BY Rebecca Slaman
Every Dylan fan has, at some point, had to defend Bob to friends, strangers, and enemies. As the community of fans has intimately connected in the digital age, it can be baffling for us to be reminded of what other people think of our favorite artist. Of course, it’s been well-documented that Bob Dylan has critics. Even before his first musical controversy, certain groups did not embrace Dylan’s voice nor his politics. So what did fans have to say when those politics changed? What made people stay when his voice did, too? With a career as varied as his, there are myriad reasons for people not to like him. But criticism, while sometimes unpleasant, can reveal a lot about the critic and the culture they live in. Likewise, a fandom’s defense mechanisms reveal what they truly value about the artist. I believe the marriage of fandom and criticism is the key to Dylan’s legacy continuing and prospering.
The academic discipline of Fan Studies has some terms that describe the relationship and social dynamics of fandom. Bob Dylan is a producer, and fans engage in two ways: affirmationally and transformationally. In his article “Towards a Theory of ‘Appropriate Fandom,’” Mark Stewart, describes these two: “Affirmational fan practice is seen as ‘restating’ the object of fandom, reifying the canon, and by extension, engaging in ways which privilege depth of knowledge and economic engagement. Transformational fan practice, conversely, is more commonly positioned within a productive space; a space of fan fiction, vidding, shipping, and slash; a space where the textual meaning sits in the hands of the fans, rather than the industrial producer.” Affirmational is more often a male fan practice, accepting the canon, more economically productive and therefore encouraged by producers through Fanagement. Transformational is often female-coded, and inherently questioning of the canon. This transformational space can be fraught, controversial. It is the more rebellious engagement.
How does this apply to Bob Dylan? To describe our engagement with him personally, it’s like throwing our thinkpieces into a bottomless pit. If you asked Bob, the critics or fans don’t and can’t matter, though we know criticism can sometimes spark creative magic, even with Dylan: Judas comes to mind. I’ll give you some examples of these practices using iconic Dylan-goes-electric moments. The cry of Judas fueled the legendary performance of “Like a Rolling Stone”; we can easily see the cause and effect of critic on artist. To cite this moment is affirmational of the canon of Bob Dylan. The live Newport version of “Maggie’s Farm” is rip roaring and rock ‘n’ roll. We see it as rebellious. But also you can see in the footage of his acoustic set after the infamous reaction tears rolling down his face. This isn’t a widely discussed idea, it doesn’t fit into the canon narrative of Dylan’s attitude, so this is my transformational theory on Bob’s dealings with criticism. These are two different takes: He doesn’t care and it fuels him to be an adversary versus he cares deeply and this trauma forced him to put on that persona. We can’t know why Bob retreated from the spotlight in the late 60s, but threats and boos probably played a role. Beyond that point, he saw that criticism is creative poison, hypocritical.
But criticism plays a different role to an artist than to their fans/everyone else. Though Bob isn’t personally managing his image here, there is a (niche) industrial complex. Affirmational practice is kind of what we’re doing here: legitimizing him in the canon and affirming that he deserves a place in history. As we move forward with scholarship, however, it’s going to become more transformational, and in some ways, critical. The world has changed so much since Bob became famous; we can keep studying history within its own context and look at Dylan and his work with fresh perspectives. Since Bob’s not answering or doing any “fanagement” anyway, fans have to make their own answers and meaning, in alignment with the culturally accepted version, or against it. We should ask ourselves, when handling criticism, are we aligning with the more economically productive answers? Are we “selling out?”
Fans have also been critics themselves; criticism is necessary for someone with as much power as Dylan. With social media, more diverse fans of music are driving discussions about the reconciliation of someone’s art with their personal beliefs and actions. With Dylan, these conversations include misogyny in The Philosophy of Modern Song, possible theft of Black artists, and relevancy due to Dylan’s age. This certainly aligns with the larger cultural discourse of today.
In the early days, his whiteness was not as much in question, but rather his Judaism. You can bet his Jewish identity was held against him in addition to his sympathies with the civil rights movement: he was protested by TACT (“Truth About Civil Turmoil”) and “American Patriots for Freedom.” This group wrote in the New York Times, “It isn’t surprising that John Hammond would be interested in Bob Dylan’s brand of culture for Mr. Hammond, according to official US Government records, has made himself a party to at least seven communist fronts.” Though this is all obviously silly, this critique of Dylan being too political manifested when he was barred from performing “Talkin John Birch Blues” in 1963 on the Ed Sullivan show. Someone else’s fear of critics directly affected Dylan’s ability to convey his music to an audience, and that had to affect him.
