Friday, October 22, 2010

Dylan Says Stick With Mono


Wow, there are so many levels of irony in this youtube promo video for Bob Dylan's Mono Box Set, it's hard to know where to start peeling back the layers.

First, there is the obvious level on which it's supposed to be ironic, with its winking references to 60s era classroom scare films and other industrial filmmaking of the period. Little needs be said about this. It's well done and it's cute, but of course it's been done before.

Then there is a second level of (possibly unintentional) irony. The film warns "young" music consumers about "unscrupulous profiteers out the push the latest dubious gimmick in the name of progress" (here referring to stereo sound). But of course pushing dubious gimmicks is the only thing the music industry does today. Whether it's deluxe reissues of classic albums that cost hundreds of dollars, or "newly discovered" archival releases that have been circulating among collectors for decades, the music industry's current modus-operandi seems to be to repackage and re-sell consumers the same music over and over again. And of course they're doing this precisely because "young" people no longer buy music at all (and old people tend not to buy music by new artists).

Personally, I do think Dylan's early albums sound best in mono, and the video (in it's tongue-in-cheek way) actually points to part of the reason why. During the period these albums were released, mono was the primary format for pop and rock music, and much more attention was given to the mono mixes, while the stereo mixes were typically an afterthought. As a rule of thumb, I prefer to hear the mono versions of pop and rock albums released before 1967, which was around the time mixing for stereo started to be taken seriously in the pop music field. (With classical and jazz the equation is different). But I've already recently purchased mono reissues of these albums from Sundazed, who reissued Dylan's entire mono catalog on LP over the last several years, so this set is of somewhat "dubious" value to me.

But what am I supposed to make of the the fact that an advertisement for BP's "making things right in the Gulf" youtube channel pops up while I'm watching the video? I realize we've long since past the point where anyone expects any level of ideological purity from Bob Dylan. We're talking about an artist who marketed a promo compilation through Victoria's Secret and has released Starbucks' exclusives. (Neither of which is no big deal to me). And I realize Google decides what ads pop up, not Sony/Columbia, and certainly not Bob Dylan. But still, BP? It's rather an unpleasant jolt to see a propaganda advert for the company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history during a video promoting the albums that contain "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A Changing" (not to mention "Visions of Johanna"). Although honestly, the more I think about it, the more I suspect there probably isn't any irony in this considering the extent to which any subversive energy from the 60's counterculture was completely co-opted by corporate interests long ago. But how does one continue to find truth, beauty and inspiration in songs that have become cogs in the same big, oily misery machine as BP? Is it even possible?

And then there is irony itself, co-opted and neutered of its once substantial subversive force.

At least we still have mono.

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