Meet the New Bob Dylan, Same as the Old Bob Dylan
Good news: Mack Hayden over at Salon has found the new Bob Dylan. I wasn't done with the old Bob, but it's good to know that we have a spare. Hayden writes:
The amount of times people have said they’ve found the new Bob Dylan is almost comical at this point but — I have found the new Bob Dylan, and she’s Australian. The comparison really only goes as far as Courtney Barnett being as adept at rambling lyrical word puzzles as the ’60s forebear ...
Courtney Barnett is great, by the way, and Hayden is right: the comparison stops at "rambling lyrical word puzzles." So why make the comparison at all? Well, because we're lazy. "Meet the new so and so" is the writers' equivalent of an Amazon recommendation: If you like Bob Dylan, you'll love Courtney Barnett.
If you listened to the track above, you may have heard more Jim Carroll than Dylan. I know I did, but then again the New York Times eulogized Carroll as the new Bob Dylan, so I guess all roads lead to the same destination.
"The new Bob Dylan" conjures an image: earnest, heartfelt, down with the working folks and a little cryptic. Music.mic flagged one of my favorites, Phosphorescent, as one of their 11 new Bobs, stating:
Alabama-born Matthew Houck ... records most of his music in total isolation, a strategy that makes his airy folk music sound particularly meditative ... Lyrically, Houck meanders into poetic allegory; melodically, he creates a dreamlike warmth.
Lovely words, but I can't get behind Houck as the new Dylan. He's too good at being the first Phosphorescent:
John Lennon was the new Dylan for a little while, a role he embraced on tracks like Rubber Soul's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." But just as Dylan was "the new Woody Guthrie" before he became Bob Freakin' Dylan, Lennon was allowed to be his own man fairly quickly. In fact, the Beatles became the latest "the new so and so" template.
Ultimate Classic Rock compiled some of the more notorious Beatles comparisons, but back in the '70s you couldn't swing a walrus without hitting a new Beatles. The desire for a Beatles reunion was so high -- and their influence on pop music so great -- that occasionally a shifty DJ suckered unsuspecting listeners by not announcing the name of the latest new Beatles. So it was in 1977, when for a brief time school hallways were abuzz with debates over whether this was a band worthy of the new Beatles title, or the actual Beatles, reunited.
We're far from done labeling artists the new Lennon or new Beatles. Recently Salon published a piece entitled "Is Kanye West the New John Lennon?" That seems highly unlikely, given that the Atlantic Monthly labeled Kanye the new Mozart. If I remember my transitive property correctly, that makes John Lennon Mozart.
Kanye's not the only current hip-hop artist to score a serious music comparison. Billboard just labeled Kendrick Lamar "the John Coltrane of hip-hop." Coltrane pushed at the boundaries of jazz and was an exceptional player. Maybe the same can be said for Lamar in his genre, but as a Coltrane fan I'd be sorely disappointed if I picked up To Pimp a Butterfly based on that assertion.
Bruce Springsteen had "the new Dylan" stamped on his forehead for many years, as did Ryan Adams, who managed to be both the new Dylan and "heir apparent to the Gram Parsons legacy" in a single L.A. Times article. That was a decade ago. At this point in his history, though, Adams is more likely to be the example rather than the comparison.
On the heavier end of the music spectrum, "the new Led Zeppelin" pops up regularly. The most notorious example might be Kingdom Come who, like Klatuu a decade before them, enjoyed a few weeks of radio play before their band name was revealed. Many listeners jumped to the conclusion that what they were hearing was a reunited Zeppelin, not a band heavily indebted to them.
The fallout was swift and brutal. Fans may be willing to accept a "the new" comparison, but they don't like to be hustled. Although Kingdom Come are still around, they never recovered from the "Kingdom Clone" backlash.
Music fans are sharp. They know that the Bee Gees aren't the new Beatles, Vanilla Ice isn't the new Elvis and Jack White isn't the new Leadbelly. Kanye will never be Mozart -- the comparison is absurd.
But music writers will continue to crown artists "the new so and so" because it's a move that's both easy and provocative. Even august institutions like NPR dabble in new Bob speculation now and then to get their comments section moving.
Not me, though. I'm drawing the line. From this day forward, I promise never to call an artist "the new so and so" in print. And who am I? Why, I'm the new Lester Bangs, of course.