Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Strange Critical Voodoo

I’ve learned through bitter experience not to buy Bob Dylan albums. Well, wait, let me rephrase to reflect modern realities: insofar as I buy albums anymore, I’ve learned through bitter experience not to buy Bob Dylan albums. Modern realities being what they are, both albums and Bob Dylan appear to be outmoded, but if you listened to critical commentary on each, you’d believe only the former was on the verge of expiring. But—and I paid attention before I bought the albums—I was assured after each and every new Bob Dylan album that this one was really good, reflecting a poet/singer/songwriter in full command of his mature powers. Much as I would love the lion in winter to really roar, Bob’s more feeble than anything else these days. It’s not that he’s totally bad or awful or anything of the sort—I still really enjoy this song:

And I heard him in an excellent concert back in, oh geez, 2006? So, again, this is not a Bob Dylan-is-awful rant. But it’s an inquiry into a specific phenomenon: the strange voodoo Bob Dylan has on critics.

Dylan isn’t the only aging artist to own this strange voodoo. Woody Allen is probably a worse director at this point than Bob is as a musician. Bruce Springsteen isn’t as old as the other two gentlemen, but is exhibiting similar tendencies. I’m told by reliable authorities that John Updike received outsized adulation near the end of his character (David Foster Wallace unloads on him in a classic essay here; others, too, have told me similarly.) So this is a pretty common thing, in our day and age, at least among relatively highbrow circles.

Comparatively speaking, middle- to lowbrow tendencies don’t allow themselves any nostalgia. Commendably, pop culture is ruthless when it comes to its stars. The yawning indifference that has greeted Jennifer Lopez’s attempted comeback tour is refreshing, to say the least. The public might not figure it out immediately, culturally speaking, but eventually it figures it out.

So that leaves the critics and the highbrow community, and why they’re different than the public. Is it the intensity of support? I’ve known five or so hardcore Dylan fans since middle school, fans who leave my comparatively comprehensive Dylan library in the dust—we’re talking about people who own all the Dylan bootleg tapes and the Band’s music. (If you doubt a Dylan fan’s sincerity, check out this Wikipedia page of Bob Dylan and the Band’s tour. NPOV it is not.)

But this isn’t the reason. For example, the Rolling Stones are still, if not rolling certainly coasting, and their concerts still sell out—presumably enthusiastically—and yet their albums are greeted by “mehs.” That’s an appropriate reaction, to be sure, but the gap is pretty odd.

Certainly it can’t be explained by the relative greatness of Dylan and these other artists. For one, Dylan isn’t that much better an artist than the Rolling Stones (to say nothing of Bruce Springsteen). Woody Allen isn’t a better director than, say, Billy Wilder and his later movies were greeted by the indifference they deserved.

So, if it’s not greatness and it’s not intensity of support, what is it? I suppose there’s a default reaction that, hey, culture’s weird, and that’s almost certainly true. Except, if this were random, we’d expect—randomly—for the critics to stop caring about, say, Woody Allen’s next movie (…and yet I know the title: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and I’m not exactly an intense consumer of movie news.

So what is it? What’s true about them is that these artists are in many ways the highest of the highbrows. Allen is probably the best exemplar of this: his best movie, Annie Hall is about two intellectuals in New York, always a great formula for success among the masses. So these movies are in many ways pitched exactly to that highbrow community which responds to it because, hell, it’s them. (Hence the enthusiasm for, for example, Hannah and Her Sisters which is, and I can’t emphasize this enough: completely awful.) And so, like any fans, they lose their perspective and can’t help but defend them a little bit. This would not be so bad if they didn’t occupy the journalistic commanding heights, from which they can broadcast their opinions. This is why you will frequently happen upon a self-righteous column about press freedom, think, “is that really a big deal?” and continue on in the page. Journalists, like all professions, like to talk about themselves and their own obsessions; unlike other professions, they can make you listen to them, even a little bit. And so, because Allen, Dylan, et. al. are purposefully pitched to the sensibilities of the highbrow community (more than just journalists, note), we must take all opinions about these artists with a whole shakerful of salt.

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