No living musician is more important, influential or game-changing than Bob Dylan. Dylan completely revolutionized the songwriting process when he began his career in the 1960s, with tracks such as the politically charged, existential “Blowin’ in the Wind” or the groundbreaking “Visions of Johanna,” in which he explores memories of an unattainable woman. It is because of songs like these that Dylan is called a poet.
Despite this merit, the artistic world was shocked when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature one week ago. Media outlets, including the New York Times, and thousands of people on Twitter were not hesitant to criticize the committee’s decision, arguing that Dylan should not qualify as a poet and that he already has enough acclaim and popularity. While many subscribe to such arguments, I believe the committee made the right decision — Bob Dylan deserved the award.
Arguing that Dylan is not a poet because he writes songs is equivalent to saying Frank Sinatra was not a singer because he acted in movies. One potential objection to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize could be that his lyrics are so masterfully interwoven with his music that to separate them is a disservice to him as a songwriter. This is a point with which I might agree, but otherwise I believe Dylan’s songwriting can indeed stand alone as poetry.
A short excerpt of his song, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” shows his skill with the written word: “While some on principles baptized. To strict party platforms ties. Social clubs in drag disguise, