Blog Post: Bob Dylan and the ‘Fallacy of the Cliché’

I’ve wondered a bit about Bob Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize. I’ve heard a lot of people complain, a lot of people rejoice. I listened to Patti Smith sing after waiting through an hour of buffering.

So I’m sitting on a train in Kerala, perhaps the most beautiful natural landscape I’ve ever witnessed, and Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” comes on my phone. My thumb hovers over the “next” button— I’ve heard this song a million times— but I decide to listen.

The other day, I’m having a conversation with my friend Brett. He tells me that he thinks the word “cliché” is one of the great fallacies of our time. I ponder. The way he sees it, as soon as a work (of art, literature, music, academia etc.) is deemed a cliché, as soon as a quote can go on a bumper sticker or a cat poster for that matter, the point of it becomes mute, dull, somehow less valuable or beautiful. We are having this conversation because I hate Robert Frost. This has not changed, but the thing is, clichés are clichés sometimes because they are true, sometimes because they resonate with a massive body of people. So what, then, could possibly be wrong with that? What the fuck could be wrong with a message that is so seemingly universal that it resonates with a large amount of people?

It could be that the message is too broad to be meaningful. Maybe it reduces the human experience just a wee bit too much for the intellectual or artistic taste. Huh. Maybe we just want to be special snowflakes who like things that no one else understands. The way I see it, rather, is that maybe when something seems cliché, universal, or simple, we just get lazy. We don’t break it open. We don’t consider it. The fallacy of the cliché is on us.

So back to Dylan. I’m listening to “The Times They Are A-Changin” on an Indian train and a flicker of anxiety burns up inside of me. Holy shit. I’m about to go home— I’m going to turn my data on in the Newark airport and read the news with lightning fast wifi, Donald Trump will be the president elect of my country. It’s not like I’ve transcended society or somehow escaped the “real world” for the past 4 months— this world is no less real than one with a card based economy or accessible beef. Anyway, I’m scared of my to-do lists, of the state of the US, of listening to NPR again (except All Songs Considered, obviously). But the thing is, I do want to know about the world. I want to be soft and feel and care and work. And Bob Dylan is singing to me.

And this time, I really listen. Like, I listen hard. And this is a poem— no, it’s a perfect poem. It’s not that other people don’t know this, the man won the Nobel Prize for Christ’s sake. But somehow, this song is just seen as kind of “nice.” Let me tell you, it’s not nice. Actually, it’s kind of mean. And it’s exactly the kind of clear, no bull shit, loving call to action we need right now.

He addresses the writers, the thinkers, the artists— don’t normalize, don’t shut up, be the voice.

“the pen is mightier than the sword”

He addresses the senators, congressmen, the people with a political platform. he pleads with them. Don’t stall. Don’t wait, the change is inevitable— help it, you can.

“be the change you wish to see in the world”

He addresses the parents, the older generation. Basically, he tells them that it’s time- either help, or get out of the way.

“kids these days”

We don’t have to let “cliché” end discourse. We can choose to consider, to pry, to think, to accept, to learn, to re-evaluate. We don’t have to become numb to beautiful words. We should never discard truth.

Thank you Brett; thank you Bob.

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