Virgin and Dylan

While returning to los EEUU on what is pretty much the best flight ever (Depart LHR 11.30; arrive IAD 14.00, AHEAD OF SCHEDULE) on the can't-say-enough-how-awesome-Virgin-Atlantic, I was surfing through the multudinous options afforded on my personal entertainment unit (e.g., ~50 movies, etc.), and started watching a block of music videos - this was all songs "featuring" some other artist, an interesting conceit for selecting a group of songs.
The second song of the group was by Magnet ft. Gemma Hayes. The song was "Lay, Lady, Lay."
There were so many things wrong with the song and video, but let me start at the most superficial and obvious.

The video featured both Magnet's lead singer - Evan Johansen, who is Norweigan - and Gemma Hayes decked out in the current, oh-so-trendy-White-Trash stylings favored by, near as I could tell, one of every three people under 30 in London (truly distasteful stuff, pretentious beyond anything you've seen here), laying in bed and cavorting about a trailer park.

Do I even need to explain beyond that, really? I mean, of course the song was awful and only rendered listenable by its authorhship and the fact that with the tune playing you could substitute Dylan's version in your mind. Rarely have I see such unapologetic pretentiousness on so many levels - in the very fact of covering the song, in appropriating "White Trash" culture that is three translations removed from the appropriator (oh yeah, in addition to a trucker hat, he's wearing a greasy mullet and stringy mustache) - and then the smugness with which it was all delivered, as well.

What irritates me most, though, is the unspoked Rule of Dylan that the song violated. Dylan wrote a lot of great songs. A LOT. And some of them were such perfect songs, rock or pop gems, that they could be covered by other artists and not ruined and, in a very few instances, arguably - I said ARGUABLY - improved, with "All Along the Watchtower" really the only example that comes to mind.

But the real genius of Dylan is his epics, the hallucinatory, rambling stories that only Dylan could write and ABSOLUTELY only Dylan could sing (e.g., "Talkin' World War III Blues", "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", "Simple Twist of Fate"...I could go on forever here, just go here and read every lyric Dylan ever wrote). Some people tell me there might be a minor exception, that Reckless Kelly does a pretty good cover of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which I might believe but have yet to hear. The point stands, however, that 99 times out of 100, covering Dylan is an exercise in proving how not-Dylan (i.e., not-good) you are as an artist.

"Nashville Skyline" is a special case, but still fits the rule. Some Dylan purists hate the album; personally I love it, and it's all the more remarkable for the fact that it pretty much single-handedly changed country music. Anyways...it's a special case, because it almost invites trying to do better. The songs are not Dylan's epics - the whole album clocks in at about half an hour, and there are four 3-minute pop epics, "Lay, Lady, Lay" being one of them ("I Threw it All Away", "Tell Me That it Isn't True" and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" being the others). It's tempting, I'm sure, as a pop singer to say "Hey, those are great songs, but I've got a MUCH better voice than that schlub." Which of course misses the point entirely. The point is partly that these perfect pop songs are sung by this schlub with a ruddy, muttery voice (except, in fact, "Lay, Lady, Lay", one of the few instances ever of Dylan actually singing) - and the four songs especially are coming from a very specific expression of desire that, really, only Dylan can express. Just Because. Because He's Dylan.

And there are a couple hundred more words added to the millions and millions already spent wanking on the Genius That Is Bob Dylan.

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