TODAY BOB DYLAN turns 50, which makes it as good a time as any to assess his place in popular culture. Because his studied impenetrability and musical nonconformity have made him less important than he once was, it is sometimes easy to forget that Dylan, as much as anyone else, is responsible for enabling rock music to influence our culture to the degree it has.
Today, the media are regularly filled with discussions about the artistic influence of Madonna, or the import of lyrics by 2 Live Crew or Prince. In a sense, we owe that to Dylan. While others, like Elvis or the Beatles, changed the music of rock, Dylan changed its subject matter. Before he arrived on the rock scene 26 years ago, rock and roll dealt mostly with the trivial concerns of youth -- their cars, drive-ins and dances. Dylan helped make rock music serious, and thus made it possible for youth and their music to be taken seriously.
Before Dylan turned to rock music, the "love" portrayed in the music was usually love as seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old -- going steady, attending the ho, or cruising Main Street in a GTO. Girls were urged not to "be cruel to a heart that's true," while boys were told to be "true to your school like you would to your girl." By the mid-'60s, Dylan would be setting his songs on Desolation Row, but before he arrived, Palisades Park was where the youth of rock spent their time.
Dylan, of course, did not begin his career in the early '60s as a rock star. He was, instead, a pure product of the more serious and enduring folk tradition, singing protest songs on an acoustic guitar to small, appreciative audiences. In songs like "The Times They Are a-Changin'," he became among the first to articulate the rebellion of the young as a political movement. In other early-'60s folk-like songs such as "It Ain't Me Babe" or "Mr. Tambourine Man," he began to sing about more existential subjects and evoke more powerful poetic imagery.
It was because rock had so little intellectual or political awareness that many beatniks and intellectuals of the early '60s rejected rock for the folk and jazz scenes. Dylan helped change all that in 1965 when he "went electric" and merged the folk and rock traditions, bringing his serious music to the masses. Within months, a Top Ten formerly composed almost entirely of songs like "This Diamond Ring" or "The Name Game" now included titles like Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," as well as serious songs by other folk-rock groups like "The Sound of Silence" and "Turn, Turn, Turn."
The rest, as they say, is history that we tend to take for granted. Freed from the superficiality of its past, rock music quickly became a more powerful vehicle for artistic and political expression. In the late '60s, as the music merged with a succession of light shows, head shops and protest marches, America became a kind of rock and roll culture, with Dylan as one of its founding fathers.
In the two decades since, both Dylan's significance -- and the influence of rock music on the culture at large -- have diminished. For reasons of demography and temperament, youth today are not the leaders of the culture the way they were a generation ago. Moreover, rock is no longer the voice of only the young, losing much of the urgency and rebellious sentiment which gave it a great deal of its energy and influence.
The result in some quarters has been to blame Dylan himself, as if he had a responsibility to shape the movement he made possible. But that's hardly fair, and it hardly tempers Dylan's contribution to pop-culture history. Rock music of the '50s and early '60s purported to represent youth, but it portrayed young people only in the trivial way adults wanted to see them. When Dylan -- along with others -- showed that rock could be serious and political, he allowed the music to reflect the culture accurately.
Twenty-five years later, it still does, more or less. Sometimes we wish the mirror were a lamp. And often we don't like what we see in the glass. But for that, we should hardly blame Dylan. Though he helped build the looking glass, the reflection we see today in rock music is not his but our own.
Steven Stark writes for the Boston Globe.