English Learner Portfolio

How does the song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ explore issues related to society?

In the song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Bob Dylan alarms the audience at the time of the consequences of the ignorance of the egotistical wealthy people, but similarly, such phenomena still exist in modern day society. The narrative of the song is particularly significant as the fairy-tale like narrative allows Dylan to explore the self-absorbed nature of the wealthy as well as creating a contrast between traditional ‘happily ever after’ endings with the cruel reality in real life. In addition, Dylan chooses to use a second person’s narrative which allows him to speak more directly to the audience, creating a stronger sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ throughout the song. Coupled with the accusational and sarcastic tone Dylan chooses to use, It further allows Dylan to reveal the alarming reality within society to the audience and show the need for changes to happen. This sense of call for action and warning is augmented by the use of repetition in the song’s structure which reinforces the idea of homelessness and downfall throughout the song.

Firstly, the narrative of the song addresses the issue at hand by using traditional fairy tale features. The song starts with ‘once upon a time’ which is a classic beginning of all fairy tales that is to be corresponded with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. However, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ ends with ‘Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone’ which immediately creates contrast to showcase how fairy tales are far from reality. The reference to ‘princess’ further sets the tone of the fantasised and perfected reality, however, as ‘you’ were only ‘dressed so fine’ ‘once upon a time’, the past tense implies that it is no longer the case. The contrast in time is further presented by Dylan’s constant use of past tense. As ‘you used to laugh about’ is followed by ‘Now you don’t talk so loud’, a more deliberate contrast is created, revealing a clear shift in societal status as a result of their own ignorance.  Furthermore, the second person’s narrative also helps to further reveal the issue by confronting ‘you’. Dylan uses a very accusational tone throughout the song using imperative terms such as ‘you shouldn’t’, ‘you never understood’ which accuses ‘you’ to be responsible for being in the homeless and lost state. In addition, such phrases reveal the lack of empathy and ignorance as ‘you never turned around to see the frowns’ and ‘you’ never cared for those who served in ‘your’ favour. Which again, is a prevalent societal issue then and now that may have led to the downfall and deterioration of ‘you’ overall.

As the narrator takes on an almost omniscient perspective, the rhetorical question of ‘how does it feel?’ that is repeatedly posed to the audience further provokes a sense of regret and shame. It suggests that the situation could have been avoided if it weren’t for ‘your’ ignorance and egotistical approach towards life. The constant questioning takes on a mocking tone as well and therefore allows Dylan to press on the regretful emotions from some of his audience who have done more or less the same as ‘you’. However, as the audience of Dylan’s songs is primarily common people of society, this tone also helps him to establish a clearer sense of segregation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As he mocks ‘you’ by saying ‘you better pawn it babe’, the sarcastic tone has a comedic effect on the audience and instantly creates a close connection between the audience and Bob Dylan. It almost seems like the narrator gloats over the downfall of the rich which is a shared emotion amongst ‘us’ who have suffered from the inequality and the ignorance of the wealthy.

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