21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, and Clare Hélie. New York: Bloomsbury, 2021. 232 pp.
REVIEW BY Nathan Schmidt, Indiana University
It is the twenty-first century. Is Bob Dylan still a musician? Or, more accurately, among the masks that Dylan has chosen to wear throughout his career, how relevant is the mask of the troubadour in relation to the others that he has put on over the last two decades? 21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely raises this provocative question. The fourteen essays in this volume remind the reader just how many different media one can find Dylan in, from art exhibitions to underwear commercials. In this catalog of eclecticism, we encounter the Revisionist Art exhibition, the films No Direction Home and Masked and Anonymous, and, of course, the Nobel acceptance speech, which is placed in delightful juxtaposition with Dylan’s ads for PepsiCo and underpants. As a public figure, Bob Dylan has remained busy in the present century, but it is interesting to note that relatively few of the chapters in 21st-Century Dylan are directly about Dylan’s twenty-first century music, since as of the volume’s publication Dylan had released nine albums in this century, from “Love and Theft” in 2001 to Rough and Rowdy Ways in 2020. Whatever Dylan is saying to us now, he is saying it in many tongues, and the voice, accompanied by the guitar or the piano, is more and more clearly becoming just one among his many modes of expression.
The editors produced this volume following a series of papers given at a conference at the Université d’Artois in December of 2018, and it is clear that they designed this edited collection with cross-conversation among the essays in mind. There are a few cases in which the volume wears its adaptation from conference presentations a little too clearly on its sleeve – for all his remarkable contributions to the discipline of Dylan studies, the entry from Christopher Ricks in this particular book is only four pages long and references the conference directly, which comes across a little awkwardly in print – but, as a way of capturing the dynamic shifting of ideas through the space and time of the conference venue, this book provides a snapshot of what was doubtlessly a meaningful and intellectually rigorous series of conversations.
The first chapter of Edward Said’s On Late Style, which is also in many ways Said’s love letter to Theodor Adorno, provides the title for the volume, and the figures of Said, Adorno, and Roland Barthes figure prominently throughout the first part of the book. While portions like Nina Goss’s chapter on Revisionist Art offer a close Barthesian interpretation of Dylan’s visual artwork, the genres and disciplines covered in the book range from film criticism (Jim Salvucci’s “Masked, Anonymized, and Chronicled”), to cultural studies (Eric C. Callahan’s “Bringing the Margin to the Center”), and musicology (Julie Manson-Vacquié’s “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Creation and Re-Creation”). Those looking for perspectives on Dylan’s twenty-first century albums will for the most part need to look elsewhere; Jean Du Verger’s “‘A-Journeying Over the Shadows and the Rain’: Dylan’s Late Style(s)” is the only essay that thoroughly considers several of Dylan’s records from the 2000s and 2010s; the volume also closes with a coda reviewing Rough and Rowdy Ways. It is interesting to note that the most frequently cited of Dylan’s twenty-first century works in this volume is the 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One.
A brief introduction by Adrian Grafe outlines four different ways to consider Dylan’s more recent work: praise, predecession, profundity, and persona. Grafe notes that “persona” will be a particularly significant interpretive figure in much that follows. After this, the book is split into two parts: “Honest with Me: Late Dylan’s Performing Personae,” and “Roll on Bob: Late Dylan in Text and Tribute.” Nina Goss’s essay “‘I Make It So Easy for You to Follow Me: Making a Case for Dylan’s Revisionist Art” is a bold opening choice for the volume – even the most dedicated Dylan-watcher might admit that the case for Revisionist Art is not an easy one to make. Goss draws a bit from Said and rather a lot from Barthes to make the case that “phoniness is no obstacle to interpretation” (19); that Dylan’s employment of pop art vacuity in his unsubtly revised magazine covers is “bullshit” (Goss’s term, glossing Harry Frankfurt), but it is bullshit that can teach us a lot about the “violating and erasing principles of inscription and personae” (25).
Much of section one draws on Dylan’s film and TV appearances. In “Masked, Anonymized, and Chronicled: Dylan’s Fatal Auto-Mythos for the New Millenium,” Jim Salvucci argues that the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous and the 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One are both “liminal manifestations of the Dylan myth, wedged…between disclosure and deceit” (27). Salvucci argues that both the Jack Fate character in the movie and the narrator of Chronicles are part of Dylan’s “lifelong persona-building project” (27). It is worthwhile to read this account of these two Dylan projects side-by-side. Since critics generally praised Chronicles and panned Masked and Anonymous, Salvucci’s choice to subject both of these pieces to the same level of critique may inspire some readers to adjust their evaluations of these texts. Sara Martínez continues to analyze Dylan’s films, in this case reading both Masked and Anonymous and I’m Not There (2007) as ways to understand Dylan’s performances of masculinity (“Performativity, Subversion, and Mask-ulinity: Dylan on Screen, Dylan as Screen”). In this chapter, Martínez also argues for the ways in which “Dylan’s emergence as a pop music icon coincides with the rise of new kinds of screen subjectivity” (43), drawing from the work of Laura Mulvey, Theodor Adorno, and Steven Cohan. Martínez finds subversions of American masculinities in Dylan’s refusal to be truly present in either film. Charles Bonnot continues to explore Dylan’s filmography in “No Direction Home: When Dylan Does Look Back,” which articulates the relationship between Martin Scorsese’s 2004 documentary No Direction Home and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan film Dont Look Back, focusing mostly on the implicit critiques of media and authenticity expressed in different ways throughout both films.
