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Categorically Wrong

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Time 100: Artists & Entertainers of the 20th Century

By Roni Sarig

If you're reading this, you probably already recognize the important role the alternative media plays in covering arts and culture. Though not every free weekly or public-radio program lives up to it, there's the potential for detail and daring that the mainstream media, with all their endless resources, just can't muster. The need for commercial TV and mass-circulation news magazines like Time and Newsweek to address a wide range of readers' backgrounds and tastes can make their reporting on topics like raves or riot grrrls infuriatingly reductivist or even downright embarrassing.

Then again, somebody has to write for the cumulative beast known as Middle America, and the fact is that more often than not, the individuals who do it come pretty close to getting it right. But the newsweeklies' age, scope, wealth, and ubiquitousness create an air of officiality that makes the stakes for completely bumbling topics--even those way out of their realm--a whole lot higher.

That's why, though popular-culture canons should be viewed with utmost suspicion if at all, it was interesting to see who Time, as part of its ongoing centennial spotlight on the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, deemed the 20 most important artists and entertainers in its June 8 special issue (the list is still available at www.pathfinder.com/time/time100/

artist/index.html). Of course, Time is not in the business of making surprising, irreverent pronouncements, so there aren't too many surprises--you get your James Joyce, your Pablo Picasso, your Igor Stravinsky--and Bart Simpson is as irreverent as it gets.

They're all solidly worthy selections, often well defended in essays by cleverly appropriate people, like Andrew Lloyd Webber on Rodgers & Hammerstein or Philip Glass on Stravinsky. But in its tidy decision to appoint only one figure per category--T.S. Eliot is "The Poet," Steven Spielberg is "The Moviemaker"--the magazine let people whose influence was less easily parsed fall through the cracks. If Frank Sinatra is "The Singer" and the Beatles are "The Rock Musicians," where does Elvis Presley belong? In a brief, self-centered sidebar by Dick Clark, apparently.

And while Time was right to include Bob Dylan in its list, the rubric he gets--"The Folk Musician"--is perhaps the finest example of how an artist's contributions are done little justice by categories. Far as I can tell, Bob Dylan was a practicing folksinger for about 4 of his nearly 40 years in music--from 1959, when he discovered Woody Guthrie as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, to 1963, when he wrote his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Six years at the most, if you want to count his return to rawer material early this decade.

Clearly, Dylan's ability to draw folk elements into his own music is central to his art and to his significance, but the key to understanding Dylan as an artist is to acknowledge that he was foremost, and largely viewed himself as, a pop singer-songwriter--one who completely redefined the term. While songs from his brief incarnation as a protest folkie--including "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind"--endure through their usefulness to documentaries about the 60s, in the context of his entire musical output they don't even rank among his most compelling work.

Dylan knew that, and to his credit he sensed that "political" music had far less resonance than songs that connect with our emotions and sense of mythology. That's why he had often brutal disdain for folksinging contemporaries like Phil Ochs, who were little more than reporters with guitars. And besides missing the point in its insularity, the folk revival failed to advance the career objective Dylan had pursued since discovering Little Richard as a teen: to be a rock 'n' roll star. The truest testaments to his brilliance can be heard in the mostly electric, impeccably crafted music he made after 1964.

In fact, Time's article, written by former Time critic Jay Cocks, is mostly about Dylan's transition to rock 'n' roll. But it's framed by that pesky rubric and a photo of a young Dylan playing for mostly black civil rights workers. This photo of Dylan "in touch with the people"--chosen, presumably, as evocative of his folk credentials--was taken 35 years ago, when that was still the very image he wanted to project. If its continued reproduction doesn't indicate the calculated brilliance of a pop star, what does? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Time magazine cover.

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