Friday, July 09, 2004

Why I Don't Dig Dylan

There's a new book on Bob Dylan, Dylan's Visions of Sin, that analyzes his work the way a professor with too much time on his hands would analyze the work of a poet: pretentiously, in great detail, and at absurd length. The reviews of the book have mostly focused on whether it makes sense to give Dylan the sort of analytical treatment usually reserved for poets. Myself, I'm happy to see Dylan's work discussed this way: the more he's seen as a poet, the less he's seen as a songwriter. And the ideal of Dylan as a songwriter has done incredible damage to the craft of songwriting.

Note that I said "the ideal of Dylan," not Dylan. I'm not a great fan of Bob Dylan, but I can't deny his talent. Besides, he inspired one of the all-time great parodies, Paul Simon's "A Simple Desultory Philippic," and as I said about Marlon Brando, when someone can be so devastatingly parodied, it's actually a tribute to the uniqueness and individuality of his style (you can't parody something that's bland). No, my problem is that Dylan, in the '60s, came to represent an ideal, or rather two ideals: that of the singer-songwriter, and that of "authenticity" or "rawness" in songwriting. And that's what effectively killed off the profession of songwriting.

From the turn of the 20th century up until the '60s, American popular songs were mostly written by professional songwriters. People who chose music or lyrics as a job, sold the songs they wrote, honed their craft. Some songwriters were talented performers; Johnny Mercer certainly was, and so was Hoagy Carmichael. But they were not primarily performers, and they certainly didn't write songs primarily to sing themselves; they either wrote songs that had some general possibility of being hits, and thereby performed by others, or they wrote songs for specific performers (in a musical, a movie, or a record album).

Bob Dylan's songs could be, and were, recorded by others. But they were primarily written to be sung by Bob Dylan; they reflect his own preoccupations, his own personality. When you "cover" a Bob Dylan song, it's implied that you are expressing Bob Dylan's sentiments, whereas a traditional pop song expresses sentiments that sound right coming from anyone, that aren't attached to the personality of the songwriter. You can see the difference if you compare the early Beatles stuff to the songs they wrote in the late '60s, after they got into the Dylanesque fake-folk groove. The early Beatles songs are traditional pop songs, expressing feelings that could come from anyone: a desire to hold someone's hand, for example, or the startling revelation that money can't buy love. The later songs are increasingly about personal obsessions: celebrity, drugs, Penny Lane, drugs, political issues, drugs. (The earlier songs are mostly in the A-A-B-A structure of old-fashioned pop, while the later stuff has the verse-chorus structure that the fake-folk movement brought in to replace the traditional pop refrain.) I don't mind saying that I prefer the early Beatles songs, and that general style of songwriting: I like to feel that a pop song expresses what I am feeling, but the singer-songwriter movement shifts the emphasis instead to telling me what someone else is feeling. Traditional pop creates a somewhat active listener who projects his or herself onto a song; Bob Dylan sings for a passive audience: listen up and I'll tell you what I'm feeling.

But what's worse about the singer-songwriter movement is that it essentially killed off the professional songwriter, and the very idea of professionalism in songwriting. It's often said that rock n' roll destroyed the Tin Pan Alley professionals, but that's not really true. Some pros couldn't adjust to rock n' roll, it's true. But others could, and many of the rock n' roll hits of the '50s and early '60s were written by professional songwriters, guys who wrote for performers, rather than for themselves. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller are the most famous of the rock n' roll pros: they were basically traditional pop songwriters who decided to write for the new market, and came up with "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," all The Coasters' stuff.

But by the mid-'60s, there was an increasing idea that for a performer to be really "authentic," he or she had to write his or her own songs. The most famous flap about this was the Monkees brouhaha, when a "rock group" specially created for TV a) was castigated for singing songs by professional songwriters, rather than writing its own stuff, and b) started to insist on being allowed to write its own material. The idea was that if a performer was performing only songs by other people, he or she was cheating, not communicating directly with the audience, not being Real.

Now, ordinarily I'm as open and tolerant of divergent views as the next person. This is an exception. So: The idea that a performer should write his own songs is basically stupid. It's like saying an actor should write his own plays. It's like saying that a concert pianist should write his own music. A performer performs. A writer writes. The jobs are separate and they require separate skills. The singer-songwriter cult has created a monstrous conflation of talents that don't necessarily have a lot in common with each other, leading to a situation where talented performers wind up performing dreck they wrote themselves, while talented songwriters who can't sing have an inordinately tough time selling songs to people who can. When Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera find it necessary to at least claim they write some of their own songs, you know that there's no respect for songwriting as a profession.

Which brings me to the other point: the post-Dylan era has been one where craftsmanship and skill are basically not valued in songwriting. Dylan was, as I said, a talented guy. Some of his songs can claim to be works of art. But as craft, as opposed to art, his songs are basically terrible. Rhymes that don't rhyme, lines that don't scan, words that don't sit well on the music, endless repetition of musical phrases with no musical relief in sight, lyrics that repeat the same proposition over and over without developing it (why are the times a-changin'? can you give me some specific examples, please?), all of these are staples of the post-Dylan song. Again, the early work of Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson -- guys who weren't exactly professional songwriters but were certainly prodigiously gifted amateurs -- had their share of sloppy rhymes, but you could still hear the influence of old-style pop on song structure and on certain details of craftsmanship, especially the attempt to create singable, comprehensible lyrics. It wasn't until the late '60s that bad craftsmanship became elevated to proof of artistry, that the ideal of a song became not to give the impression that the writer had worked hard on it, but that it was pouring out of him spontaneously. The ideal of professionalism had been replaced by the fetishization of the amateur, the idea that songwriting was something that just anybody could do if he had "something to say." The idea of taking a week to write a lyric, of agonizing over every word and whether it fit the music, of all the little tricks of which vowels go best with which notes... these things just didn't matter much.

And yes, there was plenty of bad craftsmanship in the era of professional songwriting. But the thing is, in professional songwriting, bad craftsmanship was usually a tell-tale sign of a bad song. The best songs were written by composers who had unusual ideas and developed them inventively, by lyricists who had fresh images and clever rhymes. But post-'60s, you get a situation where there is no correspondence between craftsmanship and quality; a songwriter who sets out to write a great song, at a higher level than the average pop song, does not feel a need to avoid rhyming "world" with "girl" or splitting a word between two musical phrases. There are exceptions, as always; Don McLean's "American Pie" is a song with a high level of craftsmanship. But when you find a well-crafted pop song now, it's almost a freak occurrence, a random thing; no value is placed on craft. And I think that is most easily traced back to Bob Dylan, professional poet and amateur songwriter.

By the way, Dylan is long before my time, as is the age of professional songwriting. I am a young fogy.

And to quote Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, on a dead songwriter: "Lady he rhymes with baby! No wonder he's dead!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your views on Dylan seem to show that you have not spent a lot of time analysing his songs. Rather than being sloppy and pointless, examples of bad craftsmanship, they are usually in fact highly meticulous. If you had also read the book in question (which you clearly didn't) you would probably be more aware of this. What you consider to be Dylan's 'bad rhymes' are in fact examples of dissonance in songwriting, which is something that was not, as you point out, done before his time. But it's just as pointless to argue that all art since the 1860s is full of bad craft, simply because you don't appreciate the freedom given to form, colour and geometry. Likewise, modern poetry has known since the 1870s that you don't need to always rhyme to create a good poem. What Dylan did was liberate the rigid structures of songwriting. Whether or not that enabled lesser talents to write is not a criticism of him. Your position is conservative to the extreme, and more importantly is insensitive to the very things that make art exciting. The rules of art need to be broken or bent a little, if art is to make any progress at all.