On May 24, Bob Dylan will be 70. To kick off what is sure to be a tidal wave of retrospective articles, Ron Rosenbaum published this essay on Slate.com, imploring us to give Dylan the most worthwhile gift of all:
… to extricate Bob from the treacly, reductive, crushing embrace of the Bobolators. (My name for those writers and cultists who still make Dylan into a plaster saint, incapable of imperfection, the way Shakespeare’s indiscriminate “bardolators”—one of my targets in The Shakespeare Wars—refuse to believe it possible The Bard ever wrote a flawed line or a poorly chosen word.)
Similarly, the Bobolators diminish The Bob’s genuine achievements by putting everything he’s done on the same transcendentally elevated plane. With their embarrassing obeisance, their demand for reverence, their indiscriminate flattery, they obscure the electrifying musical—and cultural—impact he’s actually had.
Perhaps I should begin by confessing that Rosenbaum is a writer who I find grating even when I agree with him. Take the example above. First there is that term “Bobolator.” On first glance, it is easily misread as “Bobulator,” like a human calculator of all things Dylanesque. Once you’ve arrived at the correct spelling, how to pronounce it? The most natural and immediate pronunciation is BOB-oh-later, which sounds like an overpriced fishing gadget; or, if you’re a gorilla buff, BO-bo-later. Reading the rest of the paragraph, we find the reference to “bardolators” — presumably a coinage of Rosenbaum’s, and which leads us to conclude that “Bobolator” is a pun on “idolator” and thus pronounced bahb-AH-lah-ter. Except that doesn’t flow off the tongue quite so trippingly, and I for one am apt to simply read it as BOB-oh-later, despite ostensibly knowing better.
And this is just the first paragraph. Leaving aside for the moment the straw man argument Rosenbaum sets up here, was there not an easier way into this subject than by means of a labored coinage that reads strangely and has the surely-not-coincidental effect of reinforcing its creator’s cutting wit and contrariness? People who invent pet names for other people and things always get my hackles up; usually they want you to ask them what they mean, the better to show off their cleverness and originality. I once knew a woman who, in the midst of a conversation on theater, kept referring to Kenneth Branagh as Roman. I put the name in italics because that is how she pronounced it — if you’ve ever heard someone talk like that, you know what I mean. It’s a distinct inflection whose unmistakable subtext is, Do you not wonder why I use this word, when the rest of you are all using a different, more common word? Does it not make me an object of even greater fascination? Usually I refuse to indulge masturbatory crap like that; on this occasion I gave in, and found out that Roman was the name of Branagh’s character in Dead Again, which at the time (1993) I had not seen. Why she insisted on using that name, rather than Mike (his other role in that film), or even Henry the Fifth, she did not explain. It didn’t matter — the only point was to make people notice her. She might just as easily have called him Orson.
See, this is how it is with Rosenbaum for me. Points that I might find perfectly unobjectionable are wrapped up in excess verbiage, intellectually overwrought and/or propped up with attacks on straw man caricatures, so I’m too busy picking nits to fully get behind his arguments. For example, is there a more deserving object of attack in pop music than Billy Joel? So why then does Rosenbaum’s take-down of the man seem to whiff it so much? I mean, sarcastically making fun of Joel for attempting to be “deep”? Every hack entertainer does that; that’s what makes them hack entertainers. (To be fair, his identification of “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” as the epitome of Joelian dreck is dead-on.) I wanted to love this essay; I wanted to paper my office walls with it. As it is, too much of it amounts to a child blowing raspberries. I’m sure it felt better to write it than it does to read it.
Back to Dylan. In trying to establish the unbearable sycophancy of Dylan’s greatest admirers, Rosenbaum focuses predominantly on the recent dust-up over Bob’s recent concert in China. In the wake of Maureen Dowd’s shrill attack on Dylan for supposedly kowtowing to the Chinese authorities, the Bob-o-laters rose as one to defend their Bard’s unassailable reputation. Rosenbaum takes us through each line of argument, a web of shifting rationalizations bereft of intellectual honesty, their sole purpose being to defend, explain and excuse Bob Dylan from all dissent.
Funny thing about that, though — except for one link from the “historian in residence” on bobdylan.com (and come on, what kind of argument do you expect from a guy who’s practically on Dylan’s payroll?), not one citation is offered that illustrates these casuists in action. How hard could that have been, if these people argue in such numbers as Rosenbaum suggests? Surely the interwebs are crawling with Bobulators, ready to pounce on the slightest sign of irreverence toward their living deity? Or maybe Rosenbaum has trawled the comment boards for these stories and extrapolated the whole thing out of a few isolated incidents? Maybe most Dylan fans — even most dedicated Dylan fans — don’t really care one way or the other?
When not knocking down straw men, Rosenbaum is dismissing the terms of the debate altogether. The real issue, he says, is “not what he sang but whether he should be singing at the sufferance of torturers at all.” Along the way, we get this “argument”:
Would it be OK with him [the resident historian of bobdylan.com] if, back in the day, Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet of Chile wanted to hear the soothing strains of “Lay Lady Lay” over the screams of his prisoners? Or how about today, Assad in Damascus must have some time off from piling up his dead citizens to enjoy a little live (non-protest) music. They just do these things out of sight in the People’s Republic.
This is not technically a straw man argument, as those things were done in those places by those people, but its appeal to outrage seems more intended to shut down debate than to invite it. Really, if Rosenbaum thinks Dylan’s decision to perform at all is “the real issue,” why not engage with it? There is an ethical case to be made that performing in repressive regimes like China is beneficial: that any exposure to outside points of view is worthwhile, that maintaining cultural ties to the outside world ultimately strengthens independent thought and expression. And does the regime really suffer if Dylan chooses not to play there? Does that suffering outweigh the considerations of Dylan’s Chinese fans, who likely never imagined they’d be able to see him perform in person? There is, to be sure, an equally strong case to be made on the other side, but Rosenbaum doesn’t bother to make it — to him the matter is beyond debate, and Dylan admirers who don’t see his point of view just demonstrate their craven sycophancy.
I think “the real issue” is not whether Dylan should have played in China, at the sufferance of torturers or of anyone else. The real issue is: how long will we continue to judge this man as though he were some kind of lodestar of political liberation, whose deeds and pronouncements ought to be looked to for coherent moral guidance? Dylan has appeared in lingerie ads, accepted the French Order of Arts and Letters medal, licensed “The Times They Are a-Changin'” to a bank — for god’s sake, the man made a fucking Christmas album. The kid singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” on the Capitol steps is gone — he is gone. He was barely around to begin with. A couple of years, three or four at the most. Hardly anyone remembers John Lennon repudiating his peace-and-love ethics for an early-70s stab at radical left-wing agitprop, yet Dylan can’t escape the shadow of songs he wrote almost 50 years ago. Enough already. He’s just a little old guy with a cowboy hat and a weird mustache, roaming around the world giving concerts. Leave it at that.