Why Time Hasn’t Killed Dylan

CJ Blair, Columnist

For 50 years, Bob Dylan has been asking his audience “How does it feel?” and in all that time, he’s always had someone to ask. While his original fanbase might be withering away, his name is rescued from obscurity by an endless turnover of new listeners. Unlike any other music icon, Bob Dylan is neither universally praised nor dismissed as a past sensation. He’s like first love or a bad case of acne: extremely relevant to his primary listeners but meaningless to everyone else. Oberlin’s campus, like many others across the country, is filled with the very people cementing Bob Dylan’s place in the American music canon.

For all the attention he gets, it can be easy to forget that Bob Dylan has always been polarizing. Imagine a man who can sing and play guitar, harmonica and tambourine at the same time, but whose voice evades pitch and whose lyrics evade meaning. It’s a mixed bag, and, aside from the mid 1960s, it has kept him chasing unanimous acclaim throughout most of his career. Despite this, he has never disappeared. The reason for that, I believe, is that his music echoes the anxieties of people at crossroads in their lives and does so with startling imagery that addresses subjects most musicians don’t dare mention.

While fans claim that several of his songs have become symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, others are quick to rebut that not only is he a terrible vocalist, but most of his songs are incoherent anthems about getting high and having visions. This is a valid claim, but for every song like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in which Dylan asks you to join him on a flying carpet, there is another that provides a more nuanced look at drugs and deconstructs their consequences. The fact that none of these songs provide direct support or condemnation of substance abuse presents one of his greatest appeals: He doesn’t provide answers.

While some of his songs can be classified as 12-bar blues or standard love songs, the majority are entirely their own, presenting a string of images that may or may not relate to one another. The consistent demographic of Dylan fans is people in their late teens to early 20s, most of them college students. It’s no coincidence that this period is unique in a person’s life and one that lends itself to experimentation — with drugs, but also with worldviews and lifestyle.

When you’re trying different substances and life choices, there’s little time in the moment to reflect, and your opinions about those choices are in constant flux. I’ve yet to find an artist better than Bob Dylan for holding up a mirror to this period of uncertainty, with imagery full of the lucidity and contradictions that makes college so difficult to summarize.

There are multitudes of songs about break-ups, but Dylan is one of the few artists to discuss isolation due to addiction, wandering alone through dreams and mounting frustration with the surrounding world. His ability to address these points through some of the most poetic imagery in music assures he won’t soon be forgotten.

When my mom was in college, she was known as the girl who sat in her room doing homework and listening to hours of Dylan’s music, and now I’ve inadvertently become the same person at Oberlin. Nonetheless, I have no intention of changing my playlists. So when Bob Dylan asks me how it feels, I’m less concerned about what he means, and more grateful that someone understands my position and cares enough to ask.