Report on Candidate Essays for the KS Scholarship, 2017.
— Dr. Alexandra Manglis
I was very grateful to be given the opportunity, once again, to read the applications for the second year of the Konstantin Sofianos scholarship. The candidates’ essays for this year’s scholarship (six this year!) were varied and took a number of different approaches to our chosen subject, Bob Dylan’s song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). It should be noted that, while some of the essays tripped up on the essay question, we should perhaps place some of the responsibility for that on how we–myself included–phrased the question. By choosing a quote by Greil Marcus and referring it to a Dylan song, some candidates did not know where to place their focus and often belied the song for Marcus’s quote. This led to some overtly philosophical arguments on the general theme of “what constitutes a song’s final form?” rather than a focus on the evolution of Dylan’s song over the last five decades. I would suggest that future question formulations either avoid having more than one “author” in the question, or, make clearer the connection between the theorist’s quote and the specific text we wish the candidates to write on.
Despite the trickiness of the question, there were a few essays that did successfully tackle It’s Alright Ma forthrightly while also engaging with Marcus’ quote. In particular were the essays by Candidate A, Candidate B, Candidate D, and, to a slight extent, Candidate F. Candidate F’s essay made some erroneous claims, such as Dylan being a born-again Christian (in 1964-65), and the main thrust of the argument, that It’s Alright Ma is a song disgusted with humanity while also self-reproving, was not articulated well enough. While I appreciated the attention to and (sometimes clumsy) unpacking of the song’s lyrics, it felt like the author of the essay became overly invested in the intent of the singer, rather than in how the song itself underwent changes through different versions. For this reason I shortlisted the final three Candidates, A, B, and D before making my final decision. Ultimately, for reasons that will become clear in the individualized reports below, I believe that Candidate A’s essay is the strongest of the three and, on the basis of the essay I read, recommend Candidate A as the receiver of this year’s scholarship. This is mostly due to the strength of its execution and its academic rigor, while B’s and D’s papers spoke of promising approaches but did not manage to reach the same level of scholarly excellence found in A’s.
Candidate A’s submission is a tight, well-written, and well-formulated essay that capably demonstrates how to address both Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and Greil Marcus’s claim that Dylan’s songs are able to “mov[e] through time” and “take on elements of those times” in a short paper. In so doing, the candidate skillfully puts together a carefully thought out argument on how Dylan’s song has become an important narrative backbone of American culture from its release in 1965 to today. I was pleased to see a competent use of secondary sources, a fearlessness in referencing other versions of the song, and a decent integration of Jameson’s Marxist criticism. In addition, I was impressed by the candidate’s referencing of particular locations in American history to and of which the song speaks.
The one weakness of the essay was the candidate’s overemphasis on the song’s “nihilism” which ended up trumping the essay’s conclusion, suggesting that it is the song’s nihilism that helps it unfold through time, when in fact the essay’s own trajectory suggested that the candidate could have resulted at a different, more nuanced, conclusion.
The argument that the song “exposes the hypocrisy and false ideologies of master narratives [and] in doing so, [Dylan] has gifted humanity with a vernacular seed, a recourse that delegitimizes these narratives” is the essay’s most powerful one. This candidate understands and formulates how Bob Dylan’s verse is actively engaging in a counter culture that affects and changes the way the world works, evidenced as when they quote Gleason: “Dylan’s songs and the pressures it generated had more to do with creating a society in which it was possible for Nixon to thoroughly fuck up and be caught at it…” The essay shows how the song’s words echo, foresee, and resonate in future moments, beyond its own creation, and thus how it becomes embedded in/relevant to a narrative in the song’s future America. In some ways, Candidate A ends up making a convincing case for Dylan’s Nobel award, in itself not part of the question but certainly a point of contention ever since the announcement in October. And for that alone they must be applauded.
The approach in Candidate B’s essay, wherein the writer draws from a number of personal experiences in response to the question, is an endearing if unusual one. Furthermore the candidate displays a boldness in handling and disagreeing with Greil Marcus’s comment in relation to It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). The candidate’s use of Gracyk and the clever untethering of the song from its musical context into lyrics on a page means that they are able to explore the song in terms of its semantic creation and in so doing suggest that it is, in fact and in disagreement with Marcus, in its final form. While I thought this was an interesting take, I was nonetheless left unconvinced by the candidate’s argument and felt that it lacked consistency. It feels like the writer actually ends up understanding how the song itself does undergo continual transformation due to interpretation and changes in delivery, such as when comparing their different interpretation of the lyrics to their father’s thus “highlighting that it was not the words that we had read differently but our own understandings and current realities radiating through them.” The candidate goes on to say that “it is not the song that snowballs through time but rather the human experience, and how, as a result, we can hear the same song differently as we enter different stages of our lives”. This final sentence suggests to me that the writer didn’t fully understand or read Marcus’s argument that it is in fact the audience experience that constitutes the song’s movement through time, rather than its words (“What happens on that path is only partly up to the writer, the singer, the musicians. It may be partly up to the audience hearing the songs, watching them as they are performed, with the response of the audience, even of a single member of the audience, coming back to the performers and, in ways that can be felt but never determined, reshaping the song.”) So while the candidate gets close to the idea of the ideal (semantic) form vs. the fluctuating/contextualized (pragmatics) form of the song they seem unable to take the next theoretical step and see how that is precisely what Marcus is unraveling in his own critique, and not something with which they are disagreeing. Which does make me wonder if the candidate read the question as thoroughly as they could have.
I have a soft spot for this candidate’s essay and if they had only expanded some parts of their argument, or spent a little more time on providing the ways in which the song unfolds through different interpretations like both Candidates B and A do, I would have wholeheartedly recommended Candidate D to receive this year’s scholarship. I like the language, the use of Barthes, Jameson, and Krugman, and the focus on the urgent and present moment of USA politics. I was particularly taken by this part of the essay: “More striking, is that this song can be reflects [sic] some of the social-political maladies that are unfolding in South Africa, as well as many parts of the world. I cautiously add, that there is a universal quality to Dylan’s song and that, sardonically, it could be anthem of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.” I would have liked to see more on this from the candidate, and I think if they had thought this line through more thoroughly they would have ended up in a similar playing field as Candidate A’s essay, understanding It’s Alright Ma as both a counter-narrative and a predictive one of both American and international history.