It’s interesting how this cultural pushback goes from “young commie Jew” to “old irrelevant white man.” Don’t scoff too much at the latter one though, because many people who’d criticize today’s young artists might have had the same idea back in 1965 towards Bob. The criticism of “young people’s music” is equally as farcical as more biased reasons; it has nothing to do with the artist himself. On December 26, 1965, there was a letters to the editor section entirely around the debate on whether Dylan was a poet. It was in response to an article by Thomas Meehan about a young/old divide on the subject. College students called Dylan (24 at the time) their favorite contemporary American writer. As one English professor from the University of Vermont responded, “Anyone who calls Dylan the ‘greatest poet in the United States today’ has rocks in his head. That is such an irresponsible statement as to deserve no attention. Since his appeal (apparently) is to irresponsible teen-agers, I can’t take him seriously. Dylan is for the birds, and the bird-brained.”
It’s funny that this same discourse popped up around the Nobel Prize In 2016, interestingly on the other side of the young/old divide… or rather, old and slightly less old. I think the only young people who cared were students roped in by English teachers. Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh said “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Brutal!
This is the kind of criticism that clearly doesn’t hold over large periods of time, no matter who it’s addressed to. If you say something is only for young people, those people grow up, and even the radio Disney anthems of my youth are now played at parties to much acclaim. The fact that I’m writing this today [as a young Dylan scholar] shows that artists can transcend their own initial time and audience.
Interestingly, both of these examples are aimed at people who are fans of Dylan. They can be boiled down to one incredibly frustrating word: Overrated. It means that something, to someone, is saturated in the culture past the point of its merit.
And whatever merit Bob Dylan had when he was at his first peak, people have acted like it has been taken away at each consequential era. Bob Dylan has been praised for his “authenticity,” though most of us know that doesn’t mean he’s always telling the truth. The emotional and musical truth is what gives him that merit in the first place, and to most of us, that doesn’t go away no matter what genre he’s adopting. But even our beloved scholars have criticized him in this way:
Greil Marcus: “For me – and Dylan says this himself, too, somewhere I’m not locating at the moment – the marking point is John Wesley Harding, and every album after that…up until the kinship albums Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong, and Time Out of Mind, is some kind of mistake, put-up job, a disguise you could see right through, a lie.”
(And this guy’s a keynote speaker!) As I cannot find a source of that “Bob” sentiment, I’m classifying this claim by Mr. Marcus as transformational fan practice.
Just as Dylan once blindly called the shot of his Nobel Prize in Hearts of Fire, one critic did this amazing callout in 1988. “The words have become less clear,” says Jerome Rodnitzky. “Finally, Dylan, like Walt Whitman, might turn on his critics and declare: do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Pretty incredible stuff we can find in criticism, even when we disagree. Maybe Bob Has listened, who knows?
Criticism is constantly transforming its image of Bob. It has to, as time and people change. The issues people have with Bob’s music share consistencies across the eras, though those people become louder depending on the cultural attitudes in general. His voice, for one, was probably more palatable at the initial burst of rock ‘n’ roll when culture was radically new, and artists with unconventional voices had a place. Introducing to young people a smart cutie with a rebel streak made his vocals matter less. Also, people read more back then. But as more and more people discover him and time goes on, culture prefers more polished sounding music, and the criticism grows. It must have reached Bob, for he said “Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I getspecial treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?
Because Bob, everybody hates the popular girl.
In my research, I expected his initial shift to “singing” to elicit more distaste, or at least, some McCartney-esque conspiracy theories. He gets in a motorcycle accident and emerges three years later with a new voice, face, and style? I would say, that’s not the same guy. It turns out, change was still largely welcome. If people called out his “phony, swallowed style of vocal production,” Nashville Skyline was extremely commercially successful. The Beatles got mustaches, Bob got a new voice, everyone grew up. If anything, this transformation helped him escape the label of has-been. On Jan 25, 1976, John Rockwell wrote of Desire: “But can Dylan ever really come back from the position he occupied ten years ago? Is there a place in the grey, workaday 70s for a legendary hero from the mythological 60s?”
The answer is yes. At least in the mainstream, Dylan was canonized. This is where affirmational fan practice begins, building up a positive image. Coverage of his musical exploits remained important as reward for being part of a great musical time. He’d earned his place, though of course that leads to backlash. Some felt he was done after a certain point. A scathing profile in Spy Magazine in August 1991 by Joe Queenan called him a pathetic kook, basically hoping he’d die so he’d cement his legacy: “Only now, any hope for the return of Dylan’s sustained wit, intelligence, and passion, may finally, finally have died.” Queenan clarified that does not take away from the great music he made, if anything he thinks it supersedes anything he would do from that point on.
