‘Authentic’ was Merriam-Webster’s 2023 word of the year. This selection was not based on simple word count. Rather, the dictionary’s reviewers advanced a rhetorical argument: that the term has accrued such cachet that it now exercises discursive grunt across diverse fields, from art to cuisine to political leadership, content creators and lifestyle influencers. The reviewers noted, for example, that Taylor Swift’s popularity – she was Time magazine’s 2023 Person of the Year! – rests on the perception that she has an ‘authentic voice’ and is an ‘authentic self’. This latter idea—that there should be an isomorphic relationship between selfhood and authenticity—has developed a potent currency in and of itself: in a recent interview, for example, Jodie Foster claimed non-binary actors such as Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey are generating a ‘new vector (sic) of authenticity’.
At the most obvious level, that the term has bite makes modern sense: being able to discern what is real has allure at a time when many believe lived experience is more credible than science, when information wars are incessant, when deep-fake impersonations are a fact and when identity is no longer a given but is subject to theft, politics and choice. However, like the other false gods currently worshipped—think ‘resilience’, ‘self-care’ and ‘mental health’—it is difficult to explain how the idea of authenticity has attained its current stature. In what follows, a case is made that one entry point to this discussion is to identify, and then examine, the lesson plan prosecuted by a cultural elder: Bob Dylan. His message, it will be argued, has had a powerful, if disguised, impact on how the construct of authenticity is currently understood, experienced and positioned.
Context should precede criticism. With respect to the Dylan element in the current work, it is no small task to establish the relevant context: a multi-media artist whose practice has extended over six decades, Dylan is an elusive figure. What is clear is that he occupies disparate positions in personal memory and public estimation. For example, those over fifty and on the Left, and perhaps critical theorists more generally, tend to regard Dylan as someone who is/was a major artist, as someone who has added many top-shelf works to popular culture and as a significant historical contributor to the civil rights campaign, and progressive causes more broadly, in the USA in the early 1960s. This acknowledged, many in this (mixed) group have been both frustrated and disappointed that Dylan has refused to be associated with anything resembling a political cause since, say, 1965, with the exception of one protest song about a possibly unjustly jailed boxer in 1975 and an extended 2020 lament stimulated by the assassination of John F. Kennedy sixty years previously.
In a sharp contrast, establishment figures have no ambivalence. Richard F. Thomas, a classics professor at Harvard, sees Dylan as a first-rank master:
As with Goethe or Beethoven or Picasso, the late works stand as measured and resonant equal to the raw, intense virtuosity of his unsurpassable early output.
Thomas contends Dylan is an ‘artist with a rare sensibility (who) address(es) the subjects that most define and preoccupy human beings.’ This hyper-hagiography reckons that Dylan:
summon(s)-up Ovidian ideas of exile, of fame and alienation, of living too long, of staying alive by writing poetry, of living for ever. Other times, he is singing that he has fallen in love with Calliope, foremost of the muses in Greek mythology and the patron of epic poetry.
Other celebrants have equated Dylan’s output to that of T. S. Elliot. Establishment cognoscenti might not always be quite this gushing, but Dylan’s status is nonetheless saluted by esteemed figures such as David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The New Yorker. Testifying to Dylan’s stature, there is also The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan and, most decisively, the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Even more extreme than the praise his output, Dylan’s life—not his work, his personal life-course—has been compared by Thomas to Homer’s mythical protagonist in The Iliad: ‘my thesis is that he (Dylan) has become Odysseus’.
An industry—‘Dylanology’—has been fuelled by this acclamation. One writer, Clinton Heylin, to this point has published thirteen books on Dylan; his 2010 work Still on the Road begins with Dylan’s comeback 1974 album Blood on the Tracks and ends with his review of 2006’s Modern Times. Both albums, Heylin claims, are ‘filled with masterworks’. This reverence was centre stage in the 2007 movie I’m Not There. This ‘experimental biography’ had a single theme: Bob. The film’s treatment of this theme reflected, and intensified, the trope that Dylan’s life and his art constitute a dynamic and enduring inspiration. For the literati, it is a fact. Dylan is a refulgent muse.
The position of obsessives (‘completists’), academics and industry insiders noted, many ordinary citizens dismiss Dylan as a once-famous, now-redundant shadow. Ask a young, or even moderately young, person about Dylan and most likely, clunk, a space opens up. Huh. I’ve heard of him. So? Olds with an inner-city arts-and-humanities lineage may well up over their memories, and maybe even their vinyl copies, of Blond on Blond and Bringing it Back Home, but this only confirms the point that he is oh-so-dispensable to most. With few exceptions, Dylan has zero currency for millennials, and most anyone younger. More than five decades after his heyday outsiders are agnostic, and, if confronted by a pic or song fragment, tend to the opinion he looks sepulchral and sounds aversive. For the switched-on and the reflection-averse passer-by, he is a nonentity.
