Gotta Serve Somebody: Bob Dylan’s Lyrics as Religion and Popular Culture
“I never wanted to be a prophet or a saviour. Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.” — Bob Dylan
Just this past week Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions in the great American song tradition’. Over the span of decades he has become a pop culture icon by using his music to bring beauty to the unanswerable questions in life. In this post I discuss Dylan’s lyrical references to Christian themes and analyze how he is a symbol of both the popular culture and religious realms. If you do not already know the song please click the link below and listen to “Gotta Serve Somebody”, Dylan’s award winning song from his platinum album Slow Train Coming. This song reveals Dylan’s religious ideals and shows that this man, who some may regard as a prophet still has a master of his own.
Dylan Pop Culture Icon
Bob Dylan is a household name who has ventured many creative paths since his beginnings as a folk singer in Greenwich Village New York. In the sixties Dylan represented the sentiments of youth with songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. He then rocked the music world by changing his artistic identity to an electric sound and virtually ushered in the genre of rock n’ roll. Since then he has been touring constantly and still writes compelling lyrics which question the injustices of society. I could go on for days about why Dylan is a legendary icon of pop culture but if you are more interested feel free to read Independent Magazine’s article, “70 Reasons Why Bob Dylan is the Most Important Figure in Pop-Culture History” by clicking HERE.
Dylan Born Again Christian
In 1979 Dylan announced that he had become a Christian. He was passionate about his new found beliefs and even tried to convert his producer. With these new feelings he released three suggestively religious albums one of these was Slow Train Coming. The religious ideas are abundant in this album from “Precious Angel” to “Gotta Serve Somebody” and in all songs between. Yet he still maintains his mysterious identity by creating lyrics which can be interpreted and above all touch the heart of any person who listens.
Religion in Dylan’s Lyrics
The most obvious connection is that this song is an example of religion in popular culture. According to Klassen in his book Religion and Popular Culture there are two ways to approach examples of religion in pop culture. First a humanities approach, “addresses the aesthetic and narrative aspects of any given product” (2014, 23). For this one must only look as far as the lyric, “Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord” to notice its direct reference to Christianity. Klassen also examines religion in popular culture from a cultural studies approach. For this one must pose the question “How does this product reflect an understanding of the religious imagery?” (Klassen 2014, 23). Dylan’s song Gotta Serve Somebody uses the religious imagery of servicing the Lord or the Devil to pose a message for listeners that no matter who you are you must ultimately answers to a higher power as Dylan sees it.
Dylan’s Lyrics as Popular Culture and Religion in Dialogue
Although controversial, Dylan has always used religious imagery in his songs even before he was ‘born-again’. A whole book has been written about religion seen in his lyrics (ie. Gilmour’s The Gospel According to Dylan). Another approach to viewing Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody is as a piece which places religion and popular culture in dialogue with each other. As mentioned above the overall meaning of his song is that religion is a great equalizer. No matter who you are or where you come from Dylan believes you must ‘serve’ something. When Dylan delivers this message through a tool of popular culture (ie.music) he allows religion to enter the ethical conversation. This analysis is the fourth method for relating religion and popular culture from Forbes book Religion and Popular Culture in America. For Forbes they enter dialogue with each other when one (either religion or pop culture) uses its own means to address the other (2000, 16). As mentioned Dylan simultaneously uses a tool of pop culture and themes about religion to discuss disparity in social class, saying that all are equal before God.
Dylan’s Lyrics as Critique
Bob Dylan himself is a figure who has always professed anti-establishment values. One of his most iconic songs “The Times They are-a Changing” is about rejecting old traditions and values. Lee Barron in his book, Social Theory in Popular Culture says, “protest songs of the 1960s, particularly the music of Bob Dylan, […] emerged from a folk consciousness that was explicitly influenced by the works of Karl Marx (2013, 10). In the song we are looking at, made decades after the counterculture era ended, Dylan still emphasizes a critique of ‘high society’. Specifically in the following verse he parallels symbols of social class to demonstrate that despite one’s wealth everyone is equal before God.
Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk / Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk / You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread / You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes / Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
In my opinion, one of the best things to happen this year is Dylan winning the Nobel prize in literature. He has been able to continuously combine beautiful lyrics and deep meaning in his music. I chose to dissect one song but if you search through Dylan’s discography there are countless references to religion and a vast critique of social phenomenons and popular culture. He is a figure who has managed to simultaneously remain current in the world while never hesitating to reveal it’s unfortunate realities.
Barron, Lee. “Marx and Music.” In Social Theory in Popular Culture, 10. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Forbes, Bruce David. “Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places.” In Religion and Popular Culture in America.Ed. B. D. Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, 16. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Klassen, Chris. “Religion and Popular Culture.” In Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach, 23. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2014.