Sunday, August 7, 2022

Bob Dylan in the Reagan Dawn

One of my pet cultural history theories is that the popular culture of the period from 1979 to 1982 reflected and reinforced the neoliberal and social conservative turns that would set the Reagan years off from the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. The cultural "eighties" did not really begin until 1982, when this process was ending and the new paradigm reigned supreme (and the economy finally started to recover.) I call this period Reagan Dawn.

I got to thinking about it again because I have been going through one of my periodic Bob Dylan obsessions, and have been trying hard to crack the mystery of his Christian years. I suddenly realized that Dylan's strange path made sense in the Reagan Dawn context.

In 1979, after years of gathering strength, evangelical Christians became an independent political force by establishing the Moral Majority. That happened to be the same year that Dylan declared his conversion experience, and put out his first Christian-themed record, Slow Train Coming. Unexpectedly, Dylan won some plaudits for his new direction. The album scored positive reviews, and he earned a Grammy for "Gotta Serve Somebody." I was shocked when I learned this, because I assumed his Christian stuff got a negative reaction. That would mostly come later.

For one thing, the record has a slick au courrant sound, the kind that Fleetwood Mac rode to the top of the charts at the time. He also keyed into the running on empty vibes of the sixties generation, to use the title of one of the truly emblematic Reagan Dawn songs. "Slow Train Coming" talks about people feeling shell-shocked in a cruel world run by a rigged system. Other searchers and seekers of the 70s turned away from wanting to change the world to change themselves. Dylan did that too, but through Christianity rather than New Age belief.

More people turned on him once Dylan toured again and started delivering fire and brimstone from the stage instead of "Like A Rolling Stone." It certainly must have been surreal to see the poet of the sixties counterculture telling his audience to adhere to the same narrow evangelicalism professed by the people who were pushing hard to erase all of the cultural changes of the prior twenty years. Saved and Shot of Love, his other Christian albums, were not as warmly received as Slow Train Coming. They are full of finger-pointing jeremiads against people who refuse to be born again, rather than Dylan's old targets in the establishment. The Bobfather was not directly singing about the Moral Majority or tax cuts, but his turn certainly felt like an endorsement of the conservative restoration. 

It's interesting then that Dylan stopped making explicitly Christian albums in 1983, after the end of the Reagan Dawn, with Infidels. (The title certainly shows some residue, though.) It was all over the map politically. "Neighborhood Bully" supported Israel after its bloody invasion of Lebanon, but "Union Sundown" commented on how Reaganomics and globalization left the American working class in the lurch. His other 80s albums would be far less topical, but in any case one could no longer assume that Dylan had thrown his lot in with the forces of the conservative restoration. 

I continue to find the Reagan Dawn to be a fascinating period because it represented the beginning of a political, economic, and cultural order where there was, in Thatcher's words, "no alternative." Even a figure like Bob Dylan was unable to resist. For better or for worse, it was the world I have spent most of my life in.

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