The pop moment I’ve found most affecting in the last few months comes at the end of Little Voice, when Michael Caine’s wiped-out sleazeball promoter gets up drunk on a nightclub stage and sings a horrible, self-flagellating version of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over.” The classic song has been rubbed smooth by decades of overplay, but now it’s ripped into someone else’s story so violently you may never again be able to hear it as an innocent object, as a kind of toy. Now it has been brought into a play about real life—or the play of life as such.
I couldn’t get Caine’s scene out of my head. I began to think about how songs survive—and one of the ways songs survive is that they mutate. Once you start thinking this way, it’s like listening to a new radio station: a vampiric, surrealist station where nobody knows what time it is and everything happens at once.
Sometimes this happens subtly, around the margins, in soundtracks or commercials. The song is moved just slightly off the map we normally use to orient ourselves—but in a way that, in a year or ten, may completely change how we hear it, what associations we bring to it. Pop songs are always talked about as the soundtrack to our lives, when all that means is that pop songs are no more than containers for nostalgia. But lives change, and so do soundtracks. Even if they’re made up of the same songs.
Etta James’s “At Last” was a number two R&B hit in 1961, and a bare pop hit. After that it lived a quiet life in a small, neat house on a poor street—until last year, when the musical director for Pleasantville came knocking. In James’s hands the record was a soft exhalation after years of silent suffering, a sweep of passion so full of doubt it all but turns in on itself, and it was used to orchestrate the most romantic scene in the movie: a boy and a girl, connecting for the first time, driving into the sylvan glade of Lover’s Lane as the novelty of their emotions brings new color streaming into their black-and-white 1950s sitcom world. The bucolic set-up was too good to leave to the movie, though—and now, just months after the film’s release, you can see the scene replayed, tree for tree and leaf for leaf, in a Jaguar commercial. But while in the movie the song is a forgotten voice brought back to speak as if for the first time, blessing the young lives it’s dramatizing, in the commercial the song completely escapes. It’s too unrushed, too patient, to be used as the commercial wants to use it: to make you want something, right now. So it turns and walks away—not back to the history books, but back to Pleasantville.
Where Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” has gone is a trickier question. Dylan supposedly wrote it after attending the 1963 March on Washington, where he and others sang for equal justice. There was a story in the paper about a white rich man’s son in Baltimore, William Zantzinger, who, drunk at a society party, had beaten a black woman to death.14 The song Dylan wrote was solemn, elegant, and almost unbearably painful. In the last verse his song turned bitter and ugly, and he sprang the fact on which, for him, the story turned: “For penalty and repentance . . . A six-month sentence.” When you listen, it’s as if Dylan can barely expel the last word. It breaks and stumbles, as if the singer will never not be shocked.
Thirty-four years later, in 1997, the Baltimore cop show Homicide ran three episodes about the murder of a Haitian maid employed by a rich Baltimore family; the father, played by James Earl Jones, had shielded his guilty son. Why? Because of William Zantzinger, the Jones character says, and he tells the old story in Bob Dylan’s words, as if they are now part of a bible, as if a white man’s crime should pay for a black man’s, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—even if in both cases the eyes that close are those of a poor black woman. “In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel, to show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level,” Jones explained to Andre Braugher’s detective, too young to remember, and so long after the fact, or before the new fact, that it was impossible to read his tone: “The ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” But the law had a top and a bottom for Zantzinger, Jones was saying: Doesn’t my boy deserve the same? A song that was once so clear, that sounded as if its words might be chiseled over some courthouse door, now seemed to make no sense at all.
Then last December 8, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, the Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz stirred the broth one more time. Among a group of scholars arguing against Bill Clinton’s impeachment on various Constitutional grounds, Wilentz seemed to come out of nowhere, pugnacious, angry, granting Republican representatives no more respect than he would a well-dressed lynch mob. He denounced the argument “that if we impeach the president, the rule of law will be vindicated if only in a symbolic way, proving forcefully that no American is above the law and that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” Nonsense, he said: the offenses of which Clinton is accused put no Constitutional principle in jeopardy—and if you vote for impeachment for any reason found outside the Constitution, out of vengeance or for gain, “History will track you down.”
With those last words, Wilentz recovered the voice of the song that, through blind quotation, he had made part of the official historical record of the nation—a voice of suppressed and bitter fury. (“I got tired of Henry Hyde describing Clinton as if he were William Zantzinger,” Wilentz says.) In his way, Wilentz was singing a Bob Dylan song as badly as Michael Caine sings “It’s Over” in Little Voice—and as fully. I can’t listen to Roy Orbison’s original anymore: compared to Caine’s version it sounds bloated and strained, where Caine’s is all sweat and self-loathing. The song itself may be over—or, rather, definitively appropriated, never to be given back. As for Dylan’s song, like Etta James’s, you can think it has just begun to travel, a mutant now, limbs fallen off, strange sores appearing, the sores growing into whole new bodies.
Little Voice, directed by Mark Herman (Miramax, 1998).
Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross (New Line, 1998).
Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” from The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Columbia, 1964). On 9 February 2010, Dylan sang a slow, spare, musing version of the title song from the album at the White House for A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement; it’s hard to imagine that “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” could ever lose its flesh, or that had Dylan offered it instead that night, it wouldn’t have stopped the night dead in its tracks. For an unparalleled reading of the song, see Christopher Ricks, “Bob Dylan,” in Hiding in Plain Sight, edited by Wendy Lesser, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993.
Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC), “Blood Ties” episodes 79-80, Oct. 17, 24, 31, 1997. Homicide: The Complete Season 6 (A&E Home Video, 2005).