Reclaiming Lyrical Mythologies: Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright by Bob Dylan

I remember my first two thoughts when I heard this song for the first time as a very little girl.

  1. “Man, he doesn’t like her very much. Does he?”
  2. “He’s kinda mean.”

There’s a reason why Dylan is Dylan. I’ve found myself in countless discussions with disciples and defectors about his music, his writing, and his uniquely inherent mystique. In fact, “What are your thoughts on Bob Dylan?” is sometimes a question I throw out there just to get to know a person. (Pro tip: Anyone who answers that question with an “Eh, I can take him or leave him” is telling me that they are not a familiar. Dylan is either polarizing or you are not paying attention.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep reiterating that lyrics have always been my focus for any song I am listening to or writing. They literally tell the story. Music certainly paints a picture and sets a mood, but there is nothing quite like an expertly crafted lyrical narrative. There is a special pull and bend when lyrics are married with a melody and meter. It’s like gravity.

I can be sucked into the orbit any well-written song faster than a satellite and linger there longer than a moon. I think that’s why I’ve tasked myself with this project. In a way, I’m sitting down with that little girl as we study these stories together so that we can step back from them and enjoy them objectively. They are no longer a part of the internalized network of narratives that shaped us the way they did when we first heard them.

Which is why those two thoughts I had when I first heard Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright stuck with me for so many years.

It is so recognized and revered in our cultural canon of songs that people sing along, it’s still covered and performed by countless artists of various generations, it connects with something in people on a visceral level and evokes a nostalgia that one can only hope is borne from anything they create. Plus, surly and straightforward is Bob Dylan’s brand. It’s what makes his storytelling so recognizable. And all of those things are powerful.

Why, then does this song in particular still sour me?

Let’s break it down

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe Why not? Great discussions sometimes start with GREAT questions.
Ifin’ you don’t know by now Are you mad cause she couldn’t read your mind?
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe You said that already
It’ll never do some how Lazy

When your rooster crows at the break a dawn That’s early AF
Look out your window and I’ll be gone Ghosting is a coward’s move
You’re the reason I’m trav’lin’ on YOU are the traveler. YOU are the reason.
Don’t think twice, it’s all right You’re forgiving her for your cowardly move. Good job bruh, she doesn’t need your forgiveness.

And it ain’t no use in a-turnin’ on your light, babe Are you accusing her of trying to charm?…I don’t know what this means.
The light I never knowed I doubt this. You fell in love for a reason. It just sounds like you’re getting bored but you don’t want to do any work to fix it.
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road You know, you can change that by walking across the street.

But I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say Why don’t YOU say it?!
To try and make me change my mind and stay What can she possibly say or do to change things if you won’t tell her why you’re upset?!
We never did too much talkin’ anyway …What DID you do?
But don’t think twice, it’s all right Again, what is she supposed to apologize for?

No it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal Did you want her to?
Like you never done before Maybe that’s not her thing?
And it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal Maybe if you didn’t disappear, she wouldn’t have to.
I can’t hear ya any more Sounds to me like you were never really paying attention to begin with.

I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ wallkin’ way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I am told How charmingly condescending of you. OR pedophilic. You know, your choice.
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul UGH. FIRST of all, these are lazy-ass metaphors. If she wanted more and you couldn’t provide, that says more about your inadequacies than it does about her desires. Women want things. Get over it.
But don’t think twice, it’s all right Whatever, dude.

So long honey babe Gross.
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell Good. Get lost.
Goodbye is too good a word, babe You mad bro?
So I just say fare thee well So. Unnecessary.

I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind Great, so we agree she did nothing wrong. She just couldn’t hold your holy attention.
You could have done better but I don’t mind YOU could have done better at communicating. But it’s aight.
You just kinda wasted my precious time What. Did. You. Want. Motherfucker?
But don’t think twice, it’s all right Bye Felicia.

I think what severely irks me about these lyrics is that he’s SO. Bloody. Passive AND he blames her for the heartbreak he’s about to cause her. And for WHAT? He never once, during the entire song, mentions what the actual fuck is the matter. He even says something tantamount to “you didn’t really do anything wrong but you could have done better”, which is about as helpful as a fork in a bowl of broth.

Someone who is NOT a narcissist would feel badly that they have to do this thing where they leave someone and they know it will cause them pain. That is not happening here. He is enjoying his nebulous cruelty.

Here is what is dangerous about this: I grew up with an innate understanding that men leave and that it’s always a woman’s fault. She won’t know why and she may never see or feel it coming, but that’s just the nature of it. Before you ask me if my parents are still married, my parents are still married.

This song isn’t the ONLY reason I believed this. It was reinforced ad nauseam in the media, in movies, magazines, in personal exchanges with friends over heartbreak. Even in my Facebook feed, I see “suggested articles” with headlines that read “The 5 things that are driving him away,” “What NOT to do if you want him to pop the question,” “How to tell you’re his ‘Ms. Right Now and NOT his Ms. Right.” It’s like having an encryption manual to a computer saying “A problem of type 19321 occurred and here are the top 5009876 ways to diagnose.” “Yes! But WHAT PAGE?!”

I had SO many tearful talks with girlfriends wherein we were forensically figuring out the WHY of the thing when their partners left. It almost always came down to something she had or had not done. “I had gained too much weight.” “I had taken him for granted.” “I wasn’t smart enough, tall enough, funny enough, I was too loud or I was depressed or I said this one thing that one time that must have scared him off.”

This song OWNs that attitude from the male perspective with a particularly sinister cool that just makes me want to chase him down and shove that goddamn rooster down is stupid throat so that every time he opens his mouth he sounds like the obnoxious cock that he is.

