It’s fitting that Ryan Giggs should finally be outed at the same time as everyone is celebrating Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, as the juxatposition of the two reveals the curious nature of public reputations.
Giggs’ reputation should be sky-high. He should - I write as a Gooner - be celebrated as the premier British footballer of his generation, and yet today he looks like a prat.
Bob Dylan, however, was at best an average guitarist and worse singer and someone whose best-known songs at least say nothing to those of us of a younger generation*, yet he has become a massive cultural icon.
We have a paradox. In both cases, public standing seems disproportionate to actual ability and achievement. In Giggs’ case, it is less, in Dylan’s more. What’s going on?
One thing is that, sometimes, we project what we want to see onto public figures. In his early career, Dylan was seen as a folk/protest singer, with the result that many felt deeply betrayed when he went electric. But that “voice of a generation” tag was something pinned onto him. And ever since, people have projected a genius onto him which he - whether by skill or accident - has managed not to shake off.
It’s not just Dylan who has benefited from such projection. Think of all those England cricketers of the 80s and 90s who were the new Ian Botham. And remember Gordon Brown’s reputation as the Viking warrior? What’s remarkable about Dylan is that the projection has gone on for years.
A further aspect of reputation is that they are often subject to Bayesian conservatism - as in the old saying, “give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep til noon.” Having gotten a reputation for brilliance, Dylan could issue duff, bland, silly or gnomic songs and statements and everyone believed they must mean something. His career is regarded as greatness punctuated by mediocrity (Self-portrait, Christmas in the Heart) rather than vice versa.
This is what Ryan Giggs failed to see. Had he not bothered to get an injunction, the story of him and Imogen Thomas would have been read in the morning and forgotten in the afternoon. Our prior belief that Giggs was a great footballer and generally decent bloke was so strong that a minor marital infidelity would have made little difference to the regard in which we held him. But in fighting the story, he’s made himself look like an uptight humourless, self-important prig, and his image has suffered much more. Another victim of the Streisand effect.
Which brings me to another paradox. Ryan Giggs has, I presume, been surrounded by lawyers, agents and advisors who have huge experience of managing reputations, celebrity culture and the media. Who got it massively wrong. And yet 50 years ago, a university drop-out from Nowhere USA managed to build a colossal reputation with no such guidance.
Expertise in PR seems to be even less useful than ability in singing.
* I’ll concede that parts of John Wesley Harding are very good indeed. But, for me, songs such as Blowin’ in the wind, The times they are a-changing, and Subterranean Homesick Blues just mean nothing. This is not a genre or generational thing; I regard Dylan's near-contemporaries Leonard Cohen and Townes van Zandt as minor gods.
** In the Times, Ed Smith says that his generation “hasn’t produced anyone fit to carry Dylan’s Gibson guitar” - which means he’s never heard Jolie Holland or Sam Baker or Dar Williams.