Two of the volume’s strongest essays follow this trilogy of film analysis, and they both take on one of the more perplexing aspects of Dylan’s twenty-first century presence: namely, his willingness to appear in advertisements. Andrew McKeown handles the subject with quizzical good humor in “Dylan Does Adverts. Surely Not? Surely?,” while Erin C. Callahan’s “Bringing the Margin to the Centre: Dylan’s Visible Republic” boldly integrates Dylan’s ad appearances within the rest of his artistic mythos. McKeown uses Dylan’s presence in Super Bowl commercials as an opportunity to discuss the relationship between authenticity and iconicity. Dylan once asked a reporter at Newport in 1965, “Why did you go electric?,” and McKeown artfully suggests that, if we were to ask Dylan why he went commercial, he would turn the question back at us in a similar manner (79). Callahan also compares complaints about Dylan “selling out” to complaints about him going electric decades earlier, but goes a step farther by explicating the ways in which “Dylan’s appearance in commercials is an extended performance providing new avenues of interpretation, thus keeping him relevant in the sixth decade of his career” (94). Readers who may feel perplexed by Dylan’s choices in the realm of advertising will find new and original ways to approach the issue in these essays.
The final two essays in the first section are the first to make Dylan’s music a central focus. Julie Mansion-Vaquié’s “Creation and Re-Creation in Dylan’s Performances of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963-2016)” offers a musicological account of Dylan’s performances of his sixties-era hit, replete with charts of stage settings, tempos, instrumental arrangements, and song structures. While this data is usefully comprehensive, this chapter leaves room for further explication; the conclusion that “Dylan’s accomplishment thus brings him to surpass his own creation” (118) is rather adulatory, especially regarding a song that is already held in near-universal critical acclaim. Anne-Marie Mai investigates the presence of melancholia in songs like “Not Dark Yet” and “Red River Shore,” comparing them with his 2010 Brazil Series of paintings and interpolating the work of other famous melancholics like Kierkegaard, Keats, and Lars von Trier. All of the songs in this chapter are from the twentieth century; when twenty-first century Dylan appears, the reader meets him as a painter, not a singer or a musician.
Still, whether painter, documentary subject, or artistic prankster, Dylan’s various personae tie the first half of the volume together. The same cannot quite be said for the second half: “Roll on Bob: Late Dylan in Text and Tribute” is more of a catchall description of a smaller selection of essays about Dylan’s albums and lyrics and his Nobel Prize. Jean Du Verger’s “‘A Journeying over the Shadows and the Rain’: Dylan’s Late Style(s)” is, as the title suggests, the volume’s one essay that looks closely at Dylan’s twenty-first century albums in relation to the concept of “late style” that Said and Adorno elucidate. Du Verger actually identifies Time Out of Mind as “the dawn of Dylan’s late style” (145), but leaves no stone unturned—even incorporating Christmas in the Heart—on the journey to show how Dylan’s late work “address[es] lateness,” both in the sunset of a lifelong career and of life itself (146). In “‘The Last Outback at the World’s End’: Dylan’s Sense of an Album’s Ending,” M. Cooper Harriss describes Dylan’s enduring fascination with the album as a format for composing and distributing music, applying Frank Kermode’s theory of the relationship between the end of a story and the end of the world to a handful of Dylan albums, roughly half of which are from the twenty-first century. Readers may finish this chapter with some lingering questions about how the author justifies referring to the album “as, like fiction, a narrative genre” (10); Harriss states that the listener should think of the album as “a narrative genre fed by the significant interplay of words and music within a sequence of songs” (152), but it is not immediately apparent how this definition compares with a definition of narrative fiction.
Denis Feignier analyzes Dylan’s reception of various awards in “‘No Success Like Failure’? Dylan’s Awards, from Princeton to the Nobel.” This essay stands out in that it does not focus only on the infamous (and fairly talked-out) Nobel, and that it is also based on the author’s personal experience working with the French Minister of Culture who awarded Dylan a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. (Bob responded to the award in the most Dylanesque manner possible, which is too good of a story to spoil here.) Feignier makes the case that, even though Dylan may come off as dismissive of honors and awards, it often happens that a Bob Dylan-style expression of humility is taken as aloofness. Simon McAslan’s “‘How Could It Be Any Other Way?’ Dylan’s Editorial Decisions in The Lyrics: 1961-2012” is a delightful investigation of Dylan’s refusal to be nailed down to one lyrical interpretation or another even in an official published edition of the words for his songs. McAslan also offers a very helpful genealogy of official and unofficial published versions of Dylan’s lyrics.
Christopher Ricks’s contribution to this volume is a brief evocation of Dylan’s and T.S. Eliot’s Nobel acceptance speeches, and it is followed by Adrian Grafe’s “Dylan Nobelized? Dylan Ricksified?,” which discusses Ricks’s Dylan studies legacy in relation to Dylan’s Nobel prize. The volume ends with a review of Rough and Rowdy Ways – which was released after the conference but before the publication of the book – by Grafe and McKeown. “The more Dylan extends the boundaries of his musical expression,” they say, “the more he wants to be different to his previous avatars and to experiment, as he clearly does here, and the more all the different components of the canvas that he has been painting for over sixty years fall into place” (217). From documentary subject to pop art provocateur to branding experiment for PepsiCo, 21st-Century Dylan showcases that canvas’s eclecticism.
Readers who go looking in this volume for versions of Bob Dylan in the twenty-first century will therefore find a dizzying array of avenues to traverse, from filmography to acceptance speeches and beyond. For Dylan scholars who may not have had the resources to travel to France and experience this particular conference, it will doubtlessly prove useful to have a published record of this fascinating series of conversations. It remains telling, however, that the twenty-first century Dylan represented here is not necessarily the Bob Dylan of his twenty-first century albums, but a more complicated and more expansive character. Maybe Bob Dylan still is a musician, but the lesson of the past two decades is that he was never “just” a musician in the first place. And isn’t the hallmark of a great “song and dance man” the ability to keep us guessing what the next step in the dance will be?