Dylan’s Nobel win a positive alteration to literature’s boundaries
With his win of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan has now joined a list of distinguished names such as T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus and Toni Morrison. However, the reaction to the famed songwriter’s victory has been decidedly divided.
For years, Dylan — born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn. — has made a habit of reinventing himself and confounding listeners, keeping fans on their toes for lyrics that have veered from dense and enigmatic to telegraphically concise and clear.
Dylan is the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and his selection has been proclaimed by the New York Times as “perhaps the most radical choice in a history stretching back to 1901.” For the award to be doled out to Dylan — who was officially awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” — has stoked a debate about whether or not song lyrics are of the same value as poetry or novels. In other words, if songs can truly be considered “literature.”
For some, including Salman Rushdie, who celebrated the choice by calling Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” the win was a glorious victory for exploring what constitutes literature.
For others, such as novelist Rabih Alameddine, who wrote on Twitter that “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being award three Michelin stars,” the songwriter’s win was a slight to deserving writers around the globe. Many of the arguments against Dylan’s were aimed at his already immense fame and cultural cache, with some arguing that the award’s prestige and $900,000 cash prize would be served in the hands of a lesser known author. Several commentators have called on Dylan to turn the prize down, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964.
These repudiations would not seem to hold up if one were to truly pore over Dylan’s lyrics for, while the man certainly had his fair share of clunkers (‘Wiggle Wiggle’ anyone?), his mass of work is among the strongest of the 20th century.
He has written surrealist visions of New York nights (“Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough”); unrelenting critiques of capitalism (“money doesn’t talk, it swears”); piercing descriptions of heartbreak (“He woke up, the room was bare / He didn’t see her anywhere, told himself he didn’t care / Pushed the window open wide / Felt that emptiness inside”); and some of the most compelling portraits of injustice ever written (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Hurricane,” to name but a few).
Dylan rewrote the rules for popular music as he went along. He most famously helped the folk music scene explode before going electric and making rock music. Then he reshaped rock by releasing a single over six minutes in length, releasing three of the most influential albums of all-time in a two year span — 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and 1966’s Blonde On Blonde — and transforming the lyrics into poetry. He then briefly reverted back to folk briefly before ditching his distinctive nasally voice and transforming himself into a country crooner for 1969’s Nashville Skyline — he claimed he quit smoking cigarettes to achieve his new singing voice. He has since ebbed and flowed through a vast variety of sounds, making Western records, laying down a trio of Christian albums before shifting into his recent phase as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook.
In the pantheon of pop music, almost no one can claim to have contributed as much as Bob Dylan. He has triumphed, he has frustrated and he has endured. And what’s more is that the number of songwriters who were inspired by Dylan, both professional and amateur, is just as important as the man’s own contributions to song.
The crackling controversy and debate around Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize is understandable and even encouraged, because these are the type of discussions that make art last forever. But to those that cherish music and appreciate the brilliance of masterfully written lyrics, there is no question that the body and quality of work Dylan has produced in his 54 years of professional songwriting is more than worthy of such distinguished recognition.