After the hot takes on his Nobel Prize had cooled and as the award ceremony approached, Bob Dylan reminded us of why he deserved the honour. He declined to attend. Another great spurn from the master.
Dylan is still known for his early protest songs. His great ’60s anthems were “the conscience of a generation”—or something like that. Those songs have helped preserve a cultural movement against war and segregation and for an embrace of progress. They resonate today partly because they have a universal quality that transcends their immediate targets of protest, but also because those targets have hardly moved. The “Masters of War” remain dominant, the long roads are still being walked down, and the times are a-stalled in mid-change (and may be moving backward).
Those early protest songs are also setups for disappointment. Their moral clarity reveals through contrast the true cynical nature of power. Dylan knew that. He spurned adulation and refused to be a leader. If Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize, and if his songs represent an American tradition, it’s not because of his anthems, but because he also wrote great anti-anthems.
Pretty much from the moment he gained fame, Dylan went to work undermining his moral authority. “My Back Pages” critiques his protest songs as naive and self-important, and it was released the same year as “The Times They Are a-Changing” and “With God on Our Side.” Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” vaulted him to instant moral-compass status. His response? “It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.” And when a hostile Albert Hall seethed because his electric turn was a sin against his former acoustic-purity, he told The Band to “play fucking loud.”
[His songs] resonate today partly because they have a universal quality that transcends their immediate targets of protest, but also because those targets have hardly moved.
In destabilizing his position as a moral leader, Dylan was not repudiating the moral stances he had taken. He was complicating them, acknowledging that a morally pure vision could never capture the world as it is. More importantly, he was arguing that you can’t borrow moral purity from someone else, or from a song. “I can’t think for you,” he sang, “you have to decide.”
That emphasis on individual choice marks Dylan as a particularly American-style popular poet. Even as he reached masses with his verses, he was arguing against the forces that would bring people together. Ever since his initial turn away from movement politics, Dylan has been a proponent of self-reliance. That stance is not a totally good thing. It’s fair to argue that Dylan turned his back on a moral cause just when it needed a voice like his the most. It’s also fair to argue that you can’t force a political burden on an artist and that a mind like Dylan’s needed to be allowed the freedom to fully explore the potential of his art.
The Nobel Committee claims Dylan created “new poetic expressions in the great American song tradition.” I’m not sure what they mean, but I take it to mean he injected a lasting dose of ambiguity into that tradition and into the culture at large. Even if you think Dylan’s kind of an asshole, you have to admit he makes you think. We need that.
Dylan, of course, has done a lot more than just shake up the 1960s’ poetic/moral/political landscape. His more personal work—like Blood on the Tracks—also contributes to his case for a Nobel. But there, again, we find the same restlessness, the same resistance to easy answers. Maybe this insistence on uncertainty, on the individual’s responsibility to court moral ambiguity, is just another kind of naivety that drives people to seek the shelter of ideological camps. Or maybe there’s hope. Maybe we’ll get past this moment of polarization and reach a point where we can say, “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine,” and agree we’re all “just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.”
What would we do with that knowledge? I don’t know, but don’t ask Bob Dylan. Or do. Just don’t expect a straight answer, or comfort. Bob Dylan is not our friend. I’ve always appreciated that about him.