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​From Dylan to Kanye: The fundamentally changed “voice of a generation” concept - Part One

Words By: Roland Ellis | April 26th, 2015

​From Dylan to Kanye: The fundamentally changed “voice of a generation” concept - Part One

It’s a curious thing that in 2015, a man who embodies what is surely the antithesis of 1960s Bob Dylan has come to represent what we might call “the voice of this generation”. The man I’m referring to is Kanye West, and for anyone who has been living under a rock for the past ten years, West is a guy who towers above the modern music industry to an unrivalled extent in terms of influence and profile. And while his credibility has increasingly come under fire in recent times, his track record since the very early 2000s suggests, as The New York Times recently put it, that "his musical legacy is peerless". Well, that’s if you’re measuring it against his contemporaries only…Maybe…

While Dylan did everything he could to duck "the voice" moniker, you could bet your house that West would do precisely the opposite.

The point is that West is the closest thing we have to a modern day Dylan—a voice under 30-ers (predominantly) turn to en masse for a lens capable of distilling their feelings and fantasies about the world they live in via melodic verse; a guy who, according to a critical glut, can be relied on to push boundaries and really say something relevant to the world’s principle generation with each release. And while I acknowledge that there are distinct differences between the, let’s say, ‘genre package’, presented by each of these artists, I would dispute the idea that these differences preclude the two men from comparison. After all, I’m not comparing Dylan and West on the basis of their musical similarities necessarily, but on their more or less equivalent musical legacies and the respective means through which they achieved them at a fifty-year remove from one another. As such, I would argue that the comparison stands on the basis of analogous levels and types of both critical and market appreciation. What the Dylan side of the equation gives up in terms of mass-market appeal, West gives back via occasional critical controversy, until what you have in the final wash up is two men more or less equally worthy of their “voice of a generation” titles (time for the mathletes among you to get out your logarithmic graphs and completely explode my theory here…).

But while Dylan did everything he could to duck "the voice" moniker, you could bet your house that West would do precisely the opposite. In fact, he’s spent the last five years pretty much endowing himself with it: In 2014 he compared himself to Roald Dahl’s visionary character, Willy Wonka; and in 2013, West likened himself to Steve Jobs, Picasso, and Walt Disney, and even then we're not all the way to the bottom of Kanye's self-proclaimed-genius rabbit hole. But nevertheless, it's all good, the pundits haven't run for the hills or gone to the mattresses. On the contrary, they've clamoured around the man in the middle for a closer look, as though West were the Pope in that funny little Pope car - to be sure, he certainly wouldn't feel like the comparison is unwarranted. Exactly why fans and critics alike have gathered at the alter of Kanye is, I would suggest, because to be “the voice of a generation” is a fundamentally different concept now compared to what it was in Bob Dylan’s time as the title holder.

In the next instalment I will discuss how the parameters and guidelines for holding the title of "voice of a generation" have changed between Dylan and West’s hay days.


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