This book's title is a fabrication.
No "philosophy" is presented here, no overarching idea or justification for songwriting or singing. There isn't even an explanation as to why Bob Dylan chose these 66 records in particular as the focus of his essays, which incorporate history, criticism, and incredible leaps of logic.
Regarding "contemporary," I suppose that depends on your viewpoint. The oldest song on this list, "Nelly Was a Lady" by Stephen Foster, was recorded most recently in 2004 by blues musician Alvin Youngblood Hart. Only two songs from the twenty-first century are included otherwise, and nearly half of the selections are from the 1950s, Bobby Zimmerman's formative years. (It's also important to note that only four of his choices include female performers.)
The Philosophy of Modern Song does not feature any K-Pop, emo, chillwave, or trap music; instead, first-wave punk is presented as the most "modern" genre, and Dylan has some issues with the performers he chooses to include: Elvis Costello's composition ("Pump It Up"), according to him, contains "too many thoughts, way too wordy. A lot of their songs are bloated, overwrought, and well-intentioned, he says of the Clash ("London Calling"), adding that there are "too many concepts that just bang up against itself."
However, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate has lied before. As soon as people began to inquire, he began making up his own backstory, and his wonderful memoir Chronicles: Volume One, published in 2004, is full of readily refuted lies. But keep in mind that truth and accuracy aren't always the same thing.
The majority of these chapters, which range in length from one paragraph to twelve pages, are meditations on songs that explore their emotional underpinnings or the feelings they arouse. Although they are typically written in the second person, the intimate "you" might refer to both the performer and the listener. In phrases like "You're sitting in the shade, slumped out, anonymous, incognito, watching everything go by, unimpressed, hard-bitten—impenetrable," or "You want to be freed from all the hokum," Dylan's voice leans toward hard-boiled mid-century jive.
This method is frequently abandoned or combined with a history lecture. These compositions use Dylan's narration from his 100-episode "Theme Time Radio Hour" series as their obvious inspiration. And it turns out that these are not at all lies. Rosemary Clooney's "Come on-a My House" was actually penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, who subsequently created Alvin and the Chipmunks, and is what he refers to as "the song of the deviant, the paedophile, the mass murderer." In other places, we discover that The Big Sleep screenwriter Leigh Brackett also created the initial draught of The Empire Strikes Back's script and that the Disney documentary's depiction of lemmings "rushing to their shared destiny" was made up.
Dylan uses some songs as springboards for his non-musical philosophising. In "Cheaper to Keep Her," Johnnie Taylor builds to a critique of the divorce market before making a case for polygamy's advantages. In Edwin Starr's "War," we learn about the creation of Esperanto, the "global language," and the history of the famous Western Wear staple known as the Nudie Suit. We also compare George Bush's Gulf War to George W. Bush's Iraq War. The action occasionally stops for a list, which may include sobbing vocalists or songs with classical melodies.
The funniest parts occur when Dylan becomes engrossed in his own beautiful language and simply cannot stop. In a parody of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," he writes, "You're the spoofer, the playactor, the two-faced fraud—the stool pigeon, the scandalmongerer—the prowler and the rat—the human trafficker and the vehicle jacker." Or when he exaggerates the meanings of songs: Marty Robbins' "El Paso" is "a song of genocide, where you're led by your nose into a nuclear holocaust," while Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" can "foretell the future, discover missing goods, treat sicknesses, identify perpetrators of crimes."
The book is a laugh-out-loud comedy with some killer one-liners in the vaudeville tradition. The greatest songwriter of his generation once declared, "No matter how many chairs you have, you only have one a**. Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction." It's sometimes preferable to just eat a BLT and move on. The illustrations are also the book's secret weapon; they are jam-packed with vintage advertisements, old movie posters, and inside jokes that occasionally demand repeated readings (the "Big Boss Man" entry features Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone on one page next to a picture of Colonel Tom Parker making fun of Elvis).
But it's obvious that Dylan takes these songs seriously. He claimed that he discovered religion and philosophy in music in an interview from 1997. I can't locate it elsewhere. And even when played for clear dark comedy, the constant life-or-death stakes and apocalyptic visions may get tiresome in The Philosophy of Modern Song. Few songs, like "Come Rain or Come Shine," provide any solace from the sense of inexorable harshness or approaching disaster. Perhaps seeing it in episodes rather than all at once would be preferable.
Ironically, Dylan himself criticises this flaw—the danger of limiting a brilliant artist's emotional expression by placing them in a specific lane.
He claims that although Johnny Cash "loves being the Man in Black and dresses appropriately," the real Johnny Cash is a much more complete artist and person. In stark contrast to the august gravity of murder ballads, hardscrabble tales, and Trent Reznor covers that his fans had come to expect, his best songs are lighthearted and full of wordplay and humour.
However, if you look closely enough, a bigger picture or at the very least some practical advice for songwriters starts to become apparent. Dylan writes, "New writers frequently hide behind filigree." The artistry is sometimes found in the silence. Vic Damone's "On the Street Where You Live" is "all about the three-syllable rhyme: street before, feet before, heart of town, part of town, annoy me, rather be," the author warns, noting that the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" avoids this trap.
Despite the criticisms of how his personal life influences his music that he has long resisted, Dylan, 81, points out the drawbacks of autobiographical lyrics in this song. "When composers draw inspiration from their personal lives, the outcomes can occasionally be so specific that other people find them difficult to relate to. Making songs out of diaries is not always a sure thing. (He further adds that "Knowing a singer's life story doesn't necessarily improve your understanding of a song" in a cunning chess move.)
Similar to the "Theme Time" performances, Dylan's personal story comes through as most authentic when it seems like he is only thinking about music. He claims that becoming a writer is not something one chooses to do. It's something you just do, and occasionally others notice it. In "On the Road Again," a song by Willie Nelson, Dylan quotes the singer as saying, "The thing about being on the road is that you're not weighed down by anything. even good news. You make others happy while keeping your joy to yourself.
Bob Dylan's work might be seen as a lifelong investigation into American music of all genres. It explains odd endeavours like his Christmas record or his three collections of Frank Sinatra songs. Folk, rock, blues, and country music have all been explored before his gospel phase, which is all but inevitable. The Philosophy of Modern Song brings it all together (nearly) under one roof, with observations, details, and asides to chew on as well as unexpected flashes of insight that can be discovered repeatedly.
In his essay, Dylan claims that "music is made in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in real space." The more you study music, the less you comprehend it, according to the author, who claims to have spent a dozen years working on this book and analysing more than 500 songs. He can only say that "words to music cause an unexplained event to happen. Their togetherness is the miracle. Though attempts to do so continue, one and one will always equal two in science. One plus one, in the best of conditions, equals three, as music, like all art, especially the art of romance, repeatedly reminds us.
And that is a true statement, too.