45 Years, 45 Days: The Free-Floating Bob Dylan


For 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason's November 2001 issue, Brian Doherty examined the wonderfully inauthentic art of America's most vital singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan:

Over a career that spans five decades, Dylan has written a huge body of wonderful songs with rich, fresh language, a vast emotional range, and an appreciation for and understanding of the totality of human experience. He has blended these with exhilarating melodies and musical backings. He has been absurd, tender, vengeful, smart, sexy, foolish, mystic, pious, nostalgic, journalistic, and phantasmagorical. He's a master of love songs (from "I Want You" to "Precious Angel"), word-drunk ramblings (from "Desolation Row" to "Idiot Wind"), and hymn-like anthems that sound ancient and necessary right out of the box (from "I Shall Be Released" to "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). It seems likely that Dylan will be providing insight and pleasure to listeners for as long as digital storage media last.

Yet one thing Dylan has never been is "authentic," the prime value of the late '50s and early '60s folk-music milieu from which he arose. Both Down the Highway and Positively 4th Street provide valuable insight into how Bob Dylan violated the codes of his folk-scene background, which restricted performers to politically and culturally imposed limits thought to be more "real" than the "plastic" American culture exemplified not only by Eisenhower's America but by then-burgeoning rock 'n' roll. Dylan became the most successful product of the folk movement precisely by daring to be more than what its repressive version of identity politics allowed. Every step of the way, his career throws into question the usefulness of politicized restrictions on freewheeling cultural production and identity formation. Though it is rarely acknowledged, even or perhaps especially by his champions, Dylan's status as an American cultural icon is a reflection of his brilliance at continuous self-fashioning, not his "authenticity."