Whichever of his songs Dylan got the Nobel Prize for, I certainly hope it wasn’t for ‘Neigborhood Bully’, his frankly racist excuse-making for the paranoid violence of Israel. ‘Neighborhood Bully’ was released in 1983, on the album Infidels. With lyrics that could have been approved by Ariel Sharon not only does ‘Neighborhood Bully’ enthusiastically buy into the perception of Israel as a friendless, misunderstood victim of anti-Semites – and conflates the historical persecution of Jewish people with the politics of the Israeli state – but it also does so at a particularly critical time.
Thirteen months before the release of Infidels, right-wing Christian militias massacred hundreds of civilians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The massacres were carried out with the likely connivance of the IDF, and Ariel Sharon was later deemed to be personally responsible by the commission investigating the crimes.
‘Neighbourhood Bully’ blatantly erases Palestinian claims to autonomy with the lines:
He’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
Dylan then positions those ‘enemies’ as immensely powerful and numerous. It mimics the arguments that Israel has used over and over again for decades: Palestinians don’t deserve to exist and are not real – but they are also able to swamp us at any time and kill us in our beds.
It’s hard to think about Dylan without examining this sordid little song, embedded in an album that followed Dylan’s evangelical period, and was regarded as his return to secular ways. What gets lost, in the predictably binary discussions about Dylan’s worthiness for a literary prize, is any kind of interesting argument about the purposes of literature, and whether it is even a politically interesting enterprise in an age when malignant, misogynist proto-fascists can come within coo-ee of the US presidency and the Australian parliament is becoming thronged with white supremacists and right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Dylan put the tropes of English lyric poetry into popular music, which is a useful and meaningful thing to do. Not many have done it, mostly because rock and roll has often been preoccupied with other modes of verbal expression (a-wopbobaloopa-a-wob-bam-boom!). But he also maintained the codes of romantic love, male-centric sadness and worship of women. When David Bowie sang about Dylan’s endless odes to women
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of the superbrain
he was pretty much on the money. It’s hard to listen to Sara without wanting Dylan to just shut up whining and perpetuating ancient sexualised stereotypes of women – ‘so easy to look at, so hard to define’. It’s a habit he’s been prone to for a very long time. The Guardian – always up for cutting-edge criticism – listed the lyrics of ‘Just Like a Woman’ as among Dylan’s best. This in a week when it was revealed that Donald Trump had publicly fantasised about sex with a ten-year-old girl, and also deliberately walked into the dressing room of the contestants for Miss Teen USA.
Dylan’s politics, and his periodic misogyny, get obliterated in the rush to exalt his writing. When we do discuss Dylan’s politics it is usually in the context of ‘Chimes of Freedom’ or ‘Hurricane’. Though when I imagine that Dylan might still be able to inhabit a subversive politics – an imagining that is in reality long dead and buried – I think of ‘Senor’, from 1978’s Street Legal album, a parable of the USA sleepwalking us into Armageddon.
Dylan has been a critical artist in the history of rock and roll without a doubt. But rock and roll has very much been a male-dominated enterprise. At the recent elite Desert Trip Festival of ancient rock and roll icons in California, every single performer was male. What Dylan’s Nobel perhaps shows us is that mainstream rock and roll has more in common with the production of literature than we might think. When I see Dylan’s Nobel being championed by the male elders of English literature, I want to ask what they are potentially getting out of Dylan’s elevation to a place they dream of occupying.
Rock ’n’ roll deification has all the characteristics of a contagious male hysteria, a demand (among other things) for the true birthright of the male artist: absolute adoration and limitless sexual control. Literature can partake of the same dynamic, as it continues to exalt male writers and ignore female ones. It is hard for men to remember that we live in a world of male privilege and male entitlement. That is because we never have to look at it and we prefer not to. Even when we pretend we are, and call ourselves ‘feminists’, we usually aren’t. We’re often just reminding ourselves that we are sensitive and cool. Women have to look at and endure the impacts of male privilege every day. Michelle Obama’s barnstorming speech yesterday in which she not only shredded Donald Trump in comprehensive fashion but also spoke to the daily humiliations that women and girls everywhere have to undergo every day is as good a place as any for male writers to start thinking about the gaze we inhabit very time we sit down and write.
Literature, like rock and roll, has always been dominated by men. Women never really make it to the top of rock’s Olympus, a mysterious enclave inhabited only by men, rock and roll’s true Gods, just as women writers, however much they are praised, never really get to keep their seat at literature’s table. One of the things I hate about getting older is that I won’t be around in a century to see the entire edifice of male artistic exaltation come tumbling down: a world where Ian McEwan isn’t regarded as the pinnacle of English literature, where dangerous orange buffoons can’t become President of the USA and where songs like ‘Just Like a Woman’ or Mick Jagger’s rapey ‘Stray Cat Blues’ aren’t hailed as transcendent artistic products of the sublime male mind.