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.
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.