When Bob Dylan defined his own artistry: “Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now”

Most artists, understandably, will attempt to resist definition. It’s challenging to see music journalists or playlists try to contain your artistry into an over-simplified genre or subculture. Still, music classification has become an essential part of the industry. Though many musicians would see self-defining their work as defeating its intent, folk legend Bob Dylan once attempted to curtail outsider opinions and define his own artistry.

Throughout a career spanning six decades, Dylan has been subjected to countless descriptions and interpretations of his output. From protest singer to the father of folk, generations of fans have tried to make sense of his monumental impact and unparalleled songwriting aptitude.

Amidst 60 years of debate surrounding his catalogue, Dylan tried to define his own artistry during an interview with the Huffington Post. When asked what kind of artist he was, he initially struggled. “I’m not sure,” Dylan began, “Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course, there’s no fitting into it now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by other singers.”

Dylan continued to suggest that he never even tried to fit into that mainstream style: “I’m coming out of the folk music tradition and and that’s the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I’ve experienced,” he said. “Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn’t have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.”

Dylan also considered the possibility that he might be an outsider artist or a cult figure, though he rejected the latter for its religious connotations. “It sounds cliquish and clannish,” he declared, “People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through.”

The folk legend credits those outsider performers for introducing him to concepts that would become essential in his songwriting, including dignity and freedom: “Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself”. His description of those “side show” performers almost becomes a metaphor for his artistry, as he concludes: “Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledgehammer of life.”

His musical stylings were certainly never giddy or artificial, more akin to the outsiders, off the beaten track of pop. “The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was,” he states, which is also where his music sits. Dylan’s personal definition isn’t too far off the general consensus – Byronesque, traditional folk outsider, and a force for change.

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