Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Yesterday Bob Dylan, the beat folk musician who turned electric and helped make the ’60s the ’60s, won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Dylan is the first musician ever to have won the award — and, not surprisingly, the decision to give one of literature’s great prizes to a rock singer immediately produced criticism.  One writer said “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”

50-shades-bob-dylanMost of the criticism of the decision to give the Nobel Prize to Dylan focuses on whether lyrics can ever rise to the level of “literature.”  It’s a kind of snooty argument that necessarily comes off as dismissive of songwriters, suggesting that poets and novelists labor over their craft, think big thoughts and wrestle with the big issues, and produce timeless works of literary art — while songwriters simply dash off a ditty and consult their rhyming dictionary as necessary.  Still others argue that Dylan has received enough awards — he’s won a lot of Grammys, for example — and he doesn’t need the Nobel Prize.  As one critic of the award put it, reading is declining, writers and poets are struggling for recognition, and “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”

Kind of sad, isn’t it?  Years after Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Hemingway, people are arguing that the Nobel Prize is what is needed to show that writing poetry and prose matters?  And, in a way, that argument is self-defeating, isn’t it?  After all, the Nobel Prizes in literature that have been awarded pre-Dylan – and you can see the list here — haven’t exactly prevented the worldwide decline in reading and recognition of writers and poets that some people are bemoaning.

The notion that the Nobel Prize somehow legitimizes literature seems pretty silly to me.  Nobel Prizes always appear to be highly politicized, and the concept of honoring writers and poets through the selection of one award winner doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, for example, was given to Tomas Transtromer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  How does the award to Tomas Transtromer affirm the value of authors and poets who write in different genres and different styles?

Words are words, and the Nobel Prize for literature recognizes that words have power.  Whether the words appear in a book, a poem, or a recorded song, the key point is whether those words are being used in a memorable, beautiful way to send a lasting message to the reader — or the listener.  No one who has listened to Bob Dylan’s music has failed to appreciate the lyrics, which undeniably have their own unique, poetic power.  Dylan’s writing — like, apparently, the writing of Tomas Transtromer — makes us think about words and their message.  I think he’s a fitting recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.

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Bob Dylan And The Congressional Medal Of Freedom

The White House has announced that Bob Dylan soon will be receiving the Congressional Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.  He will be joined by fellow recipients Toni Morrison, John Glenn, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

I’m skeptical of such honors — often they seem motivated more by political considerations, or a desire for higher ratings for the awards show, than by an effort to recognize those who truly have had a profound impact on our society — but there is no doubt that Bob Dylan is deserving of such recognition.

In fact, you could argue that Dylan’s entire career has been about freedom.  Starting from his roots as a folk singer who wrote classics like Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’, to his famous decision to go electric, to his leadership role in the protests against the Vietnam War, and then to his willingness to experiment with different musical styles, including involvement in the Traveling Wilburys, as his career progressed, Dylan always has been willing to challenge authority, display his sharp wit, and follow his own star, wherever it might lead.  His uniquely American personal journey has produced a staggering amount of tremendous music, too — great albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, and, more recently, Modern Times, and a huge library of great songs like Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Positively 4th Street, and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

America’s leadership role in the world is as much cultural as economic or military.  Bob Dylan’s songs have demonstrated, for all the world to see, what memorable beauty a free person in a free country can create.  His music has been a great ambassador for the concepts of personal liberty that America was founded to preserve.  I’d say it’s about time our government formally recognized what Dylan’s fans recognized long ago.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

Political Songs

Recently I’ve been listening to my “political songs” playlist on my Ipod. The only criterion for inclusion on the list is that the song has to have some kind of overt “political” message, as opposed to being about love, or cars, or some other song topic. I like the playlist because it has really good diversity of genres, artists, and even political viewpoints. The first 20 songs are as follows:

The Times They Are A-Changin’ — Bob Dylan
New Millenium Homes — Rage Against The Machine
What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
Ohio — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Good People — Jack Johnson
Revolution — The Beatles
Capital G — Nine Inch Nails
Tom Dooley — Kingston Trio
Authority Song — John Mellencamp
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — R.E.M.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) — U2
Working Class Hero — John Lennon
Born In The U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen
Why Don’t You Get A Job — The Offspring
Redemption Day — Sheryl Crow
Uneasy Rider — The Charlie Daniels Band
Zombie — The Cranberries
American Anthem — Norah Jones
Things Goin’ On (Acoustic) — Lynyrd Skynyrd
For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield

If you’ve never heard it, Uneasy Rider is an absolute classic: