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. 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 new 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.