As of last Thursday, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan challenged the definition of literature as he was awarded the Nobel Prize in the category for what the Swedish Academy described as “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Being the first musician to win such an award, and the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993, I guess one could say that the times, they are a changin’.
Regardless of whether or not Dylan accepts the award—or even acknowledges it—the 2016 Nobel Prize has redefined what has previously been considered literature, posing the question that song lyrics are now comparable to poetry, novels, short stories and works of the like, an implication not all have received positively.
Some argue that welcoming musicians into the literature scene will divert attention for one of the only high-profile writing awards away from independent writers and poets. Others believe this “radicalism” of giving the award to Dylan—a white, male writer— is nothing deserving of praise when taking into account the mere 14 female winners in the award’s 115-year history.
For starters, let it be known that Dylan is one of my favorite musicians of all time.
I listen to a vinyl of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan religiously. I have a black and white poster of his harmonica-playing profile hung above my bed at home. His songs were some of the first I learned on acoustic guitar six years ago.
So, naturally, when I heard the news, I was surprised, but it certainly was positive.
Dylan, 75, has been and continues to be the voice of a generation, a feat of which few people can boast.
His lyrics served as anti-war anthems with 1963’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and 1964’s “The Times They Are A Changin’.” He posed controversial questions of racism and bigotry with 1975’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” He encouraged optimism with 1963’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” He inspired numerous artists long past his time with the often-covered “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
He himself represents a period of American history, his work an eternal portal to the past.
To get nit picky, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the Nobel Prize as “one of six annual prizes that are awarded to people for important work in the fields of literature, physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics and for helping to bring about peace in the world.” To not associate Dylan with peace would be a crime, and to consider his work anything less than important would be ignorant.
In addition, it is often said that in their plainest form, song lyrics are poetry; both incorporating rhyme, pattern, hyperbole and metaphor into lines and stanzas to tell a story. By the transitive property of equality, I suppose this makes Dylan not only a rock’n’roll legend, singer-songwriter, revolutionist but also a poet, in which case, a worthy candidate of such a prestigious award as the Nobel Prize.
One question of concern that does come to mind on the subject is what this will mean for the prize going forward.
Now that the door is open to musicians, where do American lyricists Paul Simon or Willie Nelson stand as potential candidates? Or, thinking across the pond, the ever-influential Paul McCartney? Would Taylor Swift (God forbid) one day fit the model of writing “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” ?
As grateful as I am that music is hereby recognized to the same extent as literature, I can understand why avid literature enthusiasts would be worried for the respectability and credibility of the award.
However, what needs to be recognized is that few artists hold a candle to Dylan. Few can be held at his standard when taking charisma, historical significance and talent into account. Simply put, the man is a lyrical—not to mention musical—genius; a one-of-a-kind gentleman deserving of recognition.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Dena Flows on Flickr.
Jordan Stovka is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.