Unpopular Opinion: Bob Dylan Can't Sing
One answer that's not blowin' in the wind
Okay yes. I hold my hands up. I'm one of these feminists. One of these feminists that doesn't like Bob Dylan. We're a small faction, true, but we are vocal. And way more melodic than Mr Bed Head himself. We had a meeting in a pub off Kings Cross and I was selected to make the case in their behalf. So here goes.
So. Can Mr Dylan use a pen? He sure can, that I don't dispute. There are some etheral poetic moments in his lyrics that have stood the test of time. For some folks (read: white men of his generation who hold him still in great esteem...as a singer.) They guy had, let's say - lyrics that were important to some, then. Do I wish he hadn't sung them? Of course. Indeed, if he'd been a student at my Sixth Form Careers Office I, in the role of careers advisor, with a track record of 100/100 everyone in their right place, 20 years of service to the youth, would have advised young Dylan to stick to reciting and give his poor nose a break given that he would end up singing through it for the next 50 years or so.
He was way before my time, and I believe gets a pass because he spoke about issues of his time: racism, politics ad nauseum with great flair. I argue Nina Simone, the High Preistess of Soul, did much more for the movement, and could actually hit a note or two, as well as producing fire from her fingers on the piano. Nina wrote 'Missisppi Goddamn' and sang 'You don't have to live next to me/Just Give me My Equality' in Carnegie Hall in 19 64. Lynching was still commonplace. Now That...took balls. Bob Dylan...dropped some cards with lyrics on them in time to his music in an alleyway in New York a year later in 'Subterranean Lovesick Blues'. One of these things is not like the other.
If I may get personal a sec (do forgive me fellow sisters of the FABD* crew) I literally can't listen to him 'sing' without it hurting my ears. You know, that inner ear bit? It gets me right there. Fair play to you if you can make out what he's saying, but to me, his back catalogue seems lazy, perhaps even arrogant as he slurs through yet another blues song like he's just took yet another swill of moonshine and mumbles away words to great acclaim. Blues gives room to the occasional slur or rasp, but Dylan has taken this to an extreme. He was mumbling and nasally muttering even in the early days of his career when he was a young man - though he strikes me as a man that's always been old, even in his teens. It seems that, because of reasons unknown this mumbling whippersnapper was here to stay and still to this day earns albums pride of place on many a mantle, much to my everlasting confusion. Perhaps if you sound country and solemn enough, perched on a stool, with a guitar and look sad, everyone just pretends to understand what the hell you're saying.
Maybe he's made it this far becuase no one wants to admit anyone has a fricken clue what he's saying and it's just got too late to pipe up and say "Uh, Mr Dylan? What the hell are you singing about?" Or maybe we're content to catch every other one of these words and cling to them like Rose on the Raft (there was room for Leo, Kate said so) so that we can look cultured. Your guess is a good as mine. Still, these words, these lyrics - ones that you have to lean forward and squint to hear them - those have won the Nobel Prize (that's of course, if and when he deigns to show up for them) and it just boggles my mind.
I'm not too fond of the bloke either - this idea that he's an ally, that he's not like every other white guy of the 50s and 60s that sang black poeple's music - and I include Mick, Macca, Lennon and the rest in that category - when he undoubtably is all these things, and more so when he's revealed to be like any other white man of that age, still a a product of their time. Take Dylan on BBC Radio Six Music drooling over Lauren Laverne in a toe curling interview of recent years - honestly it makes you feel like you need a shower after - but if you can't stomach that, listen to Adam and Joe mercilessly tear that interview apart on YouTube if you like: the old rock turtle's on the prowl indeed.
My father is about the same age as Dylan. He has a record player and two freestanding speakers and he has but one Dylan record. His 'Modern Times' album of 2006. Feel for me, dear reader, that when my father likes an album enough, much like a child with a new toy, he will undoubtably play it back to back again, and again. And Again. Still, they say that even Atheists should read the Bible. Just to get a good grip on their criticism. And I can confirm that it took that many listens for me to hear a then 65 year old muttering this charming little ditty in the song 'Thunder On The Mountain':
"I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying / But she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line / I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be / I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee."
Dude. When she was 'Born in Hell's Kitchen' you were forty years older than her, that's where you were. Not going to mention her voice, Mr Dylan? her talent on the keys? Nah. Just want to bemoan opportunities that you're too old to have had a shot at her when you were younger. It's a far fall from 'How Many Roads Must a Man Travel Down', But are we suprised that a much over-hyped white man would write a song about a woman that ignores her talent and instead objectifies her?
All this, all this, and still everyone wants to ignore that he sings like he doesn't know what singing is. The older white man prevails and is given awards for it.
If you still think Bob Dylan is a good singer in this day and age, I don't know what to tell ya. Stream/Buy Nina Simone's back catalogue, I guess?
*FABD, we out! x
*Feminists Against Bob Dylan.