April 3, 2005

perennial champion Bob Dylan

If, like me, you're surrounded by hipsters in hooded sweatshirts, their even more hipster siblings, and college public radio,1 you might have heard someone say Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes is the new Bob Dylan. Of course! He's a folksinger-songwriter boy with a scratchy voice, floppy hair, and a brooding expression. He's even a good poet. But it's a really basic misunderstanding of why Bob Dylan matters.

Bob Dylan was a fucking prophet. He was a poet, yes, and a musician, and his music amplifies his words in a way few people can duplicate. That's why, despite how unbeautiful his voice is, his versions of his songs will always tell you something new about them. But he was important because he was a prophet. Prophets don't know the future, but they see the present more clearly than most, and they give us their fury, their vision, they tell us our own stories and make us cry. They see our sins and tell us about them, and woe betide those who refuse to listen. Every time I hear The Times They Are A-Changin' (song or album) I think about what it must have been like to hear it for the first time in 1964 and know that it was about you. Especially to be young, and to hear the voice of this new world you were going to inherit singing about the massive disruption that was creating it. To hear the voice of the prophet.

There are still musicians who do that, but they aren't Conor Oberst. They're not Bob Dylan either, for that matter. I'd nominate, with the approval of my friend the Red-Headed Stranger, Ani diFranco. Like Dylan, she's important. People care about what she says, even if a lot of them do it in this sort of annoying teen-age feminist way.2 People imitate her music, but more important, they listen to her. They hear something about themselves and the world in her music. The fury and vision of prophecy.

I was talking about this at one of my temp assignments this winter, and one of the other temps suggested Ice T, saying that his moral stature and his position as a role model make him the Bob Dylan of our generation. I have no idea. I am white as they come, and don't know enough about Ice T (musically or otherwise) to say anything about it. I listen to the occasional bit of hip hop radio, though, mostly because my students like it, and it's the only mainstream radio I've heard that might, maybe, possibly, have some prophetic leanings once in a while. Most of it is crap, a lot of it is just sexually explicit for its own sake, but Kanye West has given me goosebumps once in a while. I had one of my Outward Bound groups perform All Falls Down (their choice of song) once, and it was the first time I'd ever really heard the lyrics. One of the kids said, "Kanye West speaks the truth." That's the feeling Bob Dylan and Ani diFranco give you at their best. It's not on the radio very often, so not that many people hear it. But you're not a prophet unless you can get some attention, unless you become culturally resonant.

Anyway, I think these are all better proposals than the people David Dye named when he was doing a "new Bob Dylan" top five at 5 on XPN.3 They were all just young guitar guys with scratchy voices.4 No prophecy at all.

1. Affectionately. I say this affectionately. And while wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
2. Let me point out that I get to call them annoying because I was a teen-age feminist Ani fan. Boys, don't try this at home.
3. The top five at 5 is a daily themed list. Like, songs about New Jersey. Or songs about rain. Or songs by people who might be the new Bob Dylan.
4. Conor Oberst, David Grey, Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, and someone else. Bruce Springsteen is the only one I might consider.


Anonymous said...

I am a spineless anonymous poster, and some sort of hipster. It'd be hard to find a hipster prophet simply because most hipsters are spinning their wheels trying to find some authenticity. A few years ago Ben Folds might have been a prophet. Before he was rockin' the suburbs, he was low on the underground scene, high on individuals, and self depricating to boot. These days in this country, prophets might not tell you how to lead your life or what to think. They're better off telling you who's remarkable and how they're fed up with themselves and hoping you'll relate. What keeps Ben Folds and Ani from being Dylanesque is that far too many people haven't heard their records.

hipster monk said...

interestingly, i saw a crazy production of Oedipus this weekend in which tiresias was interpreted as a righteously hostile black man who mumbled "goddamn motherfucker" at oedipus as he walked offstage. did you mean ice t? the other night you said public enemy.

discussion point: cultural blindness/inarticulation and the cannibalism of the mainstream media. or maybe a better metaphor is inbreeding.

North said...

aha! I need to write something about hipsters and authenticity.

I'm not sure Dylan was on the radio, but he was in fact popular.

also: I do think the fact that so many radio stations are owned by the same soulless corporation makes it harder for anything with genuine prophecy or feeling to get on the radio, because there's so much genuine prophecy and feeling that's specifically hostile to those corporations.

I wonder if the reason hip hop radio can get away with a bit of it is that the mostly white people running those places don't take it seriously enough to be worried. I haven't thought about it enough to make it a theory, but what do you two think?

North said...

also, I did mean Ice T. I think we went on to talk about Public Enemy later in that conversation, but he started off saying Ice T.

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