A few hours after Prince’s flag flew on Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl stage, another elusive Minnesota musician was paid tribute by another grinning Pepsi pitchman. The icon was Bob Dylan, the tribute payer was Jimmy Fallon, and the occasion was political—surprisingly so.
For the post–Big Game Tonight Show, Fallon appeared in Dylan drag—curly wig, indoor sunglasses—at the Orpheum Theatre, a venue Dylan once co-owned. With harmonica and guitar, he launched into a version of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” lyrically updated for 2018. “Come gather round people wherever you roam, and admit that our country don’t feel like our home,” Fallon began. “If a tweet to you is worth favin’, then lift up your voices and put down your phones, for the times, they are a-changin’.”
From there, he unspooled a list of hot topics and liberal takes: #MeToo (“Believe me when I say that we believe you”), athletes’ anthem protests (“Perhaps they’d stand up if you reached out your hand”), and Donald Trump (“Weak is the man who calls truth ‘fake news’”). Nothing Fallon said wasn’t something Democrats haven’t already been screaming on a daily basis—well, except for a random crack about Mel Gibson. Yet he did crystallize one way in which the times may be changing: with regards to his own outspokenness.
Fallon, after all, is thought of as the major late-night talkshow host to play it gentlest on current events. When he does jab at the president, it’s not with the diligent focus of Seth Meyers or the crackling disdain of Stephen Colbert. For many viewers, he is still atoning for mussing up candidate Trump’s hair rather than asking hard questions. But his Dylan riff would seem to announce a more skeptical approach from Fallon for Trump’s second year in office. He isn’t just making light puns on “fire and fury.” He’s warning the White House of a revolution:
Come leaders who bully like internet trolls
We’ll curse you with four-letter words love and hope
For we will go high even when you go low
The order is rearranging
For you have the power, but we have the vote
Dylanologists may well be shuddering. The original “Times” is a platonic protest song, majestic and memorable, able to survive across years, yet using poetic language to nail something ineffable about the era in which it was recorded. Dylan targeted institutions and individuals resisting the brewing changes of the ’60s, changes he rendered as mysterious and possibly dangerous, unable to be tamed by “writers and critics” or “senators, congressmen.” The song and the album it titled were so effective, in fact, that Dylan got sick of being pegged as an activist rather than an artist. Soon after, he’d disavow “finger-pointing songs.”
Perhaps there’s something self-defeating about Fallon reaching back to an over-mythologized Baby Boomer standard to announce winds of reform today, but as an attention-grabber, the performance worked. Certainly, Fallon’s version is less artful than Dylan’s—but he’s a comedian and not a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As to the question of whether Fallon will keep to the more opinionated stance he seemed to unveil in this tune, well, “the wheel’s still in spin,” as Dylan put it. There are, of course, already reasons to doubt. In song, Fallon praises those who tell brave truths. Yet on the same broadcast, he told Justin Timberlake, fresh off a forgettable sprint through the Super Bowl stadium, “That was one of the best halftime performances of all time.” Talk-show hosts gassing up their guests: No change there.