By Jon Blistein
If anyone has earned the right to be an irascible octogenarian — especially when it comes to music — it’s probably Bob Dylan. In a new interview with The Wall Street Journal, the singer-songwriter got the chance to do some back-in-my-day sermonizing — sharing both astute points, and some rather curmudgeonly ones — about the state of contemporary music and the streaming era.
In the interview, Dylan noted that these days he likes to listen to music on CD and satellite radio, while he still maintains a penchant for old tube record players (“The tone quality is so powerful and miraculous, has so much depth. It always takes me back to the days when life was different and unpredictable”). He also copped to streaming music, but said he believed this mode of consumption had made music “too smooth and painless.”
Dylan isn’t the first to make this kind of point, and plenty of critics have argued that streaming has led to music that’s designed to wash over you. Endless playlists to be enjoyed passively — it’s a mode of listening Dylan can’t abide. “I’m always assessing what’s special — or not — about a song and looking for inspiration in fragments, riffs, chords, even lyrics,” he said.
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But with streaming, as Dylan put it with increasingly vivid and out-there panache, “Everything’s too easy. Just one stroke of the ring finger, middle finger, one little click, that’s all it takes. We’ve dropped the coin right into the slot. We’re pill poppers, cube heads and day trippers, hanging in, hanging out, gobbling blue devils, black mollies, anything we can get our hands on. Not to mention the nose candy and ganga grass. It’s all too easy, too democratic. You need a solar X-ray detector just to find somebody’s heart, see if they still have one.”
Dylan’s old-man-yells-at-cloud thoughts about the staying power of a lot of contemporary music were arguably less shrewd. The artist, who just spent a whole book digging into the “philosophy of modern song,” was ready to assert that very few songs these days have what it takes “to become standards.”
He continued, “Who is going to write standards today? A rap artist? A hip-hop or rock star? A raver, a sampling expert, a pop singer? That’s music for the establishment. It’s easy listening. It just parodies real life, goes through the motions, puts on an act. A standard is on another level. It’s a role model for other songs, one in a thousand.”
It probably was not his most considered point, but why bother loving Dylan if you don’t love the fact that he’s always been a bit of a grump?
And, for what it’s worth, Dylan did namecheck a bunch of contemporary artists, from an array of genres, that he did appreciate, in the full, uncut interview, which was posted on his website. “The Oasis Brothers, I like them both, Julian Casablanca [sic], the Klaxons, Grace Potter. I’ve seen Metallica twice. I’ve made special efforts to see Jack White and Alex Turner. Zac Deputy, I’ve discovered him lately. He’s a one man show like Ed Sheeran, but he sits down when he plays. I’m a fan of Royal Blood, Celeste, Rag and Bone Man, Wu-Tang, Eminem, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, anybody with a feeling for words and language, anybody whose vision parallels mine.”
(Unfortunately, Dylan did not get the chance to either confirm or deny his reported appreciation of one of the streaming era’s biggest stars: Post Malone.)
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Outside all that, the WSJ interview found Dylan theorizing about technology, social media, and songwriting, as well as sharing some fun little details about his life these days. Lately, for instance, he’s been binge-watching the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street and old Twilight Zone episodes. He noted he’s always careful to avoid any television that’s “foul-smelling or evil. Nothing disgusting, nothing dog ass.”
He also said he boxes and spars to stay in shape, and spent the Covid-19 lockdown changing door panels on a 1956 Chevy, painting landscapes, and getting really into Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s, Freak Out! “Frank Zappa was light years ahead of his time,” Dylan said. “If there’d been any opium laying around, I probably would have been down for a while.”
But probably the most important bit from the interview was Dylan explaining why “all the crew at Dunkin’ Donuts” got a special shout-out in the acknowledgments section of The Philosophy of Modern Song: “[T]hey were compassionate, supportive, and they went the extra mile.”
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