by Akim Reinhardt
Smacked my head on the pavement while jogging across campus in the rain. Had my hands on my stomach, holding documents in place underneath my shirt to keep them dry. So when my foot went out after skipping over a puddle, I couldn’t get my front paws down in time to brace my fall as I corkscrewed through the air, landing on my hip and shoulder, and whiplashing my head downward. Consequently I don’t have the brain power to crank out 2,000 fresh words. So here’s a dated piece about Baby Boomer navel gazing and ressentiment.
Perhaps I should just skip a week instead of peddling an old, cranky number that previously had not found the light of day. That would probably be the prudent, and certainly reasonable course. But vanity urges me onward. I have a bit of a streak running here at 3QD and don’t want to break it just cause I cracked my noggin. Alas, for better or worse then, I move forward by looking backwards.
Ugh. Bob Dylan.
Even though we’re well into the 21st century and half the Baby Boomers are collecting Social Security, they’re still determined to thumb their noses at their parents. Even the Swedish ones, apparently. So Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize in Literature.
I told you, daaaaaaaaad! My music is art toooo! Seeee?
You know what? You’re dad’s dead. Grow up. Find a new battle to fight. Go argue with your grandkids or something.
Bob Dylan. Jesus.
The guy plagiarized substantial portions of the only prose book he ever wrote, his 2005 memoir. You’d think that right there would disqualify a writer from winning the world’s most prestigious lifetime literary award. But this is the Age of Truthiness, so I guess all bets are off.
After the announcement, predictability set in. Would he or wouldn’t he accept? *Yawn* Shortly before the deadline for handing in an acceptance speech or else have the offer of a tacky medallion and substantial monetary award rescinded, like the miserable teenage stoner that he is, Dylan predictably submitted a plagiarized essay, replete with classic misinterpretation of Moby Dick, and cribbed in part from the cheating industry’s 300 lb. gorilla, Spark Notes.
Good. That’s exactly what the Swedish Academy deserves for putting its finest lipstick on a clever, little pig.
High literary crimes and misdemeanors aside, however, the real issue of course is merit. When I think of great literature, I think of words that offer penetrating insight into the human condition. But I was 14 years old the last time I thought a Dylan song carried that kind of punch. Lounging in the backseat of my parents’ ‘69 Buick LeSabre, “Blowin’ in the Wind” came on the AM radio.
“Wow, that is so deep,” I thought to myself unironically.
Did I mention I was 14? I was also really moved by paintings of big-breasted women with swords.
Not long after that, however, the bloom came off. Part of it was my increasing revulsion with the cultish adulation heaped upon Dylan, of people solemnly praising the “bard,” “the master.” Of straight-faced people putting him on a par with William Shakespeare, a not uncommon sentiment during the 1970s.
Ick. That kind of thing is always repulsive. I think Woody Allen’s Annie Hall had it 100% right. Shelly Duvall’s character is a Rolling Stone reporter who, with profound and sincere admiration for both, equates Dylan to some bullshit maharishi who’s bilking his naive followers. In one breath she’s tenderly quoting Dylan’s achingly pretentious lyrics from “Just Like a Woman” as if they were the great poetry of our era. In the next she’s saying the maharishi is God. When the maharishi appears, Allen’s character quips, “Look, there’s God coming out of the men’s room.”
This kind of slavish devotion is for the immature and the scared, for people who are just a little too empty inside and looking to be filled up by someone else. In other guise they are hardcore Trump supporters, religious fanatics, and whackadoo sports fans.
Perhaps it is unfair to tar a public figure with the excesses of his most extreme devotees, even one such as Dylan who very effectively encouraged his legions with impish smiles and a highly contrived, mild anti-hero personae that very cleverly teased his fan base almost as much as he disingenuously tweaked mainstream culture.
But putting aside Dylan’s tired, old trickster personae, which has worn exceedingly thin after more than half-a-century, my own attitude about his songs changed as I moved through my teenage years. Even the more level-headed assessments of Dylan’s supposed brilliance no longer jibed with my evolving opinion. The more I listened, the more disenchanted I became with the plodding A-A-A-A rhyme schemes (How Now Brown Cow), the ripoffs of American folk/gospel/blues traditions justified as “homage,” and the dumb stoner ramblings dressed up as art.
Don’t get me wrong. Dylan wrote some great songs. But his lyrics are quite erratic in quality. Their “literary artistry” profits immeasurably from the musical enhancements of his song craft, which is often excellent. Dude knows chords and melody, and always surrounds himself with top notch musicians, producers, and engineers. But I think a lot of his words, when printed naked on the page, get exposed as pretentious, and even trite. At his best, Bob Dylan never struck me as the divine wordsmith that so many people make him out to be.
At the very least, I think it’s quite safe to say that he’s nowhere near the greatest English language lyricist of the 20th century. Authors such as Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, and Townes Van Zant, to name just a few, blow him away. Really, the list just goes on and on and on.
I know. They’re all dead, and therefore ineligible to win a Nobel. However, simply because the Nobel Committee was too stodgy to give the literature prize to a lyricist back when any of those folks were still alive is really no reason to give it to Dylan now that they’ve finally digested postmodernism and are willing to move beyond the rigid boundaries of staid categories.
Gosh, and then there’s poor Leonard Cohen. He was still alive when the Nobel committee made public their secret Bob Dylan crush. If they really felt the time had come to expand the Literature category to include lyricists, they could’ve given it to Cohen. I don’t even like hiss lyrics all that much; I think a lot of them are overwrought. But Christ, he’s better than fucking Dylan.
