It wasn’t a complete shock this morning when Bob Dylan was announced as the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, nobody fainted or anything. It’s not the first time the iconic American singer-songwriter’s name has been floating (or blowin’) through the corridors of The Swedish Academy in Stockholm as a left-field possibility for the prize. For years, music critics, pop-culturalists, literary scholars, and historians have made the argument that Dylan’s sprawling catalog deserves the highest recognition literature bestows. Still, this isn’t a Grammy or even a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nod. It’s the Nobel Prize. Maybe a little lie-down is in order.
But what does a Nobel Prize really mean these days? Well, Alex can finally put the Jeopardy answer “Einstein, Curie, King Jr., and Dylan” into circulation. But other than losing money in an office pool when Japan’s Yoshinori Ohsumi brought home the win in 2016 for Physiology or Medicine (seriously, how did any of us bet against Ohsumi?), do these awards really matter to the average person? That’s a sad commentary in and of itself, perhaps — when we throw lavish parties to see who gets the call from Oscar but we’re not even home to pick up the phone when Alfred rings us.
At the very least, Dylan’s selection registers as a novelty, but it’s debatable whether this choice will have any long-term effect on how we think about the songwriter, popular music, or even how we define literature. In many ways, you can make the argument that Dylan is doing far more for the award’s relevance than the other way around. Still, based on the buzz around the web today, we’ll take a chance that Dylan becoming a Nobel laureate matters. And, finally, that headline can read: “Hibbing, Minnesota, Boy Makes Good.” It’s about damn time.
01. The First One Now Will Not Be the Last
Somebody always has to go first — or at least be the first to get recognized. But now that The Swedish Academy has invited Dylan inside, have they left the door cracked for others? It’s hard to imagine that songwriters will ever populate the annals of laureate winners to the degree that novelists, poets, or playwrights have until now, but if they’ll let one popular songwriter in, what’s to stop them from eventually selecting others? Clearly, Dylan is not your average lyricist and found himself writing during a period of great sociopolitical tumult, which adds cultural heft to his work, but a precedent has been set regardless. So, who’s next? Macca, The Boss, Kanye?
02. Song Lyrics Are Now Literature
Lyric poetry — verse meant to be sung or chanted and accompanied by music — dates back to ancient Greece. But the modern idea of words set to popular music being counted as poetry or literature dates back to English teachers who opted for Bob Dylan because Dylan Thomas seemed a reach for their poetry-adverse students. It’s been a debate for decades: Are lyrics in popular songs poetry? Well, The Swedish Academy has cast a pretty powerful ballot saying that at least sometimes they can be. Consider your desperate hippie teacher finally vindicated. And I guess it retroactively makes you a bit less ridiculous for pawning off popular rock lyrics as your own poetry in English class. Really, Poison. Really?
03. Make America Great Again
During every summer or winter Olympic games, most of us keep at least a casual eye on the medal count for each country. Who doesn’t want their homeland to be thought of as the best in the world? But I’m willing to wager every medal on Michael Phelps’ kitchen counter (next to the bong holding loose change) that most Americans don’t track Nobel Prizes with the same dedication. In the Literature category, Americans have not taken home the gold since 1993, when Toni Morrison won for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import that give life to an essential aspect of American reality.” While it’s wonderful to say we’re stronger, faster, or better at stuffing a leather ball through an orange ring, it’s been far too long since we’ve been able to say we’ve gifted the world a body of literature that captures, contemplates, and celebrates the human experience — from an American perspective — in some essential fashion.
04. An American Time Capsule
Dylan’s ongoing career has spanned more than 50 years. If you consider that the early portion of his career was greatly indebted to a fading American folk tradition, the claim can be made that his songs even embody times long before his own. Regardless, it’s difficult to imagine another body of songs that can serve as an American time capsule the way Dylan’s does. If we listen back through his catalog, we find songs of protest, vitriol, confusion, and hope written during some of the most tumultuous eras and events in American history: the ’60s, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and the Cold War for starters. In many cases, Dylan was our conscience, our eyes and ears, and our hearts. If younger generations or people from other nations around the world wish to get a sense of the American spirit and all that it entails, they could do far worse than listening to the music of Bob Dylan.
05. And the Title of Greatest Songwriter Ever Goes To…
Dylan is one of the most polarizing figures in popular music history. He’s one of those artists people tend to love or hate. And by “love,” I mean worship, and by “hate,” I mean would rather memorize every Nobel laureate in history than listen to five seconds of his nasally register. He might have been the “voice of a generation,” but he’s by no means an artist for everyone. That being said, whenever the age-old debate about who is the greatest songwriter ever comes up in discussion among the types of people who talk about those things (and they never shut up), Dylanphiles can now play the Nobel laureate card. I’m not sure it trumps any and all counter-arguments, but for now, no other songwriter can make that claim. Suck on that, Lennon/McCartney. Eh, too harsh.