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.
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 metrolyrics.com. 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?