Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nothing in this world is like you

Lone leaf in the wilderness

Bob Dylan released his first Christmas album this year. The Weekly Standard says, in typically erudite prose: “It’s so bad I can’t believe it.”

Do I believe it’s bad? No. It’s one of the best Christmas albums I’ve ever heard. But of course I would say that. Right? I’m one of those battered Dylan wives Andrew Ferguson talks about. I have to admit--I love even Self-Portrait. Seriously. I was listening to iTunes on shuffle the other day (last month, actually--December is for Christmas music), and “Wigwam” came on. God, do I love that song. It has a flat-out good melody. So catchy. Dah-dah-daa dah-da. I love “All the Tired Horses,” too. The entire album is infused with world-weariness, with exhaustion. And I love Tijuana brass.

I find it interesting that other people (mainly critics on the internet) feel a need to tell me what’s good and what’s bad, in overtly moral language. As if I’m sinning by liking different music than they do. That if I love Dylan singing “how’m I gonna get any riding done,” or “here comes Santa Claus,” that there’s something wrong with me. Sure, I give Dylan a hell of a lot of free passes. I’ve seen him eighteen times in concert. Each and every one of those eighteen shows was one of the best days of my life.

I have a theory about art, though, a theory I’ve been cobbling together since college, when I was exposed to Abstract Expressionism, an entire movement in art that the Weekly Standard writes off in a half-sentence. My theory is that the relationship between artist and audience is the same as that between husband and wife, father and child, creation and Creator--one of trust. If I can trust an artist’s intelligence, trust that the purpose she’s serving is beauty, truth, and the spirit of the holy, then that artist can get away with almost anything. But thinking about it as “getting away with” is a problem in itself. It implies a lack of trust.

My married friends have the same problem. If your husband is working late, and you think to yourself: he’s working late because he loves me and our children, you are trusting him. If you think: he’s not really working late. He’s out screwing someone else. Then the trust in the relationship is lost. But those are your two choices. You can choose to trust, or choose not to.

If an artist puts a table in the middle of the room, and calls it art, I have two choices: I can say--she’s a charlatan. Or I can ask myself--what’s she trying to do here? What reason can there be behind this? How is beauty served?

As someone who wrestles with creativity every day, who struggles to find a place for herself in the universe by putting words together on a page, who fights to create order out of the chaos, I know how much work it is. And if I trust an artist, I’m going to seek to find the meaning I know they fought for.

I trust Dylan. The caustic criticism he encounters whenever he steps out of bounds is the same thing he’s had to fight his entire career. He was a folk genius, the voice of his generation, and people put him in the little box of folk genius. And Dylan said: no. I’m bigger than that. I’m going to follow my muse, and all of you can go screw yourselves. Or you can follow my lead.

To all the critics, I ask:
-Do you think no one’s ever asked Dylan to do a Christmas album before?
-Do you think he’s so senile he wasn’t aware of what he was doing?
-Do you think that all Christmas music is, by definition, bad?
-Do you think that Dylan performs 200 concerts a year, at $50 a ticket, at almost seventy years of age, because he’s trying to wring a couple of more bucks out of his aging fan base? Because he’s trying to punch his audience in the face? Or could it possibly because he genuinely loves music in all its incarnations, loves performing, because all he’s ever wanted is to be, as he called it, a “song-and-dance man”?

Sufjan Stevens can release a Christmas album,and we take it seriously. Johnny Cash can release albums of gospel classics, and we take him seriously. Brooklyn indie artists release albums full of animal howling, and we take them seriously. But Dylan releases an album about Santa Claus and we can’t even give him the benefit of the doubt? Four decades of the greatest music of our time hasn’t earned him that? Come on.

The thing about those smiling Dylan fans? At the end of the day, we have our music. Which we love. And as much as the critics sneer, they can’t take it away from us.

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