Wait. What? Amazing vocalist?
I’m actually being serious. I think Dylan is an incredible singer — but he’s also been the butt of a billion jokes about bad vocals. (If you had a dollar for every Bob Dylan impression you ever heard…)
Yep, Dylan’s pipes have been quite divisive over the past 55 years, and he talked about it — somewhat defensively — last week in his speech at the MusiCares event honoring his career and music:
Critics have always been on my tail since day one. Seems like they’ve always given me special treatment. Some of the music critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits? They say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment?
Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? What have I done to deserve this special treatment? Why me lord?
No vocal range? When’s the last time you’ve read that about Dr. John? You’ve never read that about Dr John. Why don’t they say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. You have to wonder if these critics have ever heard Charley Patton or Son House or Wolf. Talk about slurred words and no diction. Why don’t they say those same things about them. “Why me, Lord?”
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and it was moving. After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Where were the critics? Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don’t really think I do that. I just think critics say I do.
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.
That last part is what really rang true (PUN!) for me. I don’t care how skillful, rich, controlled, or dexterous your voice. It’s all for nothing if I don’t BELIEVE you.
That being said, plenty of people out there still don’t “believe” Dylan or think he has a tolerable voice. What is it about a voice that turns you on or off? What do you think makes a good singer?
Range? Timbre? Conviction? Let us know in the comments below.
Oh, and check out the transcript to Dylan’s full speech HERE.