Thanks to Bob Dylan, tunes they are a changin’ | Rebecca Nicholson

Old masters and young artists are reexamining objects of desire

I’ve always found a love of Bob Dylan to be elusive. I get it, but I don’t get it, sort of like deep-pan pizza or electric bicycles. Still, I very much enjoyed Bob’s contribution to a new EP called Universal Love, which sees various artists singing classic love songs with a same-sex pronoun twist. Kesha has covered Janis Joplin’s I Need a Man to Love, turning that man into a woman, while Kele Okereke has done The Temptations’ My Girl, as My Guy. It’s indicative of the music industry’s ever-tightening belt that it has been funded by the hotel company MGM Resorts International, which says same-sex unions account for 20 to 30% of wedding ceremonies at its Vegas hotels and hopes Universal Love will provide a soundtrack.

Dylan has taken on the 1929 classic She’s Funny That Way, crooning his love to a male suitor instead. It’s only mildly unusual to hear him sing to a man and only if you’re listening closely, which seems like a great leap forward from the many decades of pop songs that were only ever directed to the opposite sex or, if the artist was being more coy, to “you”. Queer artists explicitly singing to a person of the same gender is a relatively recent development.

Even Sam Smith, who hung around the closet door before exploding out of it in a cloud of rainbow dust, directs his ballads to “you”, not “he”. Every gay person has been in a situation where less specific pronouns are useful, perhaps even a safety measure, so you can’t blame him for being vague, but if he keeps it up, I’ll be very surprised.

I remember watching Frank Ocean perform a few years ago, just after he had come out on Tumblr. At the time, he was affiliated with Odd Future and attracted many of the rap crew’s fans to his show. The crowd was mostly rowdy fellas, chanting Odd Future slogans and chugging cans. When he sang Forrest Gump to them, the lines: “You’re so buff and so strong… you run my mind, boy” seemed like the start of a new world order.

Since then, “you” has fallen out of favour and pop seems joyfully full of new young artists not only being candid about who their songs are lusting after, but celebrating that point of difference, too. Hayley Kiyoko sings about being a better option than her crush’s boyfriend. Troye Sivan disappears into a bedroom with more-than-just-a-man-friend in the video for Youth. Even Cardi B’s album contains a lyrical request for a threesome with Rihanna.

As Bob once had it, the times they are a changin’.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist

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Rebecca Nicholson

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