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why Bob Dylan is wrong

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Bob Dylan

This isn’t supposed to be a pop at Dylan himself. Mostly, I’m indifferent. He was a different generation, and remains a different generation.

The following was thrown my way in the comments section to 8 Things You Should Avoid Saying in Response to a Music Review You Dislike, and I’m aware that it’s been lifted out of context, with no time frame attached. The reason I’m drawing attention to it is because it’s indicative of sloppy reasoning on the part of a certain type of musician, and it crops up again and again, not because I necessarily think Bob Dylan is talking like a fucktard here. (Although, obviously, we can’t all be brilliant in every facet of our lives.)

Drew says:
I guess Bob Dylan broke one of your rules then. Because he talked about how little value he places on music critics because he said most of them don’t understand music, chord structure, and what it takes to write a song because they’ve never written one, never played an instrument and never would. Dylan said he valued book reviews more because at least the people writing them had actually done the activity (writing) they were evaluating.

Not sure I agree but that’s what he said.

I had a similar conversation with Eddi Reader on Twitter. Both Dylan and Reader are confusing music criticism with musicology, a common enough mistake but one on a par with that fucking idiotic quote that gets trotted out every fucking five minutes by some clueless fucktard thinking they’re making a revelatory statement about music criticism, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

I guess, then, that the difference between good music critics and musicians then is that the critics often understand the nature of good music, but musicians (and fucktards) rarely understand the nature of good music criticism.

(Perhaps I’m being unfair on Dylan here. Perhaps he fully understands the nature of good music criticism. Perhaps he’s merely referring to those idiots who rule the roost – yes dullard sheep-like Pitchfork imitators, I’m looking at you – who think it’s good criticism to attempt to describe the music and do nothing else.)

Also: define ‘song’. I’ve written hundreds – thousands – in my life, most with chords, structures, melodies. I can play several instruments. I can sing. I’ve performed on stage hundreds of times. I am ONLY a failed musician if you judge ‘failure’ in the commercial sense of the word. Yeah, why not? Fuck art and the anti-establishment and anything that isn’t J.Lo. What we want to know is … can your ‘music’ shift units and make some middle-management consultant rich?

22 Responses to why Bob Dylan is wrong

  1. Joseph Kyle September 28, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Of course, one could say that Dylan has reached that rare point where he transcends criticism and critics. I mean, music critics could turn against him tomorrow (Down in the Groove), but he’s still going to sell out every tour, sell plenty of records, and have an unfuckwithable reputation.

  2. Everett True September 28, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Of course, one could say that Dylan has reached that rare point where he transcends criticism and critics. I mean, music critics could turn against him tomorrow (Down in the Groove), but he’s still going to sell out every tour, sell plenty of records, and have an unfuckwithable reputation.

    So music criticism can only function as a consumer guide then, Joseph? The critics aren’t there for Dylan’s benefit. They never were.

  3. Joseph Kyle September 28, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Talent alone doesn’t sell records. Selling records doesn’t guarantee critical acclaim. Neither of those are tangibles that can be determined when a record is made–nor should it even be a consideration. The critic and the artist have a symbiotic relationship, at best, and though Dylan doesn’t need critics now, I’m pretty sure I read in one of the Dylan bios that sales of Self Portrait dropped immensely when the infamous “What is this shit?” review appeared in Rolling Stone. Certainly Saved didn’t sell based on its content, but the overwhelming negative reviews couldn’t have helped, either.

    Look at In Utero. Great record. Did the press love it? Or was it ignored? I ask this not in a rhetorical sense, but because I don’t know. I know that at that time I was totally tuned into other aspects of music, and wouldn’t have paid attention. I know you stated recently that, “The mainstream doesn’t give a shit about In Utero,” and I agree with that. Do you think critical response at the time would have made for a better reputation for that record, or was it doomed?

  4. Huge September 28, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Musicians, music writer and music critics all write for different audiences who want different things. Their output is only superficially aligned and should only superficially be compared.

    I’ve done all three, to varying degrees of “success” and I’ve noticed that self-awareness is the rarest quality among all of the various participants – including on Collapse Board.

