Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize in literature last week and, as the internet does when anyone anywhere ever does anything, it collectively freaked the fuck out. According to the award notes, Dylan was awarded the prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
If you’re not familiar with Dylan’s work, it’s important to understand that’s true about his music. A quick glance at his discography reveals a varied compilation of folk and rock songs about things like war, civil rights, workers’ rights, the economy, politics, love, heartbreak and all the other things good artists strive to discuss, but rarely do—at least, nowhere near as eloquently or creatively as Dylan.
There’s a lot of effort and skill involved in writing good songs that stand the test of time, and few would refute the claim that Dylan is a master of his craft. Many equate songwriting to poetry, and several poets have won the Nobel prize for literature—W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Rudyard Kipling and Gabriela Mistral, to name a few.
So why’s everybody freaking out?
He’s the First Singer-songwriter Ever to Win the Award—but Why Him?
Well, the first issue is that Bob Dylan isn’t a classic writer or novelist. In fact, he’s actually the first singer-songwriter to win the award in the Nobel prize’s 115-year history.
While a lot of people are celebrating him for “redefining” what is and isn’t considered literature, many argue that Dylan wasn’t the first or last person to have a profound impact on society with incredible storytelling set to music.
Some of those people may or may not have included the likes of Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and even more modern artists like Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur—the list really goes on and on.
If you didn’t notice, there’s a striking difference between Dylan and the people I just mentioned: Bob Dylan is a white male.
Even if you don’t want to potentially turn this into a conversation about skin color, there are plenty of other non-people of color who’ve re-defined American music and storytelling. You’ve got Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Woody Guthrie, Kurt Cobain, Frank Zappa or even Leonard Cohen, who was a published poet before he dabbled in songwriting.
The point is, the reasons for which Dylan received the award are broad and apply to many songwriters throughout the years—some even more so than Dylan, and that fact pissed a lot of people off.
Writers Are Taking Umbrage With the Idea
Speaking of writing, some of the most vocal critics of Dylan’s receipt of the award are, well, writers who take umbrage with the idea of a guy whose published literary works technically only include a single book of experimental prose and poetry released in 1971, and one part of a three-part memoir series.
Writers from all over were offended by the fact that, of all the wordsmiths crafting incredible and world-changing literary works right now, Dylan was even considered for a shot at the throne, let alone given the title.
Some critics explained that in a world where getting people to read actual books proves more and more difficult daily, giving the award to a non-writer (technically) is nothing short of insulting.
Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature simply doesn’t make sense to the people who write, who argue that words put to song still don’t do the same job or serve the same purpose as the traditional written word.
The Swedish Academy clearly disagrees.
The Case for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
Bob Dylan’s nomination for the Nobel prize is nothing new, believe it or not. In fact, Gordan Ball, an Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, has nominated Dylan for the prestigious award more than a dozen times.
For Ball, the nomination was a no-brainer. He was idealistic and active, and he encouraged an entire generation of American youth to think outside the box, question the establishment and acquire a sense of independent thought that we’d never quite had before.
In a Washington Post story penned a few days ago, Ball even hints that Dylan’s music may have at least partly inspired the criticism of presidential authority that eventually led to the infamous Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, which resulted in the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon.
When push comes to shove, the rationale that best makes sense of Dylan’s receipt of the Nobel Prize of Literature lies in the fact that Bob Dylan changed the world we live in for the better—whether he was inspiring a generation of Americans to think on their feet and take no shit, or whether he was down in Mississippi trying to help poor people register to vote.
More importantly, it relies on the idea that lyrics are literature; that they are just as powerful as poetry, and that being able to craft an incredible song isn’t a talent left only for a melody, but rather a message.
When the Nobel Committee from the Swedish Academy—comprised of 18 members that include writers, poets and literary scholars—gets together to analyze each new year’s crop of submissions (of which there are usually about 200), they meet, discuss and then vote on it. Whoever gets the majority vote wins.
Although, it is fascinating to note that on the Nobel site, right in an interview published with Peter Englund, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, an interesting level of doubt is cast on the legitimacy of Dylan’s award. The interviewer asks, “Can you choose anyone for the Literature Prize? Musicians, scientists, etc?” Englund replies: “No. Should someone get a prize in literature, that person must of course have created literature.”
I suppose, at this point, it really all depends on how you feel about lyricists—are they writers, or are they strictly to be considered musicians?
Either way, fuck it. Thanks for all the great music, Bob Dylan! The pump don’t work, ‘cause the vandals took the handle. Holler!
In slightly less consequential music news, Meek Mill has deleted his Instagram account.
- Lead image: Daniel Kramer, courtesy of GRAMMY Museum