Gender Dynamics in The Philosophy of Modern Song
Beautiful. Beyond good and bad. We are so limited in casting our judgements. I have no doubt that Bob admires the awesome and terrifying power of women. Especially as regards their place in myth and song, and so in real life. I will keep reading anything you write, Graley. It’s fun to see someone willing and able to go this deep. So much Bob talk stays on the surface. Thanks!
Thank you for another unique take on this fascinating book. It will send me back for yet another reading of some of the relevant sections. I remember you saying that people will be studying this work for years. I am still trying to wrap my head about what it is Dylan is doing in his riffs and commentary. Like so much of what he does, he approaches these songs like no one else has before and I am not sure we get it yet. Very much looking forward to hearing you and Laura in Tulsa.
Jeez Graley, leave some crumbs for the rest of us! I loved reading this and I'm so glad you tackled this topic because the discussion of the treatment of women has been severely lacking nuance so far. This gave me a lot to think about. As you know, I'm fascinated with how Dylan's writing in the book occupies the ground between songwriting and literature. So when he writes, "The song is brainwashed, and comes to you with a lowdown dirty look, exaggerates and amplifies itself until you can flesh it out, and it suits your mood" – the same is true for his riff on the song: he exaggerates and amplifies the lyrics, fleshing them out until they become uncomfortable. In the hands of a misogynist that can look quite ugly. Does that mean Dylan is the misogynist, or is he only showing us the potential this song holds? That’s up to the reader to decide (I know what where I personally fall on that spectrum). I really love how you tied Dylan's writing about women back to the archetypes described in folk songs and even antiquity, because we know those are stories Dylan is deeply familiar with. But by reading them via Angela Carter and Rennie Sparks, you show that the archetypes themselves are not necessarily misogynist, but they're transformed depending whose doing the storytelling and depending on what the readers/listeners read into the story. Fantastic piece, thank you for writing this Graley!
PS: Reading these Costello interview quotes, it occurred to me that we now have a name for the "new set of clichés he wanted to create. Nowadays, men who are angry at women for rejecting them are called "incels".
I read this with interest because I’d been disappointed that the reviews I looked at of PoMS mentioned the book’s depiction of women without really taking on that strand in the book. Although I haven’t read everything out there, I started to fear the worst: Was the relative nonissue of Dylan’s hellcats,vixens, cunts, and his avuncular take on polygamy’s benefits for women born of condescension? That Bob Dylan is now edging from legend to relic, thus his vixens et al. may be passed over as merely picturesque and incurable ranting? Your post may address this by being an apologetics not for Dylan’s sexism but for his ever-masterful and stealthy significance. What seems rebarbative may actually be a little radical. That Dylan is tapping into “frequencies” with Rennie Sparks’, and possibly Angela Carter’s, revisionist upending of myth and balladry into female potency, sexuality, vitality, abandon. I think taking this from a male writer is indeed hard to swallow, as you say. Dylan approaches his witchy women from a lifelong relation to women touched by desire, power, mystification, and sublime otherness. You critique Dylan’s reading of “Come On A-My House” and find subtleties in his Pump It Up—yet what if you couldn’t end this by reclaiming Dylan via feminist frequencies? Again, not reclaim him from sexism, but reclaim him as being relevant to important discussions about live issues. Bob Dylan can help me think about the gender complexity of mythic and historical archetypes and tropes, and threads of meaning in other songwriters. What if you had to end on Dylan’s PoMS take on women as being merely loud and tiresome? No one can doubt your devotion to Bob Dylan, it fuels all your work, leads to intriguing constructions and interesting connections. But this to me is still apologetics; also, I may belong to the generation of women who are less generous in thanking men for suggesting new approaches to male stories of polygamy saving me from the poorhouse, and cunts, hellcats, and vixens. (Your soundbite on Freud and Medusa may have led you to Hélène Cixous’s canonical feminist take on Medusa and women’s writing, expression, and lives, The Laugh of the Medusa?) Thank you for the work it takes to assemble these pieces of writing.
On the Bacharach point, I'm with your first reconsideration - I took it entirely as a compliment that EC was willing to stand next to Burt (both in the writing process and in the public reaction to the result) and let the judgements be what they may. Plus, to me 'not giving a damn what anyone thinks' is always a compliment.
Thank you for the thought provoking article. I can't claim to have fully decoded TPOMS but I understood enough on first reading to know that the vast majority of critics and reviewers were on the wrong track and that most lacked both the both the desire and the capability to do it justice. This piece on the other hand is wonderful and seems to be exactly the response the book itself is demanding.
The Witchy Woman section immediately reminded me of Marshall Berman's writing about the fate of Gretchen in Goethe's 'Faust' in his great book 'All That Is Solid Melts Into Air'. Berman argues that Goethe uses to Gretchen to show how the traumatic effects of capitalist development such as the destruction of established communities and religious practice must be borne by women who are punished as 'witches' or in more modern terms 'sluts'. Dylan's phrase "banished everything sacred and pure from your life" lines up exactly with Berman's focus on Marx's idea that capitalist development breaks all existing bonds, 'everything that solid melts into air'.
This isn't Bob related but Nicholas Winding Refn chose to retell the Red Riding Hood myth in the penultimate episode 'The Empress' of his 2019 series 'Too Old To Die Young' which he co-wrote with Hayley Gross. This Youtube link isn't great quality and the slightly mistimed audio doesn't do justice to the acting of Jenna Malone but it's on similar ground to this essay in terms of reappraising cultural portrayals of misogyny.
Edited because you should never write anything before getting out of bed in the morning.
Fantastic work, Graley. I found myself smiling with glee as I read this. Looking forward to digging up even more classical allusions as I re-read Dylan's book.
Brilliant, as always, Graley. You write: "Dylan isn’t showing off his intelligence—quite the opposite—he obscures his allusions so thoroughly that they’re barely detectable. And he’s not just randomly invoking arbitrarily chosen mythological figures." My initial reaction to the misogynistic passages in POMS was profound disappointment. It stemmed from the fact that the allusions or references to women in the Western tradition as demons or as goddess-icons (both dehumanizing) are so rife, so commonplace, so integral, that I found no allusions, per se, in these passages: I found no sustained engagement with the figurations of women to which I just referred, no critique. I am utterly uninterested in Dylan's own views, but the text, of which you are a supreme exegete. You convince me there's more going on when you tap into Rennie Sparks wonderful essay. But I still remain disappointed! Thank you so much for sharing these vital insights!
Great article, Graley. If you haven't already seen it, I recommend you take a look at Scott Warmuth's 2011 article "Deciphering The Asia Series: Dylan and The Pied Piper of Tucson," which parallels many of your observations. http://swarmuth.blogspot.com/2011/10/deciphering-asia-series-dylan-and-pied.html?m=1
I just read your book on TOOM and now this essay on POMS. You are writing interesting and provocative observations about the content and history behind Dylan's art. It is so dense with history that I no sooner finish it and have to read it again. A million thanks to all that you have added to my experience of his work not to mention Murder Ballads, mythology, race relations, religion and feminism. Wow wow wow! Can't wait for your panel with Laura in Tulsa! You have addressed the elephant in the room and help change my perspective on said elephant.