    Dylan has a point, Zappa had a point, Everett has a point. But fundamentally they’re talking about different things, whether they realise it or not. In my music/cultural ecology, it’s all good up to a point …

  5. Joseph Kyle September 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Of course, the cynic in me is wondering if half the fun of writing this article was being able to emblazon the world with the bold proclamation that Dylan is wrong….

  6. tim footman September 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Dylan used to criticise politicians quite a bit (Come senators, congressmen please heed the call, etc) and yet he’s never even stood for elected office. Burn him!

  7. Everett True September 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Of course, the cynic in me is wondering if half the fun of writing this article was being able to emblazon the world with the bold proclamation that Dylan is wrong….

    It is a snappy heading, I can’t deny, but if I’d really been writing it for that reason I would have stuck with my original title – Why Bob Dylan Is Wrong (Again)

  8. Princess Stomper September 28, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    I love the “dancing about architecture” quote because I always have this mental image of the two civil servants doing ballet at the end of the old St Trinian’s film.

    The trouble with Dylan’s quote is that you’d have to ask what it takes to “qualify”, according to his rules. How many music critics have ever tried to write a song? Given how much we love music, I’d guess almost all of us. So does that qualify us, or do they have to be good songs? Who gets to judge whether the song is good or not? If it’s a renowned songwriter, and he’s deciding whether he thinks it’s a good song, then he himself has become a critic – does he therefore disqualify himself?

    How many songwriters have published an opinion on a song? If you include discussing other people’s music in interviews, almost all of them. Are they therefore qualified to critique the critics because they now have an understanding of the idea of listening to something and deciding whether it’s good or not?

    Should I only write about three-chord-indie because that’s the only type of music I’ve written? My opinions on metal, electronic music and my beloved new “clank” rendered null and void? Is Bob Dylan similarly constricted, only able to discuss the exact types of music that he writes about?

    I understand the principle of what Dylan is talking about. For example, kids on message boards complaining about bugs in video games develop a newfound respect and patience after using a game’s level editor to make a big modification file and learning for themselves that it is virtually impossible to change one thing without breaking something else. There would almost be a case for a comment like “you cannot criticise a game until you’ve made a really big mod”, because it’s only when you see the processes that go into it that you can appreciate whether flaws are just laziness or the genuine best that can be achieved with the technology available.

    Conversely, though, I honestly can’t think of any difference knowing about the processes of making music has made to my enjoyment of the music. My husband complains if he knows a dance tune is nothing but presets and sample CDs, but I still only ask myself whether it’s fun to hear or not. I don’t even need to know that they’re all using presets – if everyone is doing that then all the songs sound the same and it quickly gets boring. Your ears tell you everything you need to know.

  9. tim footman September 28, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    And he’s a plagiarist as well.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/sep/28/bob-dylan-paintings

    Allegedly, etc.

  10. Everett True September 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Can you be a plagiarist across different mediums?

    That’s a helluva story you’ve linked to there, Tim. I like the bit where the gallery talks about how Dylan’s paintings’ “vibrancy and freshness come from … everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”

  11. Princess Stomper September 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Is Johann Hari qualified to review Bob Dylan, then?

  12. Joseph Kyle September 28, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    @Everett: in the only journalism class I took, the professor said this: “If you can’t come up with a great headline, don’t bother writing the article.”

  13. Wallace Wylie September 28, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Bob Dylan has gone on record as loving the “The End Of The Innocence” by Don Henley. He’s even covered it several times live. This baby boomer piece of excrement, and Dylan’s love of it, is the perfect example of why Dylan’s opinion on songwriting should not be trusted. What’s Dylan going to do, explain to me that it’s actually a good song and if I only wrote songs then I would understand it? What a horribly conceited attitude.

  14. Daniel September 29, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Most reviews are inadequate descriptions coupled with the assignment of demeaning grades: shorthand for the hearing impaired. When Everett writes “Why Music Critics Suck”, he’s generalizing and, we know who he means. As Everett implies, it‘s likely that Dylan is guilty of the same.

    If not, one can say that grandpa is just grumpy, but personally, I hear music far differently as an adult that can compose/perform than as a less capable teenager with hungry ears. Nevertheless, both are vital in music criticism. To split critics and musicians into those that do and those that cannot is glib, and I’d just as soon club Dylan with my copy of LISTEN TO THIS than ever spin Blood on the Tracks again.

