I was up early yesterday morning reading Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America – The World Of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. It got me to thinking about the cultural relevance of musical artists in today's environment. As in: is anybody 'big' anymore?
The early material in the book revisits the controversy of Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. The word 'controversy' is relevant here because accounts vary on the issues of whether Pete Seeger was really trying to cut the band's cables with an axe, Seeger's reasons for doing so (or not), and whether the boos from the crowd had to do with sound quality issues or the fact that they just hated the new, scary electric Bob.
What is not wrapped in controversy is the ugliness of the audience response at the Forest Hills show after Newport. The brilliance of the music of Highway 61 Revisited was ignored, to be replaced by boos and shouts of "fucking scumbag." It was enough to make Al Kooper bail out early, fearing the band's future dates down in Texas. "Look what they did to J.F.K. down there," was Kooper's thought. Philp Ochs wrote about the developments:
"I wonder what's going to happen. I don't know if Dylan can get on the stage a year from now. I don't think so. I mean, the phenomenon of Dylan will be so much that it will be dangerous…He's gotten inside so many people's heads – Dylan has become part of so many people's psyches – and there're so many screwed up people in America, and death is such a part of the American scene right now."
Granted, this was mid-1960s America. Socio-political turmoil was the order of the day. Looking back at it from where we stand today, a person can't be faulted for thinking "What? He was just a musician." What I think of is the stunning passion of the fans. Their idealism (and maybe their naivete) was quite amazing.
Is there a parallel for that kind of passion in the modern-day pop music landscape? On the micro level, I'm sure that it exists (We discuss this at the Music Obsessives™ meetings). On the macro? Probably not, and blame can be fairly attached to neither listeners nor artists. The fracturing of our collective attention spans — technology splitting entertainment into many slivers — making it nearly impossible for any one musician to become "big" anymore, at least not in the way Bob Dylan was in 1965.