(Over)interpreting Obama's Favorite Dylan Song

When it comes to their musical selections, presidential candidates tend to be a little stiff. And by "stiff" we mean "mind-numbingly literal." Mitt Romney put Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation (a Little More Action)" into heavy rotation. Ronald Reagan praised "Born in the U.S.A." (until the Boss told him to stop.) John McCain's rallies typically end with a rousing round of "Johnny B. Goode," courtesy of Mr. Chuck Berry. And when critics pushed her to concede, Hillary Clinton responded by blasting Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" at every stop. After all, nothing sets toes a-tappin' like message control.

Barack Obama has been no exception. Since launching his campaign, the Illinois senator has relied on the bland uplift of songs like "Only in America" (Brooks & Dunn) and "City of Blinding Lights" (U2) to rev up his crowds. But in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, he makes a musical reference that's--gasp!--kind of bold. Asked by editor Jann Wenner to name his favorite track by Bob Dylan, a recent endorser, Obama skips the obvious anthems ("The Times They Are A-Changin'") and safe ballads ("Shelter from the Storm"). "One of my favorites during the political season is 'Maggie's Farm,'" he says. "It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric."

Maggie's Farm? Regular readers of Stumper know that I'm a bit of a Bobhead. So when I read that Obama was partial to the "political" message to this particular cut--a modified 12-bar blues off of 1965's "Bringing It All Back Home"--I was somewhat surprised. Dylan famously--heretically--shattered his folkie image by performing "Maggie's Farm" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a blistering electric blues band (video above). The fact is, it's an angry, subversive song that completely clashes with Obama's public image of dispassionate cool. Sure, the track features snippets of Dylan's famous wordplay (a "bedroom window" "made out of bricks," for example). But most of lyric is straightforward. With a singer railing against the institutions ("Maggie's farm") and individuals (Maggie's ma, pa and brother) responsible for the drudgery of his daily life, it's pretty clearly about frustrated individualism and being forced to do work that's beneath you. (Dylan was dealing with the demands of entitled fans and greedy record execs at the time.) "I got a head full of ideas that are drivin' me insane," he says."It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor."

The metaphor, of course, is malleable. Maybe the song "speaks to" Obama "during the political season" because he sympathizes with the downtrodden working classes. Or maybe it was the civil-rights connotations--"they sing while you slave"--that connected. Either way, it's kind of hard to ignore the obvious implication: that the Democratic nominee isn't exactly pleased with performing in a political dog-and-pony show. Dylan's lyrics certainly support this reading. There's the media scrutiny ("He puts his cigar / Out in your face just for kicks"). There's the image maintenance ("I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them"). There's even the fundraising ("He hands you a nickel / He hands you a dime / He asks you with a grin / If you're havin' a good time"). Am I arguing that Obama is aware of these resonances? Not at all. But he picked "Maggie's Farm," not me. I'd say that's sort of revealing.