Even though it isn't my favorite Dylan song, I feel like there have to be underlying reasons as to why a song that was written in 1965 still remains #1 on the top 500 songs of all time according to Rolling Stone in 2010 (aside from obvious self-promotion for the magazine). So, it makes me think that there has to be some underlying message or rhetorical framework that people have been drawn to for years. Yes, the uptempo carnival sound of the organ immediately pulls the listener into the song, but I believe that the metaphors and truth that Dylan conveys are what make this song hold on over forty years after it reached #2 on the pop charts. It seems that Dylan’s use of the carnivalesque images and sounds to convey the truth of his words is similar to what Baudrillard is claiming when he warns “behind the baroque of images hides the grey eminence of politics” (169). You have to both use and then look beyond what seems flashy, ornate, and carnivalesque to find what may be a greater truth about the politics of the time.
Although there is some controversy over what the song is about exactly, I believe that Dylan is trying to explain the general political and social sentiment of the 1960’s counter-culture. He is trying to expose the ridiculousness of the status quo by using Miss Lonely’s realization of what she had always accepted as her reality. The world that had been constructed for her and in which she had been living is ultimately revealed as a simulacra where a “web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements” (172) and she has to determine what is real and what is artificial in order to free herself for the truth. This truth is the independence and liberty that Dylan sings about because upon her realization and acceptance of the simulacra, “the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a giant simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference” (169).
Only by exposing the ridiculousness of the images or signs of her constructed reality such as “Napoleon in rags and the language that he used” (perhaps a reference to Andy Warhol) or “princess on the steeple and all the pretty people” (her elevated status in the university society) can Dylan then expose the “murderous capacity of images” as “murderers of the real” and “murderers of their own model” (169). And then with the punching chorus, Dylan asks Miss Lonely “How does it feel?” and he is essentially asking her how it feels to recognize the simulacra and to ultimately release herself from the weight of her previous reality of the murderous images. Perhaps this exposure of the simulacra of a generation is one of the reasons why this particular song with its fanciful images and hidden truths persists as the preeminent song of all time because “the simulacrum is true.”
Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UniversityPress, 1988.
Baudrillard is like a Rolling Stone
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring,
you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?