Byline: Nick Marino, Times-Union staff writer
The tendency is to find Bob Dylan's influence immeasurable. His influence is too sweeping, his shadow too long to accurately assess how much he matters. To consider music in a world without Dylan, the thinking goes, is to wonder how the newspaper you're holding might be different if Gutenberg had never lived.
At various points since 1963, a Dylanless musical landscape really was inconceivable. His music not only penetrated the psyches of music fans, it also influenced his musical contemporaries from folk to punk.
His modern fan appeal seems resilient, as his endlessly successful touring indicates. But Dylan has had no discernible influence on today's top-selling artists: Creed, Linkin Park, Ludacris, Nickelback, Enya, Ja Rule, Pink, Nas and No Doubt.
To look at the charts, we might as well be living in a Dylanless world right now.
As everybody knows, pop music moves in cycles. When rootsy, narrative-based songwriting matters on a large scale, Dylan matters on a large scale. When punk matters, Dylan matters, because Dylan's shabby voice and spotty musicianship helped inspire punk's anyone-can-play aesthetic.
But the sales potential of today's music depends primarily on the music's beats and the band's visual appeal, a priority shift suggesting perhaps the biggest swing away from Dylanesque music traits since he started making music.
As a result, today's Dylan resides in a weird, quasi-Americana ghetto, just down the block from such cane-toting geniuses as Tom Waits and John Prine. It's an odd place to be, considering that the grizzled, 60-year-old Bob Dylan is producing some of his most vital and acclaimed work in years.
Since 1997, he has won a pile of Grammys, an Oscar, three more Grammy nominations and countless year-end critical accolades for his breathtaking albums Time Out of Mind and Love And Theft and his acerbic single Things Have Changed.
But since 1997, Dylan's work has seemed further and further afield from the beat- and image-driven music that has come to dominate the charts and the radio. Dylan's fans are still listening, but today's upstart artists are not.
That's because teenagers drive the music market. They control the radio and they buy the CDs. So Pink and No Doubt try to appeal to the same girls who loved Titanic, just as Nickelback and Ja Rule target the boys who worshipped The Matrix and Rush Hour.
Dylan has been out-sold before, of course. He's never been known as a hitmaker. What's different now is that no major commercial artist is out there in the spotlight carrying on his legacy.
Used to be, for every Monkees there was a Byrds. For every Abba there was a Bruce Springsteen. For every lightweight band ruling the pop charts, there was an equally popular artist experimenting with Dylan's wordplay, his rough-edged vocals, his ragged guitar and harmonica.
Today we have Nas and Linkin Park and Enya, all of whom are fine for what they are. Rap, metal and new age all deserve seats at the musical table. But the chair once occupied by the young Byrds and Springsteen is getting cold.
For years, every rock songwriter with blue jeans and a guitar was called "the next Bob Dylan." When was the last time you heard somebody say that about anybody?
If you're really into music, you might've heard someone say it about Ryan Adams, the alternative country it-boy whose shaky vocals, prolific songwriting and guitar-based melodies have Highway 61 written all over them. But Adams, for all his merits, is not a star.
He still plays indie rock clubs, not arenas; he was on the cover of CMJ, not Rolling Stone; and for the last time it's Ryan Adams, not Bryan Adams.
To be sure, nobody's saying young Ryan needs to be The Next Bob Dylan. Adams has his own formidable gifts to share, and those who recognize Dylan's unique genius realize that there will never be another Bob Dylan. …