I can’t believe this happened. I was wrong. I have to eat crow. I don’t even get to decide how it’s cooked. This is incredible, in every sense of the word. How could this have happened? I didn’t think this would ever happen, but it did. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature— the first American to win since Toni Morrison over 20 years ago. Of all the people to win it was the man who I constantly thought was being mentioned as a possible winner, not because of his merits (which are considerable, but more on that later), but because he seemed like the absolute last kind of writer who would win—a genius who now has created the precedence for lyricists to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What the hell does this mean, besides the fact that a thing I joked about last week means I have to eat crow now? Are we going to see in about 40 years someone like Joanna Newsom, Spencer Krug, Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, John Darnielle or Kristian Matsson at the podium delivering their lecture? Does the fact that for the last two years the Nobel Prize has decided to expand its range to journalism and songwriting mean they’re going to play catch up on filmmakers and comics writers? (Note to the Swedish Academy: If you are planning on doing this, Alan Moore, Hayao Miyazaki and Bela Tarr are all still alive and would be good choices). Does Dylan even deserve it?
Regarding the first few questions, the answer is only maybe, given the quirky nature of the nomination process and the tastes of the Swedish Academy. The last question is something I want to talk about.
I know, I know, you’re all dreadfully bored already just reading that last sentence. Is there anything that exists more often and in more useless forms than a straight male writing about Bob Dylan? Isn’t that why we get frustrated with the Boomers, because they couldn’t shut up about this guy? What more can possibly be said about “Blowing in the Wind” or “Blood on the Tracks,” to list only the most popular works? To make it all even more tiresome, he’s a musician, not a “poet.” His works are not meant to be read, but heard. Does that even count?
I’ll just get this out of the way: yes. Homer was meant to be sung, and for the longest time poetry was meant to be spoken aloud rather than read. In that sense, Dylan is more pure than most of the poet winners as to the primeval essence of the art. Many of Dylan’s best songs—such as “Buckets of Rain,” which is, in my opinion, a perfect song—are explicitly given more resonance by the use of his voice, which remains a unique property: “like sand and glue,” as David Bowie once sang.
Next is the fact that most people think of what can be safely seen as the Bob Dylan songs everyone knows, like the ones I mentioned: Dylan the protest singer or Dylan the rock star. I mean, “Like A Rolling Stone” is an amazing song, but it’s essentially just a guy writing about how lame his girlfriend is for six minutes. Songs like “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Highlands” are much better exemplifiers of what Dylan has brought to music and lyrics over his over 50 years of fame. Yes, those are some of his longer songs—and can go on for much longer in concert—but even his shorter ones are amazing, which includes “John Wesley Harding” and “Girl from the North Country.”
But why does he deserve it? Besides being a great artist, one must be influential, and listing everyone Dylan influenced would probably take an entire series of columns even without commentary. I suppose the easiest way to sum up his greatness is that he brought a nonlinearity and impressionism to popular music that wasn’t there before. The best Dylan songs from the 60s (such as “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”) are essentially images that slip in and out of the mind and the understanding. He’s not interested in stories to tell you as much as the stories you construct for yourself. A great Dylan song assembles itself into a myriad of forms in your mind that no story can replicate, simply because of the rules of storytelling. Dylan did not just step outside them but wrote new rules himself, and as a result pretty much every songwriter with ambition for the last 50 years has used the tools he pioneered, and so has many novelists. He may not have a direct literary influence, but he’s done more for literature than most of the past Nobel winners, and that alone makes him earn the prize.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more crows to eat.