Posted in Of Musicals

Nobel: More A Win For Songwriting, Than Dylan

Bob Dylan

I misinterpreted what was first told to me about Bob Dylan yesterday. I was listening to music via headphones (a rare occurrence. Not the music, but the device), and I had to read the lips of the person who conveyed the news to me. I read “Bob Dylan died,” and immediately plucked the headphones in agony, to correctly hear, “Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.” The last words of those two sentences do rhyme.

I was elated. The recognition made complete sense to me, though I’m not going to start addressing him as ‘Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’ yet. Unlike most other Nobel laureates, Mr. Robert Zimmerman has been a person to me, often intimately serenading in my ear. I know him, unlike most of the others. And most others, know him just as well too, if not more.

But, I invariably did go over his words again (I know many by heart, again something that doesn’t often happen with Nobel laureates. They usually warm your bookshelf, instead of your vital organs.) just to be clear whether he deserves it or not. It was the world’s shortest self-debate, people take longer to want to say ‘I do’ while marrying their soulmates. It gave me great satisfaction, which is a rare feeling, not so much for Dylan himself, as for modern, pop songwriting. They’ve been at it since the 1960s, at least. It’s about time.

Not that they need it. I haven’t gone through all the arguments against Dylan winning, though the fact that it is a controversy took me by surprise. Sans the music, sans decades of cultural and artistic influence, just the words, for we are talking about literature after all, just the words should be enough. An alien could pick up a book of his collected lyrics (and they do come as a book, which you might now warm your shelf with, in case you don’t know them by heart already) and go over it again and again. Toss and turn those words around, marvel at them, question them, remember them, try to penetrate them, win and fail at them, decide on them and then doubt again, feel that surge of pleasure which some call being ‘moved’ but feels so much more, laugh, cry and feel miserable over them. Which any good book should do to you, at least those who’ve been worthy of the Nobel Prize in the past.

Now, just because this guy, this ‘song and dance man’, also happens to be massively popular and relatively rich to any other deserving literary writer (of whom there are many), does not mean he isn’t deserving. He’s got the goods, he’s always had them. Did he need the recognition? No. Being a Nobel laureate does not increase Bob Dylan’s relevance and influence much more than it already is. His work has long penetrated un-obvious lands, un-obvious places of intellectual activity. I live in India. There are long-standing fans right from the 1960s, whose numbers have continually grown. I have always had an urge not to belong to a club that would have me as a member, but I’ve envied the common sight of some young man or woman strumming “Blowing In The Wind” on their guitar, or painting lyrics as graffiti. I’ve preferred the snarkier, more humourous side of Dylan instead, because there is a Dylan for everybody.

Bob Dylan Lyrics

I’ve seen his lyrics being studied as poems in schools and universities, usually as part of some American literature course. I’ve studied him and several others as part of a course on rock music for my M.A. in English literature, where we looked at these musicians through the decades from several perspectives: musical, literary, cultural, political etc.

I later researched women in popular music for several years (unsuccessfully, my thesis lies gathering dust at home and not in some university), which entailed going through hundred of songs – both lyrics and music, and thousands of hours of video footage of performances, documentaries, interviews etc. I am not mentioning this to validate myself as some sort of an ‘expert’. But, I only want to express my long-felt desire, need, for these songwriters to be recognised every bit as worthy as others in literature and cultural studies. I could sit as easily with Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems as I could with Joan Armatrading’s lyrics on They’d challenge and delight me equally, and neither would feel superior.

Dylan does not need the recognition, but modern, commercial songwriting does. It doesn’t need it financially or culturally, but it needs it artistically. Recently, I was watching an interview of David Bowie discussing art (not music), where he said it’s the artist who chooses whom to be influenced by, not the critic. Critics chose Picasso as the artist of the 20th century; artists chose Duchamp. I am not going to rail at critics and some of their members’ tendency to be high-brow, domineering and elitist about art. If it were not for critics, in any field, many would simply have never had their day in the sun. Nobody would have allowed David Bowie nearly a decade of unsuccessful albums until he finally made it, had it not been for the positive reviews made by knowledgeable ears.

However, it is true that it is still difficult to slip the word ‘pop’ in any high art discussion, unless Andy Warhol is mentioned. People like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have long made the crossover, if a crossover was required. I, personally, do not feel recognition is required for those reasons. Recognition is required simply because it is there, it has worked itself into the fabric of art-making for over fifty years, and it is not going anywhere.

It’s almost like saying you like tea, have it several times a day, but would never have it with your entrée at a dinner party. Whereas modern songwriting should not be tea at all – the star dessert is more appropriate. But, perhaps that makes it excess, omissible. And, that is the very reason it needs to be recognised.

Popular songwriting does not need art. Art needs popular songwriting. It is exceedingly irritating that attitudes towards 20th and 21st century art remain in the 1910s, despite much experimentation, and widespread disruption in art-making. Dylan is a literary songwriter after all, not a punk poet. Johnny Rotten is not going to belatedly win an Ivor Novello award, is he? But then, even the most prestigious popular music awards have long faced criticism for bias in reverse mode to the Nobel Prize – awarding the more popular artist in favour of the more artistically-gifted one.

