Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature
by Logan Troy on Friday, October 21st, 2016
As far as accolades go, the Nobel prize holds a reputation for awarding the best and brightest across the world. Many different selection committees choose the winners in fields ranging from physics to peace (with the notable exception of mathematics), and the Swedish Academy awards the prize for literature. Past recipients of this award include Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and, of course, famed Milton alumn T.S. Eliot. However, few decisions by the Swedish Academy have raised as many eyebrows in and out of literary circles as this year’s selection of American lyricist Bob Dylan.
Before examining Dylan’s place as a literary figure of Nobel stature, it is necessary to revisit his half-century career. Beginning in 1959, 18-year-old Dylan, pursuing a folk music career, moved from his home in Minnesota to New York City. He performed around Greenwich Village while honing his craft as a songwriter. In the midst of the civil rights movement, Dylan’s songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” articulated America’s conscience in an outspoken yet poetic manner. His early civil rights focus shifted its lens to several other social and political issues over the next decade.
Taking aim at the military industrial complex, Dylan wrote “Masters of War,” while “God on Our Side” took a more philosophical stance on warfare. “Talking World War III Blues” voiced America’s anxiety about nuclear proliferation in the Cold War era. Dylan’s mindful, and sometimes pointed commentary has persisted throughout his career — up until present day.
Dylan revealed a different side of himself on 1965’s Blood on the Tracks, a breakthrough breakup album showcasing heartbreak and loneliness with songs like “Tangled up in Blue.” As politically and socially minded as he was, this willingness to experiment defines Dylan. For example, at the 1965 Newport Music Festival, he met boos from folk music fans when he “went electric.” He saw electric guitars as the road forward in music and didn’t care what folk fans thought of his artistic progression.
His disregard for other people’s opinions earned him his fair share of critics. Often perceived as arrogant, Dylan made a game out of toying with fans and journalists. He frequently reflected questions and assumptions back onto interviewers and seldom answered sincerely. Nonetheless, his lyrics represent an earnestness unreached by most other musical artists.
All this backstory frames the controversy over his merit as a Nobel prize winning writer. Some writers, claiming Dylan’s lyrics inseparable from his music, have complained that the Swedish Academy failed to recognize a true writer. Others wish the award had gone to an underappreciated talent, possibly from a developing nation, so as to boost sales and fame; they argue that Dylan doesn’t need any more sales or fame.
Ultimately though, the prize should award literature of outstanding nature, not catapult an unknown writer into the spotlight. As most anyone who has listened to Dylan’s lyrics (and understood them through his raspy voice) knows that his stories, imagery, and wonderful rhymes constitute poetry. It is, after all, a traditional oral art form that was performed long before the printing press allowed widespread distribution of written work. The recognition of a musician harkens back to that tradition.
Furthermore, Dylan has tirelessly produced a ridiculous array of music over his 50 year career. Societal influence goes along with his prolific production of albums. Few, if any, writers have breached as many hot button issues in such depth as Dylan has. At every important juncture in American history, his say can sway opinions. In the end, Dylan deserves the Nobel prize for poetically reminding listeners of the hypocrisy within us all.
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