In 1970, Bob Dylan released an album entitled “Self Portrait”. Previously the darling of the international rock press, Dylan was instantly pilloried for what was seen by many as an intentionally awful record. Greil Marcus famously wrote a four word review of the album – “What is this shit?” – and it caused others to question what they ever saw in the singer/songwriter:
“Were we really that impressionable back in ’65, ’66? Was it that the stuff really wasn’t that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records so powerful, or what?”
Electing Jeremy Corbyn to be their leader was the Labour membership’s “Self Portrait” moment. Like Dylan in the early 1970s, they figured they had earnestly tried to change the world several times, only for the world to shrug back. So like Dylan, they gave up and just decided to do whatever they liked; whatever made them feel good and sod the result. If they couldn’t change the world, they were at least going to make themselves happy by electing the type of leader they liked – a pleasant old trot who tends to his allotment in Islington – much as Bob Dylan decided it would make him happy to record a cover version of “The Boxer” on his very own “Self Portrait” which involved double tracking his own vocal with each track out of time and out of tune with the other. Or had an album cover that looks like it was painted by an eight-year-old.
If Dylan and the aftermath of “Self Portrait” is the analogy here, we should look to what happens next: years of insignificance until he finally got his shit together with “Blood on the Tracks”. Will Labour have a “Blood on the Tracks” moment in several years time then? Labour supporters not of the far-left will certainly hope so.
I was thinking of other “intentionally” bad albums to compare to Corbyn in thinking about this article. Another solid contender was Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”, but it didn’t quite fit: at least “Metal Machine Music” was a gigantic fuck you, a real rebel manoeuvre. “Self-Portrait” was instead like a gigantic, apologetic concession of defeat, a message to the world that said “look, I can’t be your saviour anymore, you’ll just have to find someone else. Go and see what the Greens or the Lib Dems are up to these days.”
I understand the impulse to retreat from the world; to just say to yourself that doing whatever you like is the right thing to do. That acts have no consequences beyond those immediate to yourself. I wonder if when the Tories win the 2025 general election, the Labour members who elected Jeremy Corbyn will still think that’s the case.