Now, on Twitter, I see defenses for the albums he’s referencing and more, based on criticism I didn’t even know existed. I don’t see much new criticism for his art. The only people paying attention really, are us. People barely see him part of the present moment. We, of course, know about Rough and Rowdy Ways and Shadow Kingdom and the tour, but most think of Dylan as a historical figure. Remember when “Murder Most Foul” went #1 like a month into the pandemic? Most people don’t. In fact, it wasn’t two years before people claimed Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s version),” at 10 minutes, to be the longest #1 ever on the Billboard charts. Regardless, the publication of the Philosophy of Modern Song caused a bit of a resurgence in criticism. John Carvill wrote a now infamous screed in Popmatters against the book that I would call, brave. Commenting on this criticism feels more dangerous having personally witnessed the discourse that followed it. Nonetheless, his is one of the few published, well thought out, criticisms of Dylan’s deification. While Dylan’s defenders engage in affirmational practice of nearly all of Dylan’s work, Carvill went against the mold and offered a transformed image of Dylan as an artist. This image includes the artist’s work he admires, but also a plagiarist, ghostwritten, misogynist, hack. Many disputed the writer’s projection that Dylan was an old ranting grandpa, but that projection is not any less valid than anyone else’s. We have to have a bit of transformation to hold or deify Dylan in our heads.
Fans that don’t match Dylan’s demographic do this especially well. If you’ve been on Dylan twitter, you might have seen me and my friends calling him gay, calling him a baby, saying objectively ridiculous things about him. We aren’t being insane, we’re engaging in transformational practice. Our canonizing of him may be playing with the truth in a very Dylan- esque way, but it’s fun, and takes it all less seriously. If we were to engage with Dylan, or any of our artists, critically all the time, it would be a bummer, like we don’t need to do Allen Ginsberg discourse 24/7. It makes sense if you consider the hurdles we already have to cross in terms of access. In some ways, it’s an asset: those who have to transform art to see themselves in it may unlock new, unexpected meanings. But critical conversations are being had online, where spatiality and temporality don’t dictate who can take part. In terms of criticism, I would be remiss to bring up the whole women’s perspective of it all.
Misogyny was difficult to research for obvious reasons: very few female Dylan academics have been published, and the male ones are often more sexist than Dylan himself. Though Albert Goldman said of his first published book of lyrics in 1973 that “Dylan’s anger and peculiar vindictiveness toward women are diminished in print,” Laurie Stone printed just this year that “Bob Dylan has never imagined the effect of his lyrics on a woman, or else, you know, the words would not be so sneering, and he would give us a picture of the woman and not just her effect on him. Bob doesn’t address women. He writes to men about women.” I would argue Bob has given us pictures of women, otherwise how would we know their jelly- faces all sneeze? Both of these responses go back to Dylan’s attitude being a huge part of the accepted narrative. They include extra projections about what a “man with attitude” could mean: a brutish misogynist. This is a way the affirmational canon elicits more criticism because who has been allowed to shape it. The inherent biases of the loudest Dylan fans can turn someone off from the joy of an art that doesn’t even reflect those ideas. A different perspective on women’s response to Bob Dylan comes from Mark Beaumont: In his negative article about Dylan’s legacy: he mentions that all his past girlfriends have tried to convert him to fan!
This is at the heart of most modern Dylan criticism: it’s us. It comes down to us. Our fandom is loud and ubiquitous. We “overrate” him, pushing people away from the demand of liking him. We are annoying.
The upcoming film A Complete Unknown starring Timothée Chalamet is garnering anticipatory criticism, and a fair bit of apprehension. Regardless of its quality as a film, it will undoubtedly draw young people’s gaze toward Dylan. This will create a new transformational fandom if I know anything about Timothée Chalamet and his fans. There are already Bob fan edits and headcanons out there, some created by yours truly, but it is mostly limited to my friends in Bob Nation. A certain following is expected at least for the movie, and I anticipate a new set of critical criteria. When this happens, I ask you to engage with this criticism with an open mind about what fandom can be. Being a fan is supposed to be fun, and criticism can also be fun. Affirmational fandom has been the norm for a long time, but if Dylan’s legacy is going to continue, our engagement will have to transform.