On October 13, 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and everyone lost their damn minds.
As per usual two camps have formed: those who firmly agree with the decision, and those who firmly disagree with the decision. Why am I not surprised that this happened?
In all fairness, one decent criticism is that by giving Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature it could create a new level of snobbery, a new metric for music. “Yes it’s good, but is it Nobel Prize worthy?” It’s a fair concern, but given the context it may not be a well-founded concern. The Nobel Prize has always been reserved for exceptional people, and it’s safe to say that Bob Dylan is an exceptional person. He influenced the Beatles and David Bowie to write more meaningful songs. His lyrics have such power and depth that they are considered poetry.
Another criticism is that this is too broad for literature. Let’s take a look at the definition of literature. According to Merriam-Webster, literature is:
-written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and have lasting importance
-books, articles, etc. about a particular subject
-printed materials that provide information about something
Alright, so the first definition is the most pertinent in this situation. Songs are, in essence, poems with music attached to it. Most of his music reads like poetry. Even if you hate his voice, even if you hate the music itself, you have to admit that his lyrics could be read like poetry, and some of his songs are versatile enough that they could be read like fierce political speeches. If you handed a revolutionary the lyrics to “The Times They Are a-Changin’” that could be one king hell of a speech regardless of generation. Regardless of your personal opinion about Dylan, his work is critically acclaimed, popularly acclaimed, and he has a significant place in 20th century music.
This means his work is poetry that is considered to be very good and have lasting importance.
Sounds like literature to me. Some are saying that Dylan winning this redefines literature, and I heartily disagree. We have just made literature synonymous with the novel, and that’s a narrow and incorrect view.
So now the question is, did Bob Dylan really deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature?
In my opinion, yes. The Nobel Prize is awarded to those who make great strides in the fields of art and science, and to those who are capable of taking lofty, often unreachable ideas and passing them down to the rest of us. The winners of the Nobel Prize are Promethean human beings giving fire to the people, and Bob Dylan is no different. I’m sure some are getting the impression that I’m some kind of super-fan that can’t/won’t look objectively at this. Rest assured, I’m not a super-fan. A fan, yes, but not some fanboy that believes in The Zimmerman (Blessings be upon him).
Bob Dylan is similar to John Steinbeck or Walt Whitman; a man of the People, that has experience with the People, that speaks for the People. He might be a voice for his time, but he’s also timeless and has left an indelible mark on American culture and on global culture. T.S. Eliot received his Nobel Prize in 1948 is because of “his outstanding, pioneering contribution to modern day poetry.” If we consider Bob Dylan’s lyrics to be poetry (which they are), and if we say that Dylan made an outstanding, pioneering contribution to modern day songwriting (which he did) then it’s safe to say that Dylan deserved his Nobel Prize.
So…what’s the problem?
Maybe there is some well-justified fear that our cultural standards are vanishing. This year it’s Bob Dylan, and next year…who knows? I’ll admit it, I’m a little worried about our cultural future, but it’s not because of Bob Dylan. I don’t believe Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize is a harbinger of coming cultural apocalypse, however I see the logic behind the fear. One of the problems of postmodernism is the idea that labels or harsh criticisms of art are helpful or accurate since they’re grounded in biases. The funny thing is the same people that would prescribe to such lofty ideals shudder at the idea of a folk singer winning one of the most prestigious awards in the world. Irony! Still, I understand the anxiety that such a relaxed attitude might allow for undeserving candidates to get undeserved attention.
The other concern is that Dylan’s Nobel Prize might set a new bar is, like I said, an unfounded concern. Bob Dylan already established that bar and the Nobel Prize helped affirmed it. Perhaps some of the criticism comes as a reaction from the populace of the Ivory Tower that their perceived sense of cultural elitism is a thing of the past. I don’t blame them, facing your own impending mortality is always a terrifying thing. It’s losing a sense of relevance. It’s the same reason literary critics shudder at the thought of self-publishing becoming a viable option for novels to reach an audience. Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature sounds to them like the barbarians knocking at the gates…
Or the frustrated masses tearing down the Bastille and running the nobles out of town.
Either way, as an American I’m just excited that one of our citizens won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only is Dylan an American, but he’s a living example of the American DreamTM Born to immigrant parents in a small town in Minnesota, he took his guitar and his idea to New York City. In New York City he was “discovered” and now he’s a Nobel Prize laureate. Not only is that a good message for aspiring American artists, but it’s a good message for any aspiring artist regardless of nationality. Does it really matter that Bob Dylan didn’t go to an Ivy League School? Does it really matter that he didn’t write a novel? (Tarantula doesn’t count. We don’t talk about Tarantula.) It shouldn’t matter.
Maybe Bob Dylan’s win can be best summed up with his own words: “Your old road is rapidly aging/Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand/The times they are a-changin’”