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Bob Dylan, Grimes, and Girl Groups Reconsidered

Much is being made this month of the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Dylan’s eponymous first album, a collection of grim traditionals and blues, along with two unpropitious originals in the mode of Dylan’s early model, Woody Guthrie. Recorded in November 1961 and released five months later, the record had little impact north of Washington Square Park and was soon remaindered for sale in dime-store budget bins. It would take another year for Dylan to reach first bloom as a songwriter with the activist lyricism of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which introduced “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in the spring of 1963. In the doing, Bob Dylan rescued American music from the commercial inanity of early sixties pop—or so goes the standard narrative of twentieth century popular music.

It’s a good story and essentially true, in broad terms. Being a story, though, it tells us as much about its tellers as it tells us about its time. Rock critics have tended to conceive of the songs on the pop charts in the era of Dylan’s emergence as pandering garbage, irredeemable juvenilia. Indeed, just a glance at a web list of the top hits of 1962 could induce sugar shock: “Johnny Angel,” by Shelley Fabares; “Soldier Boy,” by the Shirelles; “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” by Neil Sedaka; “The One Who Really Loves You,” by Mary Wells, and dozens and dozens of other songs in their vein. This was not my own music—I grew up on songs made a decade later. So I’m not defending that puff out of personal nostalgia when I say that I find something troubling in the knee-jerk portrayal of those songs—and others of their kind made before and after—as childishness, of value only as an object of contempt. The perspective of those tunes was not that of a child; it was specifically that of a female. The songs were geared to girls and young women, though most often written by men and centered, generally, on themes of fealty to men. Rock history has been written mostly by men (like me), and they (or we) have been too quick to conflate the feminine with the childish. “Johnny Angel”  is a girlish confection, and not a bad one at all, and its failure to be something more is not a failure of its girlishness. I don’t mind the myth of the hero saving the girl from trouble as much as I mind the myth of girlhood itself being the trouble.

Which brings me, circuitously, to one of my favorite recent videos: “Oblivion,” a witty little tale of a woman—the fine Montreal-based singer-songwriter Claire Boucher, who performs under the name Grimes—having fun with the cliches of macho spectacle.