  15. Drew September 29, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Erika: When you copy another writer’s phrases and sentences in your autobiography, and when you create a painting that is identical to a photographer’s original work, that kind of “borrowing” is only “respectful” if you publicly acknowedge and credit your sources. Dylan didn’t. He borrowed without attribution.

    That it happened in his music (lyrics for Love and Theft and for Modern Times), in his bio, and now in his art IS troubling. Even if you argue that musicians always borrow, that’s not the case for book writers. You copy someone else’s sentences, you put those passages in quotes and add attribution.

    And if he’d used the photographs as a starting point to create something entirely different, that would be no big deal. But his paintings copy, uncredited, the entire composition of those photographs. There’s nothing new but the medium (paint instead of a camera). Would any no-name artist get a big show in a top gallery for that kind of work? I doubt it.

    As for his views on music critics that I posted originally, perhaps he doesn’t entirely dismiss music reviews. Perhaps he means that he just takes the book reviews more seriously because they are writers, too. Perhaps he’s just saying that for his music, he values the opinions of other musicians before he values the critics’ views. But I’m clearly speculating. Who knows?

  16. Adam Burrows December 13, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    A common mistake musicians make is that they think music criticism is for their benefit. It isn’t. It’s there to inform, and hopefully entertain, music fans. An album review needs a detailed explanation of chord voicings and verse structure in the way that a restaurant review needs a detailed explanation of cooking technique. It doesn’t.

    Lots of music critics are musicians of one kind or another. Lots of them aren’t. It doesn’t matter, because the music critic is essentially a professional *listener* whose prose should be judged on whether it communicates the experience of enjoying music (or not enjoying it), rather than the mechanics of making it.

    The comparison with book reviewes is interesting. The literary world often appears to be a circle jerk of writers writing about writers to an audience of writers. Sometimes they seem to have left readers out of the equation altogether, which is a shame because they’re the ones who pay for the ink. Music critics fall into the same trap at their own peril, and many of them do.

    In other words, Bob Dylan – many of whose songs I love dearly – is talking out of his sainted arse.

  17. Alexanna July 7, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Although I have great respect for Mr. Dylan, he is still a human being-
    imperfect and capable of making mistakes in life music as well as his choices.
    I believe he is totally unaware of the latter since he’s spent a lifetime
    as an icon which can turn your head around. Frankly, at this stage of the
    game he should chill out and relax about himself. Unfortunately, Mr Dylan
    has apparently become very ridged. He can’t let go and let God. Apparently,
    he thinks he IS God from his worldly success. We all grow old and die
    and must realize that although we may have left a great legacy-it’s how
    graceful in our last years and our gratitude for the blessed lives upon
    which we will be judged. My impression is that he lacks humility because
    he came along at the right time and has a deep disrespect for those who
    made him rich and famous. Perhaps he thinks they were stupid to love
    what he had to say. Perhaps he views us as suckers. Perhaps he hated his
    parents and being of Jewish ancestry. All thinks have a beginning and
    end. Leave us something to respect, Mr. Dylan. He has no voice to brag
    about-it was his words that made us love him.

  18. Alexanna July 7, 2012 at 5:04 am

    Sorry for the typos-I should always edit but hate it so much. I think most will
    understand what I mean. Sorry!

  19. kay September 4, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Leave Dylan the Fuck alone & please spare us your anal-i-zing him w/ your psychobabble, laced w/ religious overtones, moralities, holier than thou, judgements on a man w/ a body of work you couldn’t even begin to get close to creating, not to mention, still doing. I mean who died and made you God? He has done more than survive, many did not, going quite young in fact. We are lucky to still have him. Show some Fucking respect.

  20. Adam September 5, 2012 at 2:40 am

    This might be a good time to point out that one of Dylan’s favourite songwriters is Chris De Burgh.

  21. md December 6, 2012 at 12:30 am

    just listen to “Tombstone Blues”, and everything Dylan ever says will make sense. i promise.

  22. Jed December 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Much of the time what Dylan swiped, he improved greatly upon. Not always, but much of the time. Anyway anyway.

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