The only redemption for this song, in my opinion, is for women to sing it. I want women to embody that same aloofness about ending a relationship that isn’t working for her, without needing to explain herself. I want women to be able to sing this song with the same unencumbered freedom that a man can. Without fear of retaliation, without wondering if he will snap. Because, if a WOMAN owns this kind of attitude, she can be in very real danger.

Until then, at least I have liberated that little girl from another lifetime of believing that every failed relationship was ever her fault. So, there’s that.

Have a song you’d like me to de-mythstify? Let me know in the comments below!

15 thoughts on “Reclaiming Lyrical Mythologies: Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright by Bob Dylan”

  1. This is an eye opener for me about a song I used to humm the tune but never really paid close attention to the lyrics. I understand your anger, frustration, disappointment. Do you remember we went to the Greek in Berkeley to hear Dylan live? We ended up leaving before it ended, that’s how bad it was. Never have I ever left a live concert in the middle, until this one.
    I don’t even think he is a great lyricist from a literary point of view; the Nobel prize was so wasted on him.
    So yes, go out there and sing the song girl! Make it useful to the girls and women out there!

  2. Thanks boo, A guy just quoted me this song as he left me over not being able to commit to us. Was raging over the passive aggressiveness myself heh… I gave him my heart but he wanted my soul….there was so much potential, we would have conquered the world…bah! don’t think twice it’s alright.

  3. Oh God, Yeah. Fuck that guy. Anyone who un-ironically quotes Bob Dylan lyrics as some sort of spiritual “lesson” to a scorned/spurned/potential lover needs a poke in the eye.

  4. Hi Emily! I know this is an old post, but if you happen to see this do yourself a favor and look up a live performance of Don’t Think Twice from Dylan’s 2018 tour. The lyrics are the same but Bob has miraculously transformed it into a song full of grace, tenderness, wisdom, and humility. I was in tears when I first heard it. He has completely redeemed it himself.

  5. Just a thought, if you go through the song word by word, it never states this is a romantic relationship. I see it more as breaking of a mutually unhealthy relationship, maybe with a lover, maybe with a parent, maybe with a spouse.

    The genius of this song is a story so vivid you can smell the dust kicked up by his heels, but with gaps left, gaps just big enough to be filled by your own life and to let the song resonate with you.

  6. Interesting thought! I have to say that the use of the word “Babe” implies (at least to me) that there was some kind of romantic or at least sexual relationship there. Personally, I have only ever used that word with a lover or a romantic partner.

    I agree that the relationship didn’t sound secure based on how he’s leaving it and how he’s laying out the reasons. It might be that his lovers heart wasn’t in it either. But we can only deduce what his feelings are about it all because he holds the narrative.

    I think the crux for me is that he consistently places the blame on the other person for his action of leaving without explanation. He is leaving this person in the dark literally and figuratively, which is never a caring thing to do, in my opinion, no matter who it is.

    And the “wish there was something you would do or say, to try and make me change my mind and stay” hints to me that he desires something more but is either too afraid to ask, or too secure in his own beliefs about the situation, be they real or imagined.

    It would be a VERY interesting song if the word Babe wasn’t in there and the relationship was more ambiguous for sure! Now I kinda want to hear THAT song!

  7. Listening now. So beautiful. It’s so interesting that when Melanie sings it, there is more sadness and yearning portrayed than when Dylan sings it. I am still trying to unpack it, not wanting to make it entirely about gender. There is an aggression to Dylan’s delivery that is not in this version. Melanie’s version is almost an absolution, where Dylan is purposely cutting, and leaving blame with his subject. Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. Don’t you think our internal musings usually are pretty one sided in favor of ourselves, especially when we’re hurt? What I come away with is these aren’t the first times these issues have come up between them, so I doubt she’s not going to know why he left. Perhaps he’s just running it over to himself, not to her. Each time he relives one of his relationship perspectives, right or wrong, he ends with “don’t think twice, it’s alright”directed maybe as much towards himself as towards her, a kind of, “yeah, it turned out lousy, but it’ll be ok, let’s move on.”

  9. That’s a great point, and yes. I agree the internal musings I have personally had for some former lovers has been all over the map and not always flattering. Hurt and disappointment are so very human and can be very fertile soil from which to grow songs even if they may not always end up as benevolent as those songs which present forgiveness and reconciliation as the goal or theme. This is a cool idea! The song takes on a deeper, personal meaning in this area of thought.

  10. I so deeply appreciate this take. I actually googled the name of this song and “passive aggressive” because it’s what I hear in this song too (and don’t get me wrong — I love Bob Dylan, but also I’m clear about who he is, not an angel). I have personal reasons for looking it up today, and so glad I came across this essay.

  11. I’m so grateful to see that you stumbled into this too and am glad to hear I’m not the only one who uses her brain matter for such things. Whatever your personal reasons are, I am glad to know you found some comfort in this breakdown.

  12. It is sooooooo passive aggressive, each and every line. I could see my ex boyfriend saying these words to me and it literally makes me want to vomit.

    I looked up the backstory and apparently he write this song for his girlfriend of 3 years, Suze (forgot last name) because she… wait for it… WENT TO STUDY ABROAD IN ITALY.

    The met when she was 17 and he was 20, so they were both kids. But the self-loathing and passive aggressiveness dripping from the lyrics really make me want to never listen to this song again.

  13. Whoa! I wasn’t aware of the backstory. Thank you for providing that context. I dug in a little bit too and found this quote:”A lot of people make it sort of a love song – slow and easygoing. But it isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say something to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.”

    After reading this quote, as a songwriter myself, I can relate. Sometimes the pain of loss is so great that we tell ourselves things just to alleviate some of that pain. It may not all be true, and it may not all be fair, but it’s a way to self soothe. Unfortunately, without this context, it comes across as just being passive aggressive and egocentric.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.