I'm speaking of Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume I. Who knew that Dylan, whose previous venture in prose, Tarantula, was almost deliberately impenetrable, could write with such astonishing clarity, taking us back to the matrix of creativity found in New York's East and West Villages in the early ’60s. Telling great tales in a voice that is distinctively yet unobtrusively literary, and yet rings with tonal echoes of his best storytelling songs. Are all the stories true, all the names real? As they say, it's too good to fact-check. I'd argue that it's a rare glimpse of the notoriously taciturn Dylan as he saw himself, and that's something to be valued.
Whether or not you like Dylan, few aside from Elvis have had as much influence on American culture (and much as I love Elvis, he wasn't much of a writer). And here Dylan takes us on a tour of the wild array of people and books and places that influenced him, from folkie haunts to haunted folkies to the 42nd Street Public Library in the dead of winter, where Dylan would read century-old abolitionist literature. Nobody has given us a better portrait of New York City and its creative ferment. The city is his greatest character.
And few have taken us inside a musician's head the way he does in a later chapter in which, touring with the Grateful Dead, he has a transformative musical experience I still can't quite figure out. But whatever it was they put in his drink—and his head—that time, something seems to have unleashed a hallucinatory beauty in his prose.
“The Star Wars Kid”
Nominated by: Michael Agger, Slate editor
In November of 2002, a pudgy, 15-year-old Canadian teenager named Ghyslain Raza took hold of a golf-ball retriever and videotaped himself swinging the stick around like Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. Five months later, a classmate made the video available through peer-to-peer networks, and Raza became "The Star Wars Kid," one of the Web's first viral stars. Some estimates claim that the original video has been viewed over a billion times. His performance was clumsy, cringe-inducing, but ultimately winning because of the total uninhibited effort on display. Here was everyone's inner geek, caught in a moment of imaginative rapture.
Not everyone saw it that way. Raza was mocked online. Some of the remixes were cruel: "Every Jedi has a semi-retarded clone …" He became depressed and dropped out of school, telling the New York Times: "People were laughing at me, and it was not funny at all." His farflung fans rallied to his side, going so far as to buy Raza an iPod and send a letter that read: "Remember, the Internet loves you." But all the boy wanted was the impossibility that the video had never been made public. He felt both the rush and the sting of Internet virality, a proto-Rebecca Black. While she, and others like her, try hard to capitalize on their popularity, Raza has moved on and is becoming a lawyer.
His video is classic because its story holds both the good and bad of the Internet. For the "new classic," I choose a remix, since that's the signature Web video genre of the past decade. Of the hundreds that exist, my nomination goes to "Star Wars Kid Drunken Jedi." It takes the original video and makes it funnier while also saluting its earnest, out-of-control spirit. So-called "viral" phenomena are best when we are not making one another sick, but rather saluting the unfiltered awesomeness that makes us all smile.
“I’m a Mac/I’m a PC”
Nominated by: Seth Stevenson, Slate ad columnist
Which TV ads will define the past decade? If our cutoff were 1999 instead of 2000, we’d need to discuss the rapturous Volkswagen ad depicting—to the strains of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”—a quartet of young’uns who eschew a party in favor of an aimless and yet somehow poignant drive on a starry evening. If we were assessing ubiquity as opposed to vitality, we’d be compelled to consider a pair of animal spokesmen: the Geico Lizard (still going strong) and the Aflac Duck (who has lately undergone a sort of forced laryngectomy as a result of Gilbert Gottfried’s imprudence). If clever humor were our sole criterion, I’d vote for Geico’s “Tiny House”—which utterly fooled me into believing it was a promo for an actual reality show. If our judgment hinged on technical perfection, I’d point to a pair of big-budget Nike ads (titled “Awake” and “Move”) in which music and editing conspire to create sublime little flecks of visual art.