Can lyrics be as important as poetry?

Bob Dylan’s name has been appearing on lists of betting odds for the Nobel Prize in Literature since the early 2000s. This year, Ladbrokes had him at 50/1 for the win. The closest he’d come to be taken seriously as a contender was in 2011, when a series of late bets sent him up to fourth favourite.

But as Thursday’s surprise announcement shows, maybe the lads at Ladbrokes were onto something. After all, the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2016 is that great American troubadour, provocateur and occasional crank: Bob Dylan.

Dylan has already won 11 Grammys, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer citation and a Presidential Medal for Freedom. Born Robert Zimmerman in the seaport town of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, he picked up the guitar as a teenager to play in high school rock ’n’ roll bands. While at the University of Minnesota, he graduated from rock ’n’ roll to a deep study of American folk music traditions: the communist folk of ‘dust bowl troubadour’ Woody Guthrie, the standards of The Great American Songbook, Robert Johnson’s Delta Blues. Literary influences included the rat-a-tat imagery and “street ideologies” of the Beats, and the modernist symbolism of French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Even his chosen surname, Dylan, is a tribute to the Welsh Romantic poet Dylan Thomas.

After he signed a record deal with Columbia Records in 1961, he was largely channelling Woody Guthrie via acolyte Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. When his sophomore The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963, he was instantly propelled to the forefront of the 1960s folk revival movement. But by the end of the year, he had grown tired of being labelled the ‘spokesperson for a generation’, infamously calling out the members of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and saying he saw something of himself in John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. He also distanced himself from the folk movement, giving a free rein to his poetic side.

This was the first left-field lurch of many. In 1965, Dylan definitively alienated a large part of his folk fanbase by going electric, in the process kicking off what many call his ‘perfect period’. The triumvirate of Bringing It Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the classic Blonde On Blonde showcased Dylan’s diversity as a songwriter, with lyrics that approached storytelling in myriad ways, while remaining rooted in Dylan’s iconoclasm and his mission to speak the truths of American political and cultural life. Then, after the motorcycle accident in 1966 and a short withdrawal from public life, this Left-wing troubadour returned with an album full of Bible songs.

Over 30 more albums, he explored Nashville country, and English and Irish folk music. He then returned to the Tin Pan Alley songs he once proudly claimed to “have put an end to”, gave us the instant 1975 classic Blood On The Tracks , became a born-again Christian, and generally weaved all over the map in terms of style, content and quality. He also released a generally derided stream-of-consciousness novel, a bunch of songbooks, and a critically acclaimed autobiography.

Despite its diversity, this vast oeuvre was decidedly Dylan, in words and in music. It wasn’t long before this once anti-establishment figure became beloved by the establishment as a littérateur operating in musical form. His selection as a Nobel prize laureate will have sent waves of joy amongst the hundreds who have spent years trying to establish Dylan as a poet and a literary figure belonging to the same pantheon as Walt Whitman and Toni Morrison.

Divisive backlash

But is Dylan’s work of a stature that deserves a Nobel? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the announcement provoked a divisive backlash against the Academy. Much of the criticism came from authors and literary critics who, regardless of their like or dislike of Dylan’s work, argued that songwriting isn’t the same thing as literature. New Weird author Jeff Vandermeer said it most forcefully with the tweet “Category Error! Category Error! Alert! Category Error! Alert! Category Error!”. This isn’t a new criticism of the canonisation of Dylan as a literary figure. Steve Earle once said, “Gregory Corso used to get really pissed when people called Bob Dylan a ‘poet’. After writing poetry for a few years, I can understand that.” At conflict here is the idea of what people think of as literature, and whether pop songwriting fits the bill. Many Dylanistas are harking back to Homer and a tradition of lyric poetry to cement Dylan’s literary status. And they ignore the fact that popular music and the written word split branches a couple of centuries ago, and occupy two different ecosystems.

Other writers have argued that Dylan’s lyrics, when judged purely on paper, do not stand up to the best works of writers like Philip Roth or Don DeLillo (both American writers who have been denied the honour till now), or even those of emerging women writers or writers of colour. Many in the Dylan camp have dismissed these criticisms as ‘literary snobbishness’ and an unwillingness to treat pop songwriting as legitimate art. There is an element of truth to these arguments, as at least some of the nay camp write in terms that reek of intellectual elitism.

But here’s the rub. Unlike what these Dylan fans might claim, this award isn’t a nod towards the legitimacy of pop music. Instead, it’s an appropriation of a pop songwriter into the literary world, as one of their own, in what can be read as a desperate grab for cultural relevance.

Even supporters of the Swedish Academy’s decision, like The Guardian ’s Richard Williams, admit that the words and the music of Bob Dylan cannot be separated. But that’s exactly what the Academy has tried to do. In the words of Nobel permanent secretary Sara Danius, “We still read Homer and Sappho and we enjoy it. And same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.” This is not a vindication of Dylan’s songwriting skill, but an attempt to re-situate his words on a blank page. American poet Billy Collins said Dylan is “in the 2 per cent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page”. This is a display of snobbish elitism, but not in the sense Dylanistas are thinking. Dylan is being honoured despite his work being in the form of pop music, not because of it.

Which is why the sharpest and most credible critiques of the decision have come not from the literary world, but from pop music writers, who see this as delegitimising the musical aspect of ‘pop music’. The tendency to focus on the most accessible part of the work — the lyrics — at the expense of everything else, is something that music writers struggle with regularly. And so they’re most sensitive to others indulging in this lazy critical technique. Pitchfork managing editor Matthew Schnipper says it best: “To read his lyrics flatly, without the sound delivering them, is to experience his art reduced.” The Nobel Prize does not acknowledge any of this, and is being seen as insulting tokenism to pop music, which is more relevant today than ‘literature’ has been for a couple of decades.

Transcending pop music

Indeed, there is something patronising about the literary world’s hagiographic treatises about how Dylan’s work ‘transcends pop music’, as if Public Enemy’s lyricism and oratorical innovations are somehow less worthy than Harry Martinson. And, of course, this is an honour that would only be extended to baby boomer ‘visionaries’ like Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Tupac, for example, would never get the same benefit of doubt. So the ever-crabby Everett True is somewhat right when he says, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature heightens the gender and race divide between ‘serious’ rock music and ‘disposable’ pop music.”

It doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway, that none of these critiques have anything to do with Dylan’s worth as an artist. He hasn’t said a word about the award yet, and may never do so. He might even reject it, as some have called on him to do. I like to think his reaction will be similar to the one he describes in Chronicles: Volume One , when he was awarded an honorary doctorate. “I couldn’t believe it!” he wrote. “Tricked once more…I was losing all kinds of credibility.”

The author is a freelance writer

The sharpest critiques have come not from the literary world,

but from pop

music writers

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 12:40:43 AM |

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