One group of now-agers—musicians—tend to be different. Cat Power (Chan Marshall) may no longer be young or an up-and-comer, but she has accrued, and holds, mainstream cred. Her commitment to—‘love for’ is not too strong a term—classic Dylan was on public view last month when she, as the music journal Pitchfork put it, staged ‘an album-length recreation of a Dylan concert that changed the course of rock history’. This homage took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Ironically, the show this tribute show was set up to honour had happened at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. No matter. It is the adulatory thought that counts.
What gives Dylan his cachet, his totemic place? In a cultural pool approximating the anoxic, for those who strain to identify, and hold onto, a reference beyond the fool’s gold of momentary interest it is logical to see in Dylan’s work luminosity and meaning, creativity and an entrancing ambiguity. In a context of ecological and civil collapse, there should be more to music than the asinine celebrity worship. Dylan is a torch that shines a path away from ninnying gyrations that only shrink one’s attention span. A strong case can be made: very likely only Dylan could pen lines like John Cale’s favourite—‘She can take the dark out of the night-time and paint the daytime black’—or the familiar ‘So let us not talk falsely now / The hour is getting late’. To over-egg the argument, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Right now, there are very few who stand tall. Somehow, in these dark times he keeps on as a timeless elder.
His respect well earned, does Bob’s work recycle a consistent program? Dylan has persistently claimed he is not a preacher, but disavowing the role doesn’t mean he doesn’t give sermons. The argument can be made that he has left definite impressions, even inscriptions, with respect to ideology, and, in a more mixed sense, to gender. Totemic legacy in the bag, however disavowed, it can be seen that he has prosecuted a repetitive lesson plan.
Reverse sieving several of his nuggets begins to make this case. Gender messaging is the lead-in. Some songs (‘It takes train to laugh and a clown to cry / Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands’) show respect, restraint and depth. Others, like the above-quoted ‘She belongs to me’ uncritically channel, and in effect reinforce, traditional stereotypes.
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees
In Dylan’s catalogue there is a consistent pattern of imagining women in the age-old binary: they are either idealised when they offer ‘shelter from the storm’ or derided when Bob has a problem. Women demonstrate forms of goddess-iciousness—they can be sexy, mysterious, uncanny, saintly—or they are bad bordering on witch-like. Rarely in his lyrics do woman have agency; the line ‘Doesn’t my girl look fine when she’s coming after me’ in ‘It Takes a Train to Laugh’ is one exception. There’s little surprise in this either-or: however canny, and at least at times apparently reflexive, Bob is a typical, unreconstructed bloke.
That Dylan can be routinely, even outlandishly, sexist is not a new idea. Jodie Rosen’s review of his recent book The Philosophy of Modern Song details what she argues are astonishingly frank examples of sexist regression. The point is that he is almost always given a free pass to be a recalcitrant sinner. Even amongst many who identify with feminism, rather than being rejected he remains a revered figure: see, for example, Anna March’s long Salon essay ‘Just like a woman: I’m a feminist and I love Bob Dylan—even though I know I shouldn’t’. Highlighting this point is the song selected by The Guardian’s lead music critic Alexis Petridis as the best in his list of Dylan’s fifty greatest songs: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ brims with vitriol. The object of this venom is—no surprise—a specific woman. With reflective thought sidelined by an anthemic arrangement, as Dylan castigates this despicable female listeners are rousingly invited to join in the stone throwing over rollicking, ascending verses. Arguably, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ contains a similar level of sustained scorn, but unlike ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the accused in this song (Mr. Jones) is not an individual but an abstracted, composite figure. Given this reading, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a misogynist anthem par excellence. In as much as this is accepted, it is a telling decision that the song was uncritically eulogised by a respectable critic in a progressive publication. The question surely should have been asked: doesn’t it speak of ungovernable projection to cast a specific woman as an object of such intense spite? It is all distressingly familiar. What we have in this song is another dyspeptic male’s highly gendered id rendering the other hate-worthy.
Based on the evidence put forward in the lyrics, what did this women do to warrant sustained abuse? Did she kill someone, swindle an old person out of their last dollar, dismember butterflies, reject his love? None of these things. What she is guilty of, according to Preacher Bob, is being inauthentic. That her supposed inauthenticity is a cardinal sin introduces the outline of Dylan’s ideological lesson.
Dylan’s songs consistently advocate atomisation. In this unannounced project he unequivocally promotes what Zygmunt Bauman, amongst others, has termed the process of individualisation. This sick storyboard dictates just the one instruction: be true to your authentic self. What a crock. Forget camaraderie, compassion, loyalty, being interested in the other. It’s about you on your solo voyage. Salvation, he tells the hapless woman in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, is only possible if you do what I do: be detached, without bonds, only true to oneself. On this count, his advice—‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’—is hard to take seriously. Bob is worth better than half a billion dollars. After selling his back catalogue for squillions some years ago, he recently off-loaded his knick-knack postal notes and lyrics-on-a-napkin for $20 million. Bob, turn the mirror round. When you point the finger at her or him or them, most of your digits home in on you. Who is the rolling stone?
Bob has got away with interpersonal treason because his message is hidden in plain sight. Obscured by the culture’s infatuation with ‘self-actualisation’ (a pseudo-scientific confection dreamed-up by the psychologist Abraham Maslow), M. Scott-Peck’s hypocritical ode The Road Less Travelled and the mock-mythical malestream fantasy of the ‘hero’s journey’—a program of propaganda Theodor Adorno mockingly labelled ‘the jargon of authenticity’—Bob’s metaphorical, and literal, Never Ending Tour simply romanticises the just-move-on mantra that hums at the core of techno-consumer ideology. Don’t look back. Be a travelling minstrel. Hypnotised by his wordplay, his poetry has shepherded in much that should be contested. Simply put, Dylan has co-catalysed the me-decade morphing into the i-aeon. His it’s-all-about-me reveries are a vector that spreads self-infatuation and disconnection.
Where is the horizon of awareness in Dylan’s songbook? Are his preoccupations empathy and compassion, perspective-taking and conscience? For all his intelligence and erudition, is there a place for the subjectivity and biography of anyone but himself? In co-creating a demand for authenticity, in effect he has promoted the Grendel of self-preoccupation. In this mighty opposition to other-orientedness, he has modelled me-first, me-middle and me-only. Sadly, to look for one’s true self—for the authentic me—is to be a dog chasing its tail. In this fraught and crazy-making project, one is caught up in a dizzying, high-velocity cycle where perspective-taking, like a satisfying conclusion, is impossible.
As a brand ambassador for ‘the authentic self’ Dylan valorises a highly contestable practice: that it is cool to be self-preoccupied. Hey, those not suckered by orthodoxy, by the old ways, those into the new and the next, join me in getting giddy on the i. That this involves going down what de Montaigne called the spiral staircase of the self is not considered. Down in your secret private place, you know you are special, so unique. It is only you who can appreciate what you want, what you need and what has been denied you. Only you, exactly you, can properly privilege your self-knowledge.
Maybe worse, Bob has told us it is clever to be judgemental. Keep the other at a distance—not just the straights but especially your ex-lovers, all those who ‘just wasted my previous time’. To put it another way, he has been an ennobling mouthpiece for an exacting cultural logic that is relentlessly exercised upon the subjects of the age. Not interested in encouraging loyalty, or any of the values that can contest the process of individualisation, Dylan has been a profiteer.
In a discussion of the singer Bobby Darin in his astonishing The Philosophy of Modern Song (2022), Dylan observed: ‘Some people create new lives to hide their past’. Later in the same book, he offered the following when talking about the singer Johnny Paycheck: ‘There are lot of reasons people change their names (such as religious conversions). And then there are those who change their own names, either on the run from some unseen demon or heading toward something else’. We know he exchanged his own birth name, Robert Zimmerman, for Bob Dylan. Possibly there was no more to this than the standard thing Jewish folk once had to do to make it in showbiz: ditch their Hebrew names. Or maybe not. More interestingly, what is the impact of such a jump sixty years on? What should be clear is what is lost on him: that one can be a troubadour without being rootless and estranged.
These are not random chalk marks on the blackboard. Dylan has enacted a steady lesson plan. This consistency presents a tell: that his is a muse that recoils from interdependence and conflates authenticity with autonomy. Such a poisoned wellspring recalls Ava Gardner’s famous adage that ‘Fame and fortune don’t mean anything if you don’t have a happy home’. It may not be dark yet, so there is still time for Bob to see beyond himself. David Bowie’s measured ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ says it well:
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone.
How does it feel to be an authentic rolling stone? One can only guess, but as Dylan has given so much that is wonderful, as well as a great deal that is troublingly seductive, it’s best to try and feel for him.