I don't care how much you love Bob Dylan—his work is not literature.
Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.
What do these three figures have in common? They were all popular figures of mid-century American culture, adored in their time, who have since ascended to the god-like level of pure icons—worshiped as something not quite human. But only one of them is still alive.
Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues www.youtube.com
There are other differences, of course. Dylan became an icon much more on his own terms than either Presley or Monroe, and his talent as a songwriter is not really in question. Everything he writes feels a bit "timeless," including his latest releases.
But it's still weird to see the announcement of a new Dylan biopic starring Timothée Chalamet. How many people become the subject of two separate biopics—not to mention two documentaries by Martin Scorcese—during their lifetime? And while Chalamet seems like he could do a great job with the role, he'll be competing with the six performances by six different actors—three of them Oscar winners—which were apparently required to capture Dylan's polymesmeric essence in I'm Not There.
Promotional poster for "I'm Not There"
The latest film, with the working title Going Electric, will cover the era of Dylan's life in the mid-60s, when he made a controversial transition from acoustic folk music to an electric guitar and an embrace of rock and roll. It's roughly the same terrain that Cate Blanchett's portion of I'm Not There covered, but with a movie all to itself this time, with director James Mangold of Walk the Line taking the helm. It's a promising project, and I'm sure I'll go see it and probably walk away with some new appreciation for Bob Dylan's life and work… But I will still think he's overrated.
If you introduced me to one of the many Dylan albums I've never heard before, and it immediately became my favorite album, and I listened to it on a loop for a week straight, then I would still think Dylan was overrated. People revere him as a mythic figure—the progenitor of lyricism, protest, and smoking a cigarette while wearing sunglasses. A breathless 2016 article in The Guardian, describing a surprising turn in Dylan's career, claimed that he "has always been fond of turning his own iconoclasm on the idea of iconoclasm." What a stunning revelation…
It's this kind of fawning, empty adulation that irks me when I think of, not Dylan himself, but his idolaters. And perhaps it's not that they are more absurdly devoted than the die-hard fans of David Bowie, Paul McCartney, or Taylor Swift, but that they hold positions of authority that allow them to wield their fandom over the rest of the world.
Maybe it's time for me to admit the true source of my grudge—the original offense that this latest announcement has brought back to the surface. In October of 2016 Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was expected to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and I was prepared to have some mixed feelings about it—he's a very good writer, but I don't love his work the way many do—but then the Nobel committee threw a curveball and announced their selection of Bob Dylan…for literature!
Pictured: an actual literary figure
I don't care how much you love Bob Dylan—his work is not literature. The committee lauded Dylan for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." In other contexts, he has been placed alongside timeless poets such as Keats and Rimbaud, but as that same Guardian article (a defense of the Nobel selection) points out, his lyrics are not nearly as effective when allowed to fend for themselves on the page—"the words and the music cannot be separated." Another way to say that is that his lyrics are not actually poetry—or at least not great poetry.
If they really wanted to give Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize, they could have created a new prize for music, or scrapped the literature prize in favor of a broader category of "the arts." Hell, they could have given him a peace prize for his protest songs, and he would have made more sense than a lot of the recipients of that award. But literature? They might as well have given him the prize in medicine for healing all our hearts.
His songs do not transcend music, and his person does not transcend humanity. He is not a god, and it does not take six people to portray him on screen. Hopefully Going Electric, when it comes out, will humanize Dylan, rather than adding to his overblown myth. Until that time, I'll be over here bathing in all the delicious hate this article is about to receive.
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Plus celebrities react to Nigerian protests.
Young people across Nigeria have been pouring into the streets for the last two weeks to protest police brutality, specifically the controversial special police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Tension came to a head on Tuesday when armed forces fired on protestors in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, who were out past the state-mandated curfew. According to AP News, "Police also fired tear gas at one point, and smoke could be seen billowing from several areas in the city's center. Two private TV stations were forced off the air at least temporarily as their offices were burned."
Not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
October 21, 2020 marks the third annual International Pronouns Day.
Created by an independent board and first observed in 2018, it's one of those small commemorative holidays that trends on Twitter in hopes of drawing attention to a pressing social issue, like International Women's Day (March 8th) or the ever so serious National Taco Day (October 4).
But Pronouns Day in particular "seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace." The organization's website further describes, "Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people's multiple, intersecting identities."
But in the words of nonbinary activist and Trevor Project's Head of Advocacy and Government Afairs, Sam Brenton, "Pronouns are hard." Never before have pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are in 2019 for their power to (in)validate or accurately describe something as fluid as gender identity. In fact, it was only this year that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary expanded the definition of "they" "to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary" (thus codifying a long history in English language of using "they" to refer to a singular non-gendered entity).
‘Everyone has the responsibility to be respectful.’ — The @TrevorProject’s Sam Brinton is explaining why pronouns a… https://t.co/pMMO8KRvBR— NowThis (@NowThis)1571253180.0
But throwing an additional wrench in the works is the fact that not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
Take me, for instance: Despite having female biology, I couldn't pass a lie detector test saying I'm a "woman." But my pragmatic, Puritan family is still endearingly confused by the idea of "liberal arts," let alone the notion of gender fluidity. And I'd rather share a communal language with them than do the emotional and mental labor of re-orienting their worldview for them. Plus, I have the privilege of passing as female without feeling too, too, terribly dysphoric (which non-binary people can definitely suffer from, despite not identifying as trans).
But enough about me, look at Queer Eye's beloved Jonathan Van Ness. While he's been outspoken about being genderqueer, gay, and HIV positive, he prefers he/him pronouns. "The older I get, the more I think that I'm nonbinary," Van Ness said. "I'm gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman." As he told Out magazine, he doesn't identify as a man, but he does prefer "he/him/his" pronouns. In his view, those pronouns don't detract from or contradict his non-binary identity, because gender is not about simple binaries between masculine and feminine identifiers. "Any opportunity I have to break down stereotypes of the binary, I am down for it, I'm here for it," he said. "I think that a lot of times gender is used to separate and divide. It's this social construct that I don't really feel like I fit into the way I used to."
On the other hand, last month non-binary singer Sam Smith announced that their preferred pronouns are "they/them." Smith posted to Instagram, "I've decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I've decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out." People like Smith and Trevor Project's Sam Brenton simply feel more validated, seen, heard, and true to themselves with gender-neutral pronouns. Smith wrote, "I'm so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I've been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but f*ck it!"
Most importantly, as pretty much every non-binary person and activist is aware, changing cultural norms is hard. While LGBTQ+ activism is inspired and passionate and dedicated to expanding human rights to all gender identities, we all know that changing society's entire understanding of gender and pronoun usage is about slowly opening minds. As Smith wrote, "I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you." Happy Pronouns Day to you/him/her/they/(f)aer/zim.