Commentary

Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" Video Is Both Technologically Impressive And Gimmicky

For the longest time, the snare-drum clap that launches Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" has served as my phone's ring tone. I don't share this in an attempt to paint myself as a being of unimpeachable musical taste - I prefer brain-wormpoptrifles to anything imprimatur-of-cool acts like the Velvet Underground or the Replacements ever put to vinyl - so much as to say: I effin' love "Like a Rolling Stone." The melody, the lyrics, the vocal sneer, the snaky deployment of Hammond organ - nearly half a century after its arrival, the song remains a singular achievement in popular music. I love the wobbly-cadence live takes, waltz-time alternates and inessential cover versions. Give me "Like a Rolling Stone" over Sgt. Pepper, over the Mona Lisa, over cheeseburgers, over anything and everything tagged as legendary or consequential or immense.

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Do not, however, dress it up in techno-frills and coat it with layers of artificial Internet-age luster, as Dylan's marketing minions - heaven forbid we blame the man himself for any misstep, including but not limited to Empire Burlesque - did to promote the release of a kitchen-sink set of his recorded oeuvre. The video for "Like a Rolling Stone" unveiled on Tuesday is, without question, technologically impressive. It assumes the form of a TV set with 16 channels, which can be perused using the up/down arrow keys on the viewer's PC. Each channel is themed: there's an ESPN-ish sports network, a BBC News knockoff, foodie and kids programming, etc. One channel shows a romantic comedy; another presents a documentary on Depression-era New York City.

The video replicates that network content with a stunning degree of verisimilitude. The faux NYC documentary, for instance, looks exactly like a real History Channel documentary, right down to the sepia tones and ferociously bearded professor/talking head. Similarly, the "Bachelor's Roses" dating-show knockoff replicates the genre's studied lunacy, whether in the baronial cuckoo-house foyer or in the confessional booth. Too, there's a whole lot of content: the four-minute clip features 16 channels. 16 times 4 equals 64. It's true. Ask anyone.

Once one gets past the novelty of the presentation, however, "Like a Rolling Stone" proves an empty gimmick. Every program on every channel is a lip-synch to the song, unconnected to it thematically, contextually or attitudinally. While some of the sequences are more elaborately staged than others, the bit gets old very quickly. Look, there's ESPN's Steve Levy, and he's lip-synching! There's Drew Carey, and he's lip-synching! There's the "Pawn Stars" guys, and they're lip-synching!

The cartoon characters lip-synch. The international and financial news anchors lip-synch. The chef lip-synchs. In what universe is this interesting?

It'd be one thing if each of the sequences were informed, even in a remote way, by the song itself - if, say, the fake rom-com was staged as an argument between embittered partners, rather than as a flirty conversation that plays out in Brooklyntown, USA. But only a single individual featured here, the great Marc Maron, connects with the material in any meaningful way. He frames his reading of the "how does it feel?" refrain as a serious inquiry, and one in which he's truly invested in the answer. He's the only person associated with this thing who appears to have heard the song before showing up.

The idea is that viewers will devote many happy Internet minutes interacting with the various channels, that they'll choose to experience and re-experience the song from each of the 16 perspectives. But really: since nothing happens in any of the clips - there is no plot, no tension, no point-A-to-point-B arc - how long can anyone be expected to dawdle? Even the Highway 61­-era footage of the man himself disappoints. It's canned, just like everything else under the clip's aegis.

In the end, the "Like a Rolling Stone" video tchotchke conflates gimmickry with cleverness and depth. I hate the lack of payoff. I hate the inexplicable decision to excise the song's third verse. I hate the garbled, deep-think-y sentence in the press release that reads, "When Bob Dylan released 'Like a Rolling Stone' in 1965 forever shattering all pre-conceived notions for what a pop single could be in terms of length, sound and subject matter - no official music video was ever created to accompany his release." To answer the song's own question, then: It feels dim, transparent and far beneath the creator and his sublime creation, that's how.

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7 comments about "Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" Video Is Both Technologically Impressive And Gimmicky".
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  1. Stewart Wills from stewartwills.com, November 21, 2013 at 5:48 p.m.

    I expected to hate this a lot more than I actually did when I saw it a few days ago. Agreed, it was gimmicky, but watching it did have one indisputable benefit: It reminded me what a fantastic song that is.

  2. Charles Azar from instant replay, November 21, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.

    I agree that artistically it was lacking but.... The technology was breathtaking. I see lots of use in advertising and other genres We did many music videos at IR that used tv segments but the interactive technology to interact was not available when we were doing those. Dylan's people should look at some. Videos from ground up sounds and the latest from Bij links for ideas to put this technology over the top. Bravo for this cutting edge experiment

  3. Steve Smith from Mediapost, November 21, 2013 at 7:43 p.m.

    I chose to over think this one, and it made for a more enjoyable experience. I thought the disconnect between lyric and scene is what made it compelling. If anything it strikes me as Dylan making fun of his own fame and the domestication of his art. His once-rebellious song is commodofied and denatured into lyrics we all sing to ourselves with little meaning or impact on our lives decades later. Just another ditty. I think in the end it is that ironic move that makes the listener attend to the lyrics harder - all the better to feel the distance between their original intent and where we all are now. It is nostalgia that is shallow - not the song and not the video.

  4. Alice Germanetti from The Germ Factory, November 21, 2013 at 9:59 p.m.

    Larry, I agree. For me the disconnected visuals distract from the magic of the music. I keep wanting to make sense out of it and there is none.
    Unless -- the whole point is just how disjointed, random, interactive and irrelevant our lives have become -- like rolling stones.
    I still have the 1965 album with the plastic bags protecting the vinyl records. Time to put them over my head!

  5. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, November 21, 2013 at 10:04 p.m.

    I know the video is not connected to the theme of the song. But why not? Why all the eating? I choose not to overthink it: It's crap.

  6. Stephen Block from Amazon Partners, November 22, 2013 at 6:55 a.m.

    Like Dylan and his 'rad' music in earlier days, this "music video" is a statement and makes people uncomfortable, possibly makes people think! The channel switching gimmick is the idea. What a mirror on the pathetic state of communications today. By the way, all music videos are lip sync and most don't seem too connected to the lyric either. I don't think I am thinking too hard to get his point here; Dylan gives his commentary on the present through perhaps the greatest song of his brilliant career. While the goofy techno sync never felt right for the enjoyment of this masterpiece, Dylan wasn't going to give us his own homage to his greatness. That wouldn't be Dylan, I think.

  7. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, November 22, 2013 at 9:53 a.m.

    OK, I won't think twice. It's all right.

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