Bob Dylan’s early works, such as his albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times Are A Changin’, were inherently political. Every other track on these albums were protest songs either challenging larger concepts like the barbarity of War, such as his track aptly titled Masters of War. Or his songs reflected a more personal and explicit matter, such as the troubles facing black Americans during the Civil Rights movements, like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol.
But only a few albums later, in Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan seemed to abandon these types of songs. Alongside his folk music roots, changing his acoustic guitar for an electric one. He adopted a more surrealist tone, exemplified by such tracks as Desolation Row. Granted, Dylan would return to these kind of protest songs later in his career, such as in Hurricane, but the Dylan that provided the soundtrack to both the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam war movements was long gone.
The reason for this change was as Dylan became more accepted into the established pop-culture, he grew more pessimistic in his belief that a song could change the world. You can’t change the establishment if you are the establishment.
In other words, he believed that you can’t change the world with a song.
This is a realisation that a lot of artists have to confront at some point or another. That their medium is defined critically by subjectivity. Good art, in the eye of the beholder, is something that appeals to their beliefs or life experiences. Bad art is something that contradicts these experiences, something they can’t or won’t believe. Like a soldier might have a harder time watching an action movie compared to a person who’s never fired a gun before.
Mediocre art, such as popular yet forgettable music, or meaningless blockbuster movies, are designed to appeal to as many people as possible so that they have a large audience radius. The experiences they portray are generic and mediocre and if you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one.
But a consumer can enjoy products that reflect an ideology they don’t subscribe to. A feminist can enjoy Michael Bay’s Transformers movies despite their portrayal of women being a bit misogynistic, and I’ve met guys who love the works of Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike but still found it in them to vote for Donald Trump. So it’s not necessarily that a person who can’t relate to the experiences your art portrays simply won’t listen to it, they just won’t care.
So when an artist realises that their materials either preach to the choir or to the wilfully deaf, how do they come to terms with that? How do you come to terms with the fact that you’ve spent an inordinate amount of times mixing sounds or splotting colourful mud on the skin of a dead tree, only for people to barely glance at it?
There’s a number of ways, like an artist will often tell themselves that their art is important because it makes people feel good. But triggering emotions from a consumer isn’t the same as making them change their mind, expanding their empathy or educating them. You can acknowledge that the Mona Lisa is a nice painting, but it’s never cured anyone of Malaria.
So, can a song change the world? No, of course not. The only thing that could ever change the world is money. The British Empire didn’t abandon their colonies because they saw the errors of their ways, but because it became uneconomical to maintain them. Various nations didn’t legalise marijuana just out of the goodness of their heart, they did it because they realised it was a goldmine and they legislated it in such a way where it disadvantages the communities who grew and developed this industry. Why else would the government require at least ten years of tax records from growers and sellers?
So change, either good or bad, is ultimately driven by money. But the thing about a song is that it can be redistributed for profit. Something Dylan never quite realised but artists such as Killer Mike and Tupac Shakur always did. If you climb this ladder, you realise that at any moment the industry can throw you off. So you need a parachute- but why stop there?
Many artists have used the opportunities given to them to better the communities they were raised in by setting up businesses and NGO’s to help create jobs and offer alternatives to people who would need them. By using the system they can better the lives of so many people.
Killer Mike himself owns a series of Barber Shops, Diddy has his own Vodka brand, so many artists have started these kind of enterprises that in turn invest in the communities they’re from and support the development of these communities.
So although a song can’t change the world, it can help if you know how to use it.