Welcome to a new series! You’ve read Josh’s attempts to rank the Bill of Rights. You’ve read Tim’s attempt to rank everything in history. Well, now John’s going to rank Bob Dylan songs. Keeping it manageable, he’s sticking with songs from the 1960s. No live versions and no bootlegs. We’re going with songs from studio albums, from “Bob Dylan” to “Nashville Skyline.” And what the heck? Since the Basement Tapes were recorded in ’67, we’ll throw that in the mix too. So including all nine studio albums, plus the Basement Tapes, but NOT including songs on the Basement Tapes that don’t include Dylan as a writer/performer, we’re looking at 121 songs. We won’t be ranking the first 111 in any particular order, but the top ten will be counted down once we get there (probably in like 2013).
62nd may seem too low for such an iconic song, but for a while I was debating whether or not to put this in the top 100. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” is certainly Bob Dylan’s most overrated song. If and when Dylan ultimately dies, “The Times” will most likely be one of the first three songs mentioned in any obituary (the other two being “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowing in the Wind”). And yet it is a very flawed song: It sounds a little too preachy and predictable—like the cookie-cutter protest song. It doesn’t attain the protean magic of “Blowing in the Wind” or innovative audacity of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
To be fair to the song, though, the main thing I have against it is that I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the bad cover versions; I’m sick of hearing in the background of every 1960s montage; I’m sick of hippies quoting the lyrics; most of all, I’m sick of people assuming it’s one of Dylan’s best songs just because it’s one of his most well-known.
Ignoring all this, though, and just examining the song itself, it’s hard to not to see why the song is so popular. It was, as Dylan called it, a “song with a purpose” and it achieved that purpose. It captures a spirit of rebellion and independence to the point of defining it. For better and worse, it is the quintessential protest song.
The fact that it often seems clichéd (“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging” and, most of all, the title refrain) speaks more to the universality of the song’s themes to than to its banality. Even within the broad themes, though, the greatest lyricist of all-time knows how to employ language to maximum effect: “The loser now will be later to win,” seems like a platitude; the loser will be the winner. But by saying the loser “will be later,” Dylan emphasizes perseverance over righteousness. It’s a small but revealing touch, and way better than “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Musically, of course, the song is very simple, as is the case with most of Dylan’s early work. But the simplicity works in this song, building to a potentially haunting effect (I know I bashed montages set to “Times” a second ago, but Watchmen actually employed this haunting effect rather well, since it used the song to score a complete alternate history, instead of just the historical “change” everyone is familiar with now by now and that is, therefore, less haunting).
Listening to the song without all of its baggage, it’s hard to deny that the song is good for what it is. It’s not the song’s fault that it is overrated and overexposed, but truly great Dylan songs don’t grow tiresome; they get better the more you listen to them. “The Times They Are a-Changin” stagnates, so 62nd it is.