The songwriter pens powerful lyrics, but not literature.
Last week, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan became the newest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The choice to award Dylan with the world’s highest literary honor was a confusing one, mostly because he does not create literature.
First, some history. Generally, the Nobel prize is awarded to artists working within the traditional definition of literature — poetry, novel, short story and drama. There have been a few cases in which the prize has been awarded to philosophers or notable essayists, but Dylan is the first songwriter to receive the award.
The choice has caused a small-scale identity crisis among the literati, mostly centered on whether or not song lyrics can be considered poetry.
Ultimately, the answer is no. While lyrics can certainly be analyzed as poetry, putting the two in the same category does both forms a disservice. To separate lyrics from their music removes their full mastery. Most lyrics — including Dylan’s — don’t have nearly as much impact without their accompanying melodies.
Lyrics are a distant cousin of poetry, once or twice removed, but not within the immediate family of literature. They certainly shouldn’t be within the realm of consideration for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
When it comes to Bob Dylan, I can see the appeal. He’s a master of song from a period of history where music had the power to influence the world and lead revolutions. And as the newly-discovered favorite musician of every white Midwestern hipster, his work has managed to stay relevant despite his career peak in the ‘70s.
But I take issue with rewarding popularity over merit.
The Swedish Academy, which selects the winners for all Nobel awards, has always prided itself on honoring forward-thinking individuals in all fields. But to award this distinguished literary prize to a popular songwriter — especially one whose status as a genius requires overlooking the last twenty years of his discography — feels like an insult to the institution of literature. It’s a massive step backwards instead of an endorsement of fresh ideas.
At the end of the day, Bob Dylan hasn’t devoted his life to literature — he’s devoted his life to songwriting. Neither of these forms of expression is inherently more valuable than the other, but they each have vastly different requirements, qualities and skill sets.
To a certain extent, the lyrics-versus-poetry debate comes down to apples and oranges. The categories are similar, and in some ways appear to overlap, but in others will always remain distinctly different.
Some find apples tastier, while some will argue for oranges. But would an apple win an award for “Best Orange”? Never. Neither should Dylan win an award for lifelong contributions to literature.
For his work in music and songwriting, Dylan been rewarded with critical acclaim, multiple Grammys and even a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation Award — all of which were hard-earned and well-deserved. But he didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature.
If the Swedish Academy is making a move towards interpreting award criteria more loosely, so be it. There’s not much I can do apart from try to find a silver lining.
If nothing else, I can start looking forward to next year’s announcement that Dr. Seuss has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
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