True recognition, as Bowie said, will remain with the future artists, the fans.

What do you think about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win?


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

19 thoughts on “Nobel: More A Win For Songwriting, Than Dylan

  1. Fabulous post! I mean truly inspired! At first I was taken aback by the news. Then I went onto a music forum I frequent where the conversation had already started and ranged from YES! to HUH?? I wasn’t quite sure I saw it initially myself. I have only skimmed the surface of his music whether as performed by him, or covered by others. But then my brain switched gears, and in my head I went to my favorite Dylan song-Tangled Up In Blue, and similar to what you say above about an alien coming down, and just reading the words to the lyrics, it is clearly literature. And then I became convinced that this was a genius move. In a historical musical context, Dylan is important because he bridged the gap between introspective folk singer and rocker…but more than that, he made it ok for lyrics to be meandering, frivolous, epic, inspiring. I could pick any literary classic from off my bookshelf and expect to see some of the same buzzwords on the back cover. So why not a Nobel for Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Congratulations to him, and once again, this is a wonderful post Amrita!

    1. Thank you, Robert! It comes from the heart, so maybe that’s why it reads inspired!

      I didn’t even think there would be a need for argument. I mean, Dylan seems fairly obvious to me for this kind of thing. They don’t for most other artists (except Leonard Cohen) but, Dylan has been a part of literature studies globally for a long time. It would have been surprising if Mick Jagger/Keith Richards got it instead! That would have been a stretch for their high-intellectualism. But, when I read a headline that said something like Dylan winning a Nobel is equal to Trump being president, it really bothered me! Hey, at least Dylan has talent! And much more. What I’ve superficially noticed is that writers and literature academics don’t have a problem with it. Cultural commentators and critics seem to be displeased. Sure, there are many, many writers who deserve and need the recognition and prize money, which Dylan doesn’t. But, as I argued, it’s songwriting which did.

      Anyway, feel like I’m repeating myself, but I needed to let it out!

      1. That is interesting. I’ve been busy at work so I did not get a chance to really delve into the controversy but I suspect what you say is spot on. I bet some cultural commentators would not make the distinction between Dylan and Mick & Keith, and that is a massive distinction. And an even bigger one compared to that guy running for President who I shall not name! The more I thought about it while listening to Dylan on my way to work (which of course was with headphones, and IS part of my daily routine lol) I really feel it is a good move. That being said, a nod to my favorite novelist Paul Auster would be appreciated in the next few years as a sign of gratitude towards me from the Nobel committee!

      2. Ha ha! Philip Roth hasn’t won either, and we’re talking about only one country. Technically, the first songwriter to win was Tagore in 1913, but the particular text he won it for was one of poetry called Gitanjali (‘Song Offerings’). He wrote thousands of songs, and you really cannot distinguish much between his songs and his poetry, except the former has tunes. It’s akin to the conversation we were having about Bowie’s song vs. poetry writing the other day.

        I didn’t want to mention that guy running for president either but the fact that that headline passed muster in some publishing establishment made me worry about the state of journalism. There have been other very intriguing discussions however, though I haven’t been well enough to go through them. I didn’t even have the strength all day to search for Bob Dylan in my mp3 collection!

      3. I am unfamiliar with Tagore but that sounds very intriguing. I won’t distract from this post to go into my thoughts on journalism but I also suspect you are correct. I need to pick up some more Phillip Roth some day but I brought back a stack of books on vacation that will keep me covered for awhile! Wishing you a continued healthy recovery!

      4. Thank you! Tagore was an Indian writer – a multi-faceted, huge personality really. Was inspired by traditional Scottish and Irish music in his songwriting. I highly recommend some reputable editions or recordings of his work (there are plenty which aren’t good enough).

      1. Yes. Apparently, he’s always been like this. A no show at awards from 1963. Even the White House gig in the Obama years was troublesome! At least, he’s consistent. ☺

  2. Great post. I think you put forward a great argument. They said The Beatles elevated pop music up into a more respected art-form, to compete with classical works, but there’s still a long way to go. Perhaps art needs a little extra time to soak into the earth beneath people’s feet before it’s truly accepted as such? The mix of music and capitalism hasn’t helped, with so many business-folk desperate to put out stuff solely to make money, with no regard to quality; but then again, without it we wouldn’t have heard the likes of Dylan, etc. Hopefully now, as the power of opinion slides ever-increasingly into the hands of the public, and out of the the clasp of big record labels; hopefully songs, music, etc. will be fully recognised.

    1. Thank you! It definitely helps that not everyone has to be as much at the mercy of record companies and management as before. You still need it to strike really, really big (even a peripheral look at the Grammies makes it seem like the most extravagant thing ever) but others can still get a somewhat decent audience. I wonder though, how someone like Dylan would have started today. He is very much a product of his time, and not many people can do things the way he did now.

  3. I’m always nervous when I see an elder stateswoman/statesman of rock’s name is ‘trending’ (especially given the number of greats we’ve lost this year) – was relieved to read why Dylan’s name was trending this week!
    Nice post Amrita

    1. Thank you! I thought I was filling some sort of psychological blank with that assumption I made. It’s so rare to get good news of this kind these days. None of the music awards excite me!

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