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Rock your world! Zhang Tiezhi talks Dylan, Lennon, and innovation

In his latest op-ed piece for BNext, renowned author and cultural critic Zhang Tiezhi urges startup founders to find time and listen to music from Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Rather than dismissing Rock’n’Roll as just another genre, Zhang’s historical exposition highlights the disruptive impact of these musical greats as an important source of inspiration and innovation.

Bob Dylan’s recent nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature by the Swedish Academy sparked a discussion not only over his somewhat indifferent attitude towards the prize, but also about whether or not lyrics are literature. Although these debates are secondary for our purposes here, they nonetheless show the cultural sway that Dylan, whose career is well into its sixth decade, continues to hold in the public realm.

Think different!

Jobs admiration for the “crazy” ones was based on his insight that while conformity may provide a comfortable life, it won’t help us to push the boundaries of what is possible. Jobs realized that only those courageous enough to oppose convention would actually change the world. While they may be subjected to criticism, they certainly cannot be ignored.

Steve Jobs, who exhibited this mentality throughout his life, in turn heralded the coming of a new breed of entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, in recent years calls for creative, disruptive industry leaders willing to upset existing rules have become louder. In other words, now more than ever the economy needs entrepreneurs imbued with Rock’n’Roll spirit!

Like a rolling stone

Dylan’s status as one of Rock’n’Roll’s most remarkable acts was long cemented before the Nobel Prize nomination, which nonetheless reflects his lifelong commitment to challenging our as well as his own assumptions of the world. Early on in the 1960s, the 20-year young Dylan moved to New York’s Greenwich Village to pursue a career as folk singer.

Known for infusing social commentary into songs like Blowing in the Wind, Dylan’s unique perspective inspired a generation to oppose authority and find their own meaning in life.

In what should become typical fashion, his new-found popularity did not sit well with Dylan. This fame allowed him, however, to perceive with great acuity the many ways success renders one complacent. Speaking at the Bill of Rights dinner in 1963, where he had just received the
prestigious Tom Paine award, a seemingly agitated Dylan exhorted his audience to “get young,” only to then proclaim that this “is not an old peoples' world ...

I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules - and they haven't got any hair on their head - I get very uptight about it.”

Dylan was adamant about staying true to himself, even if that meant losing followers. In the mid-1960s, as he flirted with a more Rock-influenced persona, the singer alienated many a fan with his new style. Now donning a leather jacket and leaving his acoustic guitar behind for an electric one, Dylan was called “Judas” by a guest at a concert in Manchester. His response? Telling his band to “play it fuckin’ loud” and concluding the set with an epic rendition of Like a Rolling Stone.

Non-conformity personified: John Lennon

Dylan’s ability to re-invent himself, his music, as well as his poetry was shared by another legend conspicuously featured in the Apple commercial, John Lennon. Known for both his fame as a member of The Beatles and his individual career, the latter in particular saw him transform into a socially-conscious artist willing to fight for a better world through unorthodox means.

In the Apple advert, we already see a long-bearded, freshly-married Lennon as he is staging a “bed-in” with new wife Yoko Ono. Protesting the Vietnam War, Lennon, Ono, and friends a few days later went on to record Give Peace a Chance in the same hotel room. For Christmas of the same year, the couple then posted billboards in cities such as New York, Paris, or London, exclaiming that “War is over; If you want it; Happy Xmas from Lennon and Yoko.” Two years later, the infamous ad campaign became the basis for Lennon’s hit Happy Xmas (War is Over).

In his post-Beatles phase, Lennon used his fame and creativity to disrupt the system and change the world. Many of his actions may seem erratic or even chaotic, and this is indeed a risk all rebels have to take. But fear of standing alone should not deter us from standing up at all; as Lennon has shown, and as is the essence of Rock’n’Roll, it takes courage to fight for what is right.

Changing the world, together as individuals

Towards the late 70s, much of what counted as Rock’n’Roll, however, had become part of the system; commercialized and catering to the masses, Rock had seemingly lost its edge. Instead it was Punk that inspired a new generation. More than just tattoos, Mohawks, and loud music, Punk Rock revolutionized Rock’n’Roll through its uncompromising attitude and fearless stance. Unwilling to accept the status quo, Punks espoused individuality and rebellion to make their own culture.

As entrepreneurs, we should teach ourselves this unbending spirit, be it from the likes of Dylan, Lennon, or the Punk movement. Rather than simply parroting others, or blindly following the majority, we need to set our own trends. While a funky haircut may not be a necessary requirement, the willingness to change the world for the better certainly is!