Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oprah, Bob Dylan, and Middle Class Neuroses

Yesterday was Bob Dylan's 70th birthday and today is Oprah's final show. In a certain sense, the work of both have been about the same exact thing, the neuroses of the American middle class.

Dylan's rise to prominence came as a result of his song-writing when folk music had a certain cultural place. Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and others had a social edge to them, but the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary and others softened it. Folk music was never seen as dangerous until Bob Dylan put anger in it. His was a sardonic, literary venom that appealed to the young baby boomers who saw themselves as smarter than the past, above history. He put his finger in the wounds of an unjust society showing how the privileged were not only failing to insulate themselves from the sickness of the larger society, but becoming ill in very particular ways from it. When he asked "How do you feel?", he knew full well that Mr. Jones was not well -- and it wasn't because of the yelling of the one eyed midget, either. The class-based culture of American life had poisoned the comfortable. Ward and June and Ozzie and Harriet were not true models of life for the new suburban middle class in Levittowns across the country. The new, post-war, post-industrial modern reality had a dark side and Dylan's sharp lyrics pointed at the contradictions and hypocrisy that lay right beneath its claims to moral, social, and spiritual superiority.

But then those baby boomers got older, got married, got jobs, and had families. Who did they try to become? Exactly those that they sneered at through Bob Dylan's songs. They became "the man" -- even the women. And by stepping into the complacency of that middle class privilege and electing and re-electing Ronald Reagan to protect it, they contracted exactly the disease that they let Dylan diagnose in the previous generation. They got the sickness of the soul. And then along came Oprah.

Phil Donohue, a smart gentle soul, had already been there trying to point out the ailment and its symptoms and effects in a way that didn't upset anyone. But his attempts were neutered by the network. Forced to bring on a never-ending parade of circus freaks instead of his friends like Ralph Nader, he was made to turn himself from a younger Bill Moyers into a proto-Jerry Springer.

That left the space of family spiritual physician open for Oprah to fill. Her canvas was the wide range of middle-class neuroses that plagued those with privilege. Their lives were not as advertised and whether it was with Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, or any number of other recognized or self-appointed doctors, Oprah became the sociological HMO of the nation. Her prescriptions, while sometimes effective for some side effects and sometimes not, were exactly the sort of medicine that the baby boomers wanted to take; they appealed to the self-indulgent baby boomers who would never take responsibility for their own sickness, the one they knew all about from the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

And so we are here with an old Bob Dylan, a departing Oprah Winfrey, and everything contagious that they both pointed out for decades. Yet the patient is not ready to go to the hospital, the large scale changes in the American way of life are not in the offing. Will it take the cultural version of a heart attack? Maybe, but even if such a trauma occurred, you can be sure that the only sound that could be heard after the ambulances go, will be Cinderella sweeping up the cash on the Disney channel.