Cohen died only a few weeks after Dylan got the Nobel. He said some nice things about how great Dylan was, and then promptly keeled over. Probably from disgust and shame. Honestly, if you’re Leonard Cohen, how do you go on living after that? It’s the ultimate embarrassment. Time to quietly take your final bow and slink away for good.
Of course it’s very difficult to have this conversation with Dylan fans. Because that’s the nature of fandom. A fan, by definition (the word is short for “fanatic”), is a fawning partisan, a self-righteous apologists. Critique their sacred cow and they’ll drown you in intransigence. Sling enough sacrilegion and they’ll angrily dismiss you as a heathen incapable of receiving the Good Word, or even worse, as an apostate, the foulest of all sinners. It’s not very different from trying to tell someone that their favorite sports team shouldn’t be their favorite sports team.
Fine. I give up. Everyone who feels happy or proud or redeemed because Bob Dylan won a Nobel should just revel in it. Go celebrate your idol. Who am I to shit on your parade?
But I am curious about something. What explains more fully the disconnect between yours truly and the Bob Dylan Marching and Chowder Society?
Part of it is clearly generational. The Silent Generation (what’s left of them) and Baby Boomers still adore Dylan. To a lesser extent so to does my own Generation X. And those three age groups, especially when they come together, are still a dominant force in our culture and society. At least for now. But when you parse the demographics, the Cult of St. Dylan starts to look a whole lot narrower.
Bob Dylan is largely a fetish of middle class white people of a certain age. Not entirely, of course. while writing Civil Rights era protest songs, he briefly found an audience among some (not a lot, but some) African Americans. Some working class people do enjoy his music. Some Millennials dig him.
But let’s be honest. When the Nobel Committee props up their decision by claiming Dylan’s lyrics “gave voice to a generation,” what they really means is, a generation of educated, middle class whites. Which by the standards of literature is of course de rigeur. Most “great” writers have always been largely read by relatively small slivers of the educated middle classes, white or otherwise. But let’s not pretend Dylan sold a hundred million records widely across demographic lines. Even if one accepts that he brought great literature to the masses (I do not), this separates him from other Nobel laureates only in volume of sales, not in substantial breadth of reach across demographic lines. That is, Dylan’s music has unquestionably been heard by more people in his lifetime than the writings of other Nobel laureates have been read in their lifetimes. Pop music is, after all, far more accessible than books, and enjoyed by many millions who don’t read much. Yet despite having a mass audience appeal, Dylan is not especial. He’s just like most of those other authors in that he appealed mostly to middle class whites. He was not Michael Jackson or Prince, using pop culture to forge important new paths across harsh racial boundaries. Calling him the voice of a generation is a gross overstatement. He was the harmonica-blowing pied piper of comfortable white kids. And so the committee’s fabulous claims not only fail to stand up, but also urge us to confront the issue of race.
Long before the prize was awarded, whenever I heard Dylan described as a “poet” or “literary genius,” another a thought would pop into my head; anyone pushing this argument hasn’t ever really listened to modern African American music.
If Bob Dylan is to be credited (rightly, I believe) for adapting older, well established forms of lyrically-focused folk music into a modern context, then what do we say about the great auteurs of rap and hip hop? They didn’t simply burnish some old lamps to make them relevant for a new generation of teenagers and 20-somethings. They did nothing short of forge an entirely new artistic medium, pretty much from scratch.
Just two turntables and a microphone.
Furthermore, lyrics are perhaps more central to that new musical medium than they are to any other popular music since the singing bards of yore. And this new medium isn’t even that new anymore, having absolutely dominated global popular culture for roughly three decades.
Most importantly perhaps, the lyricists at the forefront of this musical medium, which nowadays is infinitely more influential than Dylan’s mish-mash of rock and folk traditions, can really write. They boast impressive technical chops and also offer what great literature should: honest, challenging ruminations on the nature of life.
Go read some NAS, Kendrick Lamar, KRS-One, or Talib Kweli (his mother was an English professor). They are among the great authors of hip hop, artists who have used words to advance a new musical medium, to really say something about the world they live in, and to truly speak to new generations, plural (X, Millennials, and Z). Not to merely borrow and parrot older traditions that have little actual relevance to their lived experience, like so much of Dylan’s early work. Not to revel in a self-indulgent drug haze, or to pen well-crafted songs about nothing in particular, like so much of Dylan’s later work. But to offer deep, genuine, and brutally honest insights about the their own lives and of those around them.
And then ask yourself why it is that when Bob Dylan emerged from the white folk scene in the mid-1960s, he was hailed as a poet, but when rap began overtaking popular culture in the 1980s, many (white) critics derided it as lyrically childish.
Fuck Bob Dylan. You wanna make a radical stand for greatness in literature, broadly conceived? Give a Nobel to one of hip hop’s poet laureates. I don’t even listen to much hip hop. This isn’t a partisan stance for me. It’s about the beauty and insight of words. It’s about how great literature reveals humanity’s hazy mysteries and the inarticulable pedestrianisms, something which, I believe, Dylan never did very much at a very high level despite his prolificness.
Then again, I’m no expert on literature. My opinions are those of an amateur, a lay person, not worthy perhaps of this modest, online podium from which I pontificate. I am in no position to lay down definitive decrees about poetry. I am merely a historian, confident that in another half-century, most people will have an identical reaction upon learning that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. They will stare back blankly and politely ask: Who the fuck’s Bob Dylan?