In a couple hundred years or so, when the dust settles on the American Century, we will perhaps be better able to see what was most crucial about its particular forms of power and culture. We may find that Dylan is one of the keys. Certainly there are others in the running—like Warhol, whose work transformed our perception of what a painting and a painter are, as well as the way we perceive the everyday world of mass mediation and commodities, of stars and supermarkets. But Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature ensures that his work will play at least some role in characterizing our particular age. Indeed, the prize encourages us to see Dylan much more expansively than the Nobel Committee’s rather bland citation suggests: "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." We might want to move beyond the single-minded focus on the 1960s Dylan that was the knee-jerk reaction of mainstream news outlets to the award. The Nobel “controversy” sparked by young-turk music and culture sites like Pitchfork and Vice over whether Dylan works within the category of “literature” just seems silly in its narrow-mindedness.
However, the Nobel does have the tendency to box in our thinking, as was surely the case with Faulkner, whose 1950 prize and much-reprinted acceptance speech made him the great American novelist of humanism rather than the author of the potboiler Sanctuary and Hollywood noir screenplays like The Big Sleep (suspicious, to say the least, of any grand humanism). Our thinking around Dylan has often been limited by the sheer heights his work reached in the mid-1960s. Popular music was never the same after the triumvirate of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. As Greil Marcus has said about Dylan’s authority in 1965, “[he] seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point.” This Dylan was central to the way people of Marcus’s generation thought of themselves—they had plugged in.
I came of age when Dylan sucked. In the 1980s, I found him on my own—a good thing—but in the mall record store. He was almost a hippy novelty item, alternatively desperate and insouciant in that role. I couldn’t possibly understand what the big deal was about plugging in. Yet, there were songs like “Blind Willie McTell” and “Brownsville Girl” which were like nothing I’d ever heard before. All this meant I had a confusing relationship with Dylan. In one sense, somehow, I had been waiting, unknowingly, to hear that voice—with its fricatives, ellipses, and assorted speech pathologies—which was nowhere in the popular music of the day and seemed utterly real. And the complexity of the lyrics—but not just the lyrics, rather the often slanted and sly approach to ideas—this was nothing like the post-punk I listened to. Nor was the way Dylan could swing in half a line between cruelty and sympathy, or weave his anxious relationship to masculinity with a song’s conventional love plot.
But I also couldn’t quite get on board with him. He was boringly obsessed with his own celebrity, making it the key content of song after song. He seemed to suffer from a kind of martyr complex. He was also sort of an asshole. I kept my interests private, and they seemed deeply belated.
Yet, this isn’t such a bad relationship to have with an artist—one characterized by an intense ambivalence. It’s probably a good way of relating to a Nobel Laureate too. Intense ambivalence keeps things unsettled and perhaps helps us remain open to seeing things against the grain. That means seeing Dylan not only as a ‘60s icon, or as someone who is or is not a literary poet, or even as an important contributor to “the great American song tradition,” but in broader terms and contexts and also with a great sense of paradox. It lets us recognize that the often-repeated accounts of Dylan’s rebellions and reinventions are completely aligned with the most mainstream ideology of the American Century. The value of creative destruction has been central among the values that America has exported to the world.
But ambivalence also allows us to ask why those reinventions are so often infused with melancholy—Dylan’s great emotional touchstone. An openness to paradox challenges us not to dismiss Dylan’s Christian fundamentalism of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but rather to find it central. Dylan’s extreme oscillation between secular disenchantment—the questioning of everything—and the unanswerable mysteries of humankind characterizes one of the central contradictions of everyday life in the American Century. Part of keeping Dylan unsettled is also paying close attention to his late style, the extraordinary work from 1997’s Time Out of Mind to the present, and also the way his work continues to influence artists of all sorts from around the world, making him an artist of the American Century who is being transformed by those beyond America. This kind of ongoing ambivalence and sense of contradiction is exactly what Dylan has suggested to us as a meaningful orientation to the world. On the day the Swedish Academy awarded his Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan was playing Vegas.
MICHAEL MILLNER writes about 19th- and 20th-century music, art, literature, and politics. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Please email him at email@example.com.