If you're wondering, ever, why rock criticism is The Red-Light District of the reviewing arts, this article recently posted on the Esquire website to celebrate Bob Dylan's 78th birthday, shows the reason. The essay baldly asserts that Dylan is "The Greatest American Singer of All Time". Written by someone named
Jeff Slate, a songwriter and occasional music journalist, the piece an unctuous, overeager stroll through the obvious facts of Dylan's career , laced with fatuous claims for this to be the greatest American singer. The basic formulation is that as a developing artist, a man dedicated to making a splash in the music world with the resources at this command, the young Dylan had tried on several musical styles—blues, folk, field hollers, gospel, rock-and-roll, and that he had made each style his own reinventing all of them. The basic problem is that Dylan has an awful instrument for carrying a tune. There's room for an agreement that the Bard of the Counter Culture has created a good number of impressive, moving, and subtle vocal performances during his long stay in the public eye, but that isn't the same thing as being the Greatest Singer this culture has ever produced. Slate gushes like a nervously prolix fanboy as he over rates the artist's obvious accomplishment. He undersells what was going on in the kind of reinvention that's required for an artist of latent genius to accomplish anything beyond the bathroom and the hairbrush .Dylan is a great singer because he had the ability that suited the qualities and limitations of his voice. All great songwriters do this, especially with Burt Bacharach, who wrote perfect melodies for a stream of quirky vocalists who , without him, likely would have trouble finding a good ftt for their native sound. I am thinking specifically of Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney, two singers who, I'm convinced, might have languished without Bacharach's melodic accommodations of their strengths. Dylan is a more extreme example of this. His early versions of anonymous folk classics are drearily cluttered with many affectations that make me cringe when played . The genius of his vocal style didn't develop until he committed to writing his songs; the affectations began to fall away and, by the time we come to Blonde on Blonde, we've experienced a long string of potent lyrics dramatized b y a singular , original style that handily introduced and forced acceptance of a new aesthetic in pop singing. Mick Jagger is someone I'd say is an artist who followed the same route, a man with a technically awful voice who, in partner Keith Richard, had a voice that could create musical context and frame Jagger's singing. I've argued that Dylan and Jagger were not singers, but VOCALISTS, men who could do interesting things with their voice to dramatize a lyric. What those two do is a certain singing, but the distinction is helpful in keeping one's statements about an artist's work both sober and sane.Dylan, though, is not the greatest American singer. Sinatra can , hypothetically, could sing "Blowing in the Wind" or "Just Like a Woman" with style and aplomb (the results , no doubt, would sound ridiculous), but Dylan couldn't handle a single tune from Sinatra's songbook. There are many would argue otherwise, that he could pull off the fete and change the direction of history once again, but the brilliance of this man, Dylan, lies entirely on the work he created.On his own songs, the gentleman rules without peer. "No sings Dylan like Dylan" was an early Columbia slogan for the songwriter, quite a prescient declaration as we take the long view of his career. But is less about Dylan's singing than it is about the article writer's rote hyperbole.
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