On the 28th October, two of my brothers were in attendance for Bob Dylan’s concert in Nottingham. Dylan’s voice is a hot topic within my family, and this performance allowed the debate to resurface again, prompting me to wonder why it is that his voice is so detested.
Bob Dylan’s voice has been a source of controversy since early in his career. David Bowie described it as like ‘sand and glue’ while Dylan himself has even admitted he ‘sounds like a frog’. And, while the more passionate Dylan fans out there may feel keen to defend him and insist that he can sing, I, also a devoted fan, want to ask a different question- Should it matter if a singer can really sing?
I consider it important, even when it’s not attractive, that I can hear Bob Dylan sing his songs. I am always glad to hear his version and I believe this is only because he is the one who wrote the song.
Songwriters are increasingly less and less recognised within the music industry in favour of the famous singers who use their work. Often these singers do a wonderful job with the song- they are a class of entertainers and they do this well. And while I don’t want to take away from the art of singing, I also believe that the appeal of being able to hear someone sing their own words is being lost on us.
While art is always subjective and can be interpreted in many ways, writers usually understand their creations on a level no one else can, and Bob Dylan is far from an exception. There is great integrity to his writing (he even won the Nobel Prize for literature, based solely on his lyrics) and it is remarkable to hear him express his art. This is most evident on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited where he uses his voice to express emotion, humour and mood, not prioritising tune but not disregarding it either.
Not only that, being able to hear Bob Dylan perform songs today, some of which would’ve been written over 50 years ago, frames them in a new way, and allows Dylan to apply his lyrics to more modern day situations and politics. Robert Turner, one of my brothers who attended the concert, described Dylan’s lyrics as ‘endlessly relevant’ and cited how his song The TImes They Are A-Changin, which originally described the plight of the civil rights movement, can now apply to topics like the Black Lives Matter movement or climate change.
Ultimately, Dylan’s expressive style of singing allows for the songwriting itself to shine, its politics and humour along with it. This is particularly important as the role of songwriter becomes less glamorous and appreciated. As was seen in 2021 when an open letter was written by a group of songwriters asking for a ‘reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange’ with regards to the credit for their songs. It is important that we appreciate the brains behind the songs we love, so that we can keep the art of songwriting alive for those who love it.
Which brings me to my answer. Should it matter if the singer can really sing? No, not if it doesn’t matter to you. Everyone listens to music for different reasons- the same way we all have different interests and priorities. It is unfair to penalise Bob Dylan for his singing when you could just as easily criticise many brilliant singers for their atrocious lyrics, which you were too busy loving their voice to notice. There should be scope within the music industry for those who want to appreciate lyrics, voice or something else. Luckily for me, I have Bob Dylan.