Op-Ed: Who Is the New Bob Dylan?
    • THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 02, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Fresh off winning the Nobel Prize he didn't show up for, Bob Dylan has just announced Triplicate, a triple album filled with his take on the classics of the Great American Songbook. Dylan's previous album, Shadows in the Night, was a collection of Sinatra covers, and going by Triplicates track listing and first single, it looks like Ol' Blue Eyes is still Dylan's biggest muse at the moment. While it's impressive Dylan is still putting out music at 75, the announcement got me thinking. History seems to be repeating itself in a lot of ways, as the battle for social and civil progress against white nationalism and bigotry rages at the forefront of our collective consciousness, reflecting the tense political climate felt across the country in the 1960s. One notable difference, however, is that the 60s had Dylan, the "voice of a generation" that was politically critical and sharp while simultaneously optimistic for a better future. Now, when we need that guiding voice of reason more than ever, he's off happily singing the old jazz standards of his youth.

    Some Dylan fans may feel that this change in musical interests may be shortsighted of him, that he's betraying everything he fought for in the 60s by ignoring what's going on right now. He did just win the literary world's highest honor for basically being one of the most important and influential songwriters of all time, so why not write some songs that could help change things? I am a massive Dylan fan, and as much as I would love to see him put out some more original tunes, you gotta give the guy a break. He's a well-lived 75-year-old man, so it's inherently a little difficult for him to reassume his role as a youthful voice. Also, the reality is that Dylan has long checked out of the political world. While he's best known for that period in his career, Dylan wanted to get rid of that "protesting folk singer" type-cast by the mid-60s, frustrated with the artistic limitations caused by that role. In defiance of his own followers and fans, he went electric, started writing Ginsberg-esque abstract lyrics, pissed off a ton of people, got in a horrible motorcycle accident, and disappeared to his farm in Woodstock for so long people thought he was dead. With the exception of 1976's "Hurricane," Dylan was completely done with protest songs by the time the 60s drew to a close, but even so, he had already done more than enough for the music world at that point. So if the man wants to sing Sinatra, then he damn well deserves to sing Sinatra (albeit with his, let's say, "uniquely aged" voice). It's time for someone else to pick up where Dylan left off in 1965.

    So this brings up the question of the day, or at least a question worth asking: Who is the new Dylan? Who is this generation's "voice?" In terms of familial ties, the obvious candidate would be Bob's son, Jakob Dylan, who has had both a pretty successful music career with the Wallflowers and as a solo artist, not to mention the fact he looks a ton like his dad. However, there's no denying that his social and cultural impact doesn't spread much farther than the world of public radio, which simply can't compete with his pops. Bright Eyes, aka Conor Oberst, released probably one of the most memorable and caustic Bush-era protest songs with "When the President Talks to God," but he hasn't really done anything of that impact since then. Really, the most politically charged, relevant folk/rock artist working today that comes to mind is Father John Misty, mostly thanks to his new batch of socially conscious singles for his upcoming album Divine Comedy. Josh Tillman has already proven that he's one of the smartest and strongest lyricists working today, but in all honesty, it's hard to imagine the guy writing anything uplifting like "Blowin' In the Wind" or "Chimes of Freedom" when his songs are generally cynical at best (but still entertaining as hell to listen to).

    Here's the reality, rock fans: I'm not saying rock is dead, because it's not, but it doesn't exactly dominate mainstream music like it used to. There are plenty of great socially conscious bands and artists out there, but they only make a massive impact in music once in a blue moon. With that in mind, I would argue that the "next Dylan," if he or she exists, isn't actually a rugged rocker-type wielding a fascist-killing guitar, but is likely an artist from currently the most dominant genre outside of radio-ready pop: Hip-hop. WAIT rock purists/trolls, hear me out before you take to the comments section to tell me how much of a hack writer I am (I'm well-aware of that anyway). If you consider Dylan important because he used his mainstream relevance and artistic status to raise awareness for serious issues, then there's no ignoring the abundance of hip-hop artists doing the exact same thing today. You have Kendrick Lamar bringing to light the struggles of finding success as a black man in America on one of the biggest records of the decade, To Pimp A Butterfly. You have J Cole going on national television declaring that all he wants is to "Be Free." You have Beyonce challenging the "angry black woman" stereotype and declaring that those stigmas and perceived issues are in fact beautiful characteristics worth celebrating with Lemonade. In many ways, hip-hop today is where folk was in the 60s: an initially underground genre championed by a small and dedicated group of people that became a socially relevant alternative to the mainstream thanks to the work of vastly talented and influential artists.

    So this brings me back to my original question: Who is the next Bob Dylan? Is it any of the artists I listed already, or even anyone that I didn't mention? I think that, for now, the answer is I don't know..but it doesn't really matter. Bob Dylan not only gave us his music, but he also gave artists opportunity. Dylan, along with the many socially conscious musicians of the 60s, created the opportunity for an artist to be confrontational and question the way things are and still reach a massive audience who will willingly listen. Before that, protest music was confined to the coffee shops and underground hangouts of beat poets and progressive colleges; it was the movement led by Dylan that showed record companies, and the world at large, that musicians could write more than simple love songs and actually generate relevant change with their music. We needed Bob Dylan to help create that shift in popular music, and now that artists can speak freely and make an actual career doing so, relying on a single person to be our "voice" isn't all that necessary anymore. Any artist of any genre fighting for a cause or spreading a message is able to do so because of that initial wave of protest music from the 1960s. Call this a cop-out answer if you want, but I believe that there's a little bit of Dylan in just about every modern artist who wants to make some kind of difference through their craft, because none of that would've been possible without him.

    So again, let the man sing Sinatra. He's done more than enough for all of us.

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