Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Comparisons: "Next Bob Dylans" And Our Worst Knee-Jerk Impulse.

As a society, we seem obsessed with the art of the comparison. Nowhere is this preoccupation more evident than in the media. From highly-paid journalists to casual bloggers, you can't turn around without running headlong into someone likening things to other similar things. You've never heard of Band X? Well, they sound like a cross between Band Y and Band Z. Oh, did you like this book or movie? You should read/see this other thing, it resembles the first thing closely. This used to drive my buddy Ian nuts. He did some part-time writing for an Indy music blog, and was always hyper-fastidious about only describing what he was hearing, never how it related to other music. Since I'm not as pent-up and type A as he is, it took a little longer for the comparison bug to get around to my last nerve, but it's damn sure there now. The sports world has exploded with two separate incidents of unnecessary comparison recently. I blame Rory McIlroy. I blame Scottie Pippen.

Actually, I don't really blame Rory; it's not his fault he's here. Someone has to be the PGA's new alpha dog, and right now he seems to be the logical "next annointed one." But the fervor and hyperbole that sparked off after his win at Congressional was, for whatever reason, the last straw for me. "The Next Tiger Woods," they said. First of all, that's a backhanded compliment at best these days. Would any sane, well-comported, extremely talented young athlete (and McIlroy certainly is all of those things) want to be compared to sports' ultimate Icarus? Not likely.

The thing about comparisons in sports (or anything else) is that they're insanely unfair to both parties. McIlroy surely must feel somewhat flattered at the notion of being compared to Tiger, but at the same time that comparison thrusts heavy and unwarranted expectations upon his burgeoning career while simultaneously depriving him of an individualistic identity. I can understand PGA people themselves wanting to saddle the kid with the "Tiger" mantle. The sport experienced a pretty heavy tailspin following Woods' fall from grace and subsequent dismal performance on the course. They need a new face of the game, and a handsome, charming young guy like McIlroy is just what the doctor ordered. But the media's overblown reactions were grating and foolish.

Please understand, I enjoy comparison and ranking people in a historical context as much as anyone. In 50 years, I'll be glad to sit around and talk about how Woods' and McIlroy's legacies stack up against each other. But trying to jam the young phenom into Tiger's spikes at this juncture is just plain silly. Rory McIlroy is a very promising young golfer who is hopefully cranking up for a long and beautiful career. Why can't we just say that about him? Why does the arc of his PGA experience have to be hardwired into someone else's to be meaningful? His intrinsic properties as a golfer and a person ought to be sufficient to be getting on with.

And then there's the other side of the coin. Publicly, of course, Tiger was very complimentary of McIlroy, but he really can't afford to be elsewise given his current tenuous status in the public eye. Regardless of how you feel about him as a person, you have to think all this hype rankles him pretty badly. "For over a decade I absolutely owned EVERYONE on the tour. I won a tournament on one freaking knee!!! I can hit farther with a 4 iron that some dudes can with a driver!!! This kid wins one paltry major and now he's the new me? Are you joking?" And, seriously, are we? I hope so.

Those (hypothetical) sentiments were very likely reverberating in Michael Jordan's head after Scottie Pippen made that unfortunate "MJ was the best pure scorer, but LeBron might be a better basketball player" comment, then compounded his mistake by trying to say he was "taken out of context." I really do feel pretty bad for LeBron at this point. Certainly, I've been as guilty as anyone in over-scrutinizing every little failure, and putting every missed shot under a vitriolic microscope. When you're touted as a possibility to unseat Jordan's GOAT status before you can legally vote, naturally, that's going to cause some problems. As with the McIlroy/Woods scenario, neither LBJ or MJ can possibly be happy about our collectively, constantly assessing them vis-a-vis one another. For LeBron, anything less than flawless dominance is automatically perceived as failure, and Jordan must be in Charlotte smoking stogies and utterly confused as to why this kid was ever even in the discussion, especially given James' recent playoff miscues.

Of course, Jordan has the benefit of having been through this before. Kobe. Wade. Any time a hyper-talented two-way shooting guard appears, we automatically start wondering is this might be the guy to take MJ's crown. For Tiger, McIlroy is the only the first, but if Rory falters, you can bet the press will instantly find another talented young kid on the tour to hitch its wagon to. And this of course is ignoring whether Tiger will ever catch Jack, the previous generational "who's the next GOAT?" saga that's still in play.

You know who all this comparison-mongering this reminds me of? Bob Dylan.

Perhaps no legendary figure in the realm of music has been subjected to such a fierce search for their replacement or heir apparent or whatever as the man from Hibbing, MN. Think about it; we never hear about "The Next": Hendrix, Coltrane, Stones, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Elvis, Aretha, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, James Brown, Muddy Waters, Beatles, P-Funk, Elton John, Cash, Beatles, Nina Simone, Madonna, Ramones, Satchmo, Beach Boys, Ella, Nirvana, Marley, Robert Johnson, Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, Gram Parsons, Sly Stone, Who, Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Bird, John Lee Hooker, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder ... you get the idea. Nobody ever looks at a new group or artist and talks about them usurping those places in music history. Oh, there might be a nod given or a brief allusion to influences of the old on the new, but never acknowledgement of "legit challenger" status. It would be unthinkable; a heinous transgression.

But in the curious case of Bob Dylan? For reasons that remain totally unclear, we're obsessed (or were for a great while) with finding an heir to his particular crown. He never got accorded the same "off-limits" status as so many of his peers. Seems like about once every five years or so for a really long time, we had a new "Next Dylan" on our hands. Tom Petty, Springsteen, Neil Young (post-CSNY), John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne. (I think Lou Reed may have gotten the "Next Dylan" nod at some point, too, but I could be wrong.) And in that list of media-generated ersatz Dylans lies the great lesson that we as sports fans and sports writers need to learn.

Think about those "Next Dylan" names for a second. Does Bob Dylan even come to mind? Of course not.

Tom Petty plays great American rock'n'roll. Just song after song of gorgeous, dirty brilliance. The guy is a hook machine. It's all he does. Slap on "Greatest Hits" sometime and think of the multitude of things you could be doing for which it would provide the perfect soundtrack while you sing along to every single word. It's a long list. It's a road-trip album, and lazy day album, a party album, an everything album. Because Tom Petty is never out of place or not fantastic.

The Boss ... what more can I say? You don't get a nickname that awesome without good cause. Not even the Beach Boys made American sports cars sound as cool as he did. The spokesman of small-town life and arbiter of marathon showmanship and unabashed joy on stage. Rock's ultimate everyman balladeer. Not to mention the sweeping grandeur of his compositions. Whether he's doing folky or screamin' swagger, he's an absolute original, and the single greatest export New Jersey ever produced.

Neil Young has done nothing more than crush, smash, and obliterate every boundary and convention he could get his hands on, all the while churning out enigmatic and iconic songs that stretch across generations. Also may hold the record for having been a member of the most different great projects ever, what with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, plus solo. Listen to "Helpless" and tell me you don't get a little misty in the eyes. I'd call you a liar, and I'd be right.

John Mellencamp gets a (very slightly) unfair rep as a lesser light in the rock pantheon. Maybe it's understandable if you're stacking him up against the absolute elites, but "Jack And Diane", "Small Town", "Hurt So Good", "Scarecrow" ... come on! The guy had (and still has) a knack for turning the trivial into the anthemic in a rockin', accessible fashion. Say he's derivative, and on the surface you'd be right, but really, that would mean you're not paying enough attention.

Jackson Browne is among our more woefully underrated geniuses. "Oh yeah, he was pretty good!" is a response commonly heard, and completely wrong. It's not laudatory enough. He engineered a bizarre alchemy of folk, twang, soul, and what later became "soft rock" (in a good way in this case) in a totally unique fashion. The guy was dialed in to a specific frequency, and he let that resonance come out through a filter only he could have provided. Beautiful stuff.

My point is that these guys were never the "next" anything or anyone. They were the one and only versions of themselves. Instead of comparing them to Dylan, we would have been better served discussing them on their own merits, reveling in their individualism, not their convenience as analogies to someone else. Why would we want to pass that crown in the first place? Dylan himself has said he never wanted it. But we gave it to him, and considering everything he did (and continues to do) while wearing it, it's stupid to propose anyone could ever inherit the thing. Thinking anyone could be the "Next Dylan" not only diminishes what Dylan has accomplished, but puts ludicrous pressure on whoever gets stuck with that tag. When McIlroy and LeBron hang up their gear for the last time, we can talk endlessly about their places in sporting Valhalla. Until then, let's stop trying to compare them to Tiger and MJ. It's an easy out, a trite gimmick, and a faulty premise. We can do better than setting these kids up for failure and degrading the ostensible GOATS while were at it.

Remember kids, "gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through."

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