand it’s about a specific kiss-off from one person to another, on the other hand it’s about everything in the world.
2. The “Like a Rolling Stone” video is the work of director Vania Heymann for the Israeli company Interlude. It consists of 16 different channels, which the viewer can click through at random. On each channel, the people onscreen are lip-synching the song; one channel is a live Dylan performance from the mid-Sixties, shot by D.A. Pennebaker.
3. Some of the channels are fictional but strongly resemble actual programs; a cable-news channel, kiddie animation, a home shopping network, a cooking show. They are immaculately done. Other channels are actual shows that participated in the project: Drew Carey hosting “The Price Is Right,” the HGTV show “Property Brothers,” the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”
4. The video, which looks like a bona fide round of channel-surfing circa 2013, uncannily complements Dylan’s song almost a half-century after its release. The song, with its incantatory words and series of anthem-ready rising chords, is a rallying cry for authenticity. Rolling it across a flowing stream of media filler is exactly what channel-surfing deserves.
5. It would be interesting enough, but too easy by half, if the song were playing over randomly-selected clips from TV shows. But everybody’s lip-synching to Bob Dylan’s voice. It is as though the thing you always wished would happen when you turn on the television, that people would stop kidding you and would actually say something real, were happening on every channel.
6. In that sense, it may be the greatest five minutes about Media World (which is to say, the World) since the moment Nada slipped on the special sunglasses in They Live and began seeing what was actually going on.
7. And yet the effect isn’t heavy-handed. It’s just a gimmick, a clever device, a goof, right? The performers don’t hammer home any particular coincidences between the lyrics and the concept (although the home-shopping lady—who is superb—does gesture to the Dust Buster she’s selling when “as you gaze into the vacuum of his eyes” goes past; too close to a direct pun, but you have to work hard to find it amongst the channel-flipping, so let’s give it a pass). In fact the performers are very good at maintaining the pitch of whatever program they are on—sobriety and meaningful pauses for the news announcer, vapid sincerity or catty dishing on a “Bachelor”-esque reality show.
8. I laughed at various times while watching and re-watching the video, but the effect isn’t merely funny. It is eerie, mysterious, and often chilling. And so there are moments when you will feel that you are watching a George Romero movie, because the pile-on of different tones is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
9. The fact that the video equates the evening news and 24-hour financial information with home shopping and a Marc Maron podcast avoids obviousness because those things are already equated every hour of the day. That’s just TV with a remote control.
10. Watching the video a few times, you will develop favorites. The “Property Brothers” segment is remarkable, a real TV show that gamely went along with the premise. Drew and Jonathan Scott are good sports, and their male-model blankness—who can say how knowing they are here?—is neither exaggerated nor disavowed. The automatons on screen are matched by the uselessly busy camerawork and cutting, an exact re-creation of the real thing. I claim no high ground here; HGTV’s “House Hunters International” is a regular part of the evening’s wind-down in my household. “How does it feel?” It feels like Amsterdam would be a cool place to live.
11. But my favorite is Look TV, which looks made up but is apparently an actual thing. It features a show called “Fashion In and Out,” although this is interrupted by a promo for the inane MTV2 series “Girl Code.” The host of “Fashion In and Out” is Victoria Floethe. I assumed she was an actress, which shows you how behind I am on watching actual fashion-related television. (Victoria Floethe’s work can be sampled on Look TV’s channel on YouTube, which includes a short piece on “What to Do If Your Man Smells,” which is actually titled “What to Do If Your Man Smells w/Victoria Floethe,” which sounds much worse. For the record, her advice includes getting him to take a shower or use deodorant.) Victoria Floethe embodies what is great about the “Like a Rolling Stone” video. Her address to the camera is dead-on and vacuous, and the unflappable Ms. Floethe appears to be fully in on the subversion.
12. The ability to change channels really gives the sense that everybody is agreed on the same vaguely apocalyptic idea. For instance, that thinking you’ve got it made and exchanging all precious gifts are activities that might be inaccessible to you very, very soon, because everybody on TV is giving the same warning. Even Victoria Floethe. Flipping on just the right beat from a sportscaster to rapper Danny Brown is exhilarating.
13. I haven’t watched all of them; only a few seconds of the cartoon, and if there’s anything beyond the surface of the Marc Maron segment, I haven’t seen it yet. The elusiveness of the video adds to its epic quality.
14. The effect is a renewed appreciation for the song—and, I suppose, a new awareness of the song for a younger generation, blah, blah. But the song does stand re-appreciated for its utter clarity and its call to arms. It lays bare all of the people and channels we see during the video, and by extension all the channels that are like this, which is all of them. And the X-ray is pointed at you, of course, because we’re watching this shit too.
15. The video is released to coincide with the promotion of a big new Dylan box set, containing all the albums or some damn thing. Is that the only reason it came out the week of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? Because the timing was spooky, as the two events seemed to talk back and forth to each other, providing a ghostly index of how much has changed/hasn’t changed during the last five decades.
16. I read a couple of stories about the video to find out more about it. There are people who don’t get the thing, or assume it means Bob Dylan has sold out to MTV (is it still possible to do that?), or is pandering to millennials because interactivity is supposed to be the form of the young. But I’m glad I read about it, because I found this quote from Drew Carey, the host of “The Price Is Right” and thus a participant in the project. The Wall Street Journal (and who would know more about thinking that you’ve got it made than the Wall Street Journal?) quotes Drew Carey thusly: ” ‘The Price is Right’ is like wallpaper to most people…and every show in the video is like that … It’s this series of channels and figures that you graze on your whole life, and all of a sudden they start talking to you and telling you the truth.” The host of “The Price Is Right” just nailed it by saying something real. The world might have changed right then. Bob Dylan moves in mysterious ways.
The video is at Bob Dylan’s website.
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