Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen (Page a Day day 1)

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Watchmen is framed by two Dylan songs. The title of the first chapter, “At midnight, all the agents…”, derives from 1965’s “Desolation Row.” The epigraph which concludes this chapter provides greater context for the title: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” At the end of the interchapter (an interview with “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt) that follows the penultimate chapter, “Look my works, ye mighty,” appear, as copy for an cologne advertisement, “The times they are a ‘changing [sic].” The chorus to Dylan’s 1963 (released 1964) song is printed in several “futuristic” fonts which stand in juxtaposition with the advertised cologne, Nostalgia by Vedit.

Although music does not play a major role in Watchmen’s narrative, both historical and fictional artists, songs, and events inform its recurring themes of nostalgia and progress, as well as the conflict within the text between the establishment and the counterculture. References to Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo serve to illustrate the changing nature of American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s as rock music becomes increasingly popular and older musicians such as Presley—once though to threaten the moral fabric of the nation—become part of a simplified past and are subsequently replaced with newer acts who have doubled-down on strangeness or offensiveness in an apparent effort to penetrate the numbness of nostalgia and assert the present and future.

This essay explores the manner in which Dylan specifically and music generally informs Watchmen. I argue here that the two aforementioned songs (“Desolation Row” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) make clear the function of nostalgia in the novel: a force of simplification whereby the past becomes increasingly purer and safer and the present cum future increasingly more complex and threatening.

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