It Pays to Be a Jerk, Bob Dylan Edition

From the troubadour to Donald Trump, pop culture has a nasty habit of celebrating bad behavior.


Updated on November 17, 2016

Last month, the Nobel Committee announced that it had awarded Bob Dylan its prize for literature. Amid the speculation that ensued—are song lyrics literature? what is literature? what is the Nobel Prize for?—another thing, a much pettier thing, took place: Bob Dylan proceeded to totally ignore the Nobel Committee. Voicemails went unanswered. Emails went un-replied to. “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” was briefly added to Dylan’s website, then quickly removed. A member of the Nobel committee, frustrated, called Dylan “impolite and arrogant.” The whole thing was awkward and weird and a timely reminder that even the echelons of art and culture are occupied by humans. Here was Emily Post’s worst nightmare, played out on a global scale—albeit with many, many “his answer is blowin’ in the wind” jokes thrown in for good measure.

Wednesday, it turned out, brought a new twist to what The New York Times has taken to calling “the saga of Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize”: Dylan confirmed to the Nobel committee that he would not be attending the prize ceremony with his fellow laureates. Which is, in the end, not at all surprising. After all, this kind of thing is what Dylan does, as an artist and a person. He’s a “screw the establishment” kind of guy; ironically, that political position is what helped him to win the Nobel in the first place. And it is also, in recent weeks, how members of the media have justified his behavior on his behalf. “‘That’s just Dylan being Dylan,’” James Wolcott, a columnist for Vanity Fair, tweeted about the whole episode. “You could substitute any egotist’s name in that formulation.” The Telegraph noted of the erstwhile radio silence that Dylan “always does the unexpected.” A Guardian headline praised his “noble refusal of the Nobel prize for literature.” The New York Times compared Dylan, in his reticence, to Jean-Paul Sartre, who himself famously declined his own Nobel in 1964. And then the paper declared Dylan’s behavior to have been “a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.”

Noble! Philosophical! Wonderful! There’s another way to see things, though, which is that Bob Dylan had simply been acting, if you’ll allow me to put it very poetically, like an enormous man-baby, initially refusing to acknowledge his being awarded one of the most prestigious prizes in the world in a way that manages to be both delightfully and astoundingly rude. Perhaps, sure, Dylan had done all this on principle. Perhaps he had been, with his preemptive ghosting, making a point. Or perhaps the man who has long had a variable relationship with the media and its fellow institutions simply hadn’t cared enough to reply.

Two weeks after the Nobel Committee announced his prize, Dylan told The Telegraph, in an interview that had been arranged to talk about an art installation unrelated to the Nobel, that “I appreciate the honor so much.”* This was gracious. It was what he could have told the Committee from the beginning. The trouble is that, for a long time, all anyone could do was speculate about his intentions, because Dylan had simply refused to engage in that most basic courtesy: to send an RSVP. He may have been, in his reticence, embracing the role of a renegade/rebel/independent artist; he was also, however, embracing the role of a jerk.

It’s striking, all in all, how readily he was rewarded for that. Dylan is noble! He’s principled! He’s just like Sartre! Hell may well be, as Dylan’s fellow semi-laureate suspected, other people; it’s notable, though, how much more hellish other people can be when they fancy themselves too fancy for basic courtesy. And things get even worse when the people at the culture’s highest reaches—the ones we look up to, the ones we celebrate, the ones whose songs we sing—are the same people who can’t be bothered to pick up a phone when it rings, or to give a simple “sure!” or “no, thanks” when offered an honor.

There are many people in that group—the vaunted jerks, the glib celebrities, the men (it is, alarmingly often, men) who flout basic conventions of courtesy and respect and who are then praised for their heterodoxy. There’s Steve Jobs, about whom it was written, after his death, “Steve Jobs Was an Asshole, Here Are His Best Insults” and “Steve Jobs didn’t care if people thought he was an asshole. Why should we?” and “Steve Jobs Was A Jerk. Good For Him.” There’s Elon Musk. There’s Mel Gibson. There’s the country’s new president.

There’s a sliding scale in all this, certainly. There’s bad, and then there’s Bad, and rudeness is decidedly lower-cased. What the reaction to Dylan suggests, though, is more than a breach of politeness: It suggests rudeness that has been normalized into banality. Rudeness that is also, when realized by a celebrity, framed as a kind of bravery. (Real artistic and philosophical freedom.) Rudeness that is presented to the public as evidence not of rules ignored, but of rules transcended.

The lapses are the stuff not just of disrespect, but of drama—of persona-making. A swaggering disregard for others helped to ensure Lyndon Johnson’s place in political legend. (Did you hear about the toilet thing? Or, lol, when he ordered those pants?) The same thing helped Steve Jobs to remain a kind of secular prophet. And Donald Trump to solidify himself, in the minds of many Americans, as an unapologetic soothsayer, loved by his legions of fans for “telling it like it is.” They have all helped to create an environment, essentially, in which politeness itself can be seen as quaintly self-defeating: evidence of weakness, or complacency. The Atlantic, last year, ran a long, research-based feature in the pages of its magazine. The story was called “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk.” There are, it will probably not surprise you to learn, many, many reasons why.

And so here is Bob Dylan, being not Bad but rather, more simply and also more confusingly, rude. And here he is, once again, being celebrated for it. “There is a good deal of poetic justice in this turn of events,” the Times enthused. And “for all the speculation over the last two weeks about the reasons behind his blanket silence on the Nobel award,” The Telegraph put it, when he finally broke his silence, “I can only say that he is a radical personality—which is why he has remained of so much interest to us over six decades since he first emerged on the Manhattan music scene in 1962—and cannot be tied down, even by the Nobel Prize committee.”

There was one group, however, who was less breathless about Dylan’s recent antics. The Nobel committee, in announcing that Dylan would not come to the party they will be throwing next month in his honor, offered an abundance of kind words about the artist and the prize he is being awarded. “He underscored, once again, that he feels very honored indeed, wishing that he could receive the prize in person,” the committee noted. The group’s frustration with its honoree, however, shone through, even in an otherwise standard press release: “We look forward to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture,” they wrote, “which he must give—it is the only requirement—within six months counting from December 10, 2016.”

* This article has been updated to reflect that two weeks after the Nobel Committee’s announcement, Dylan told The Telegraph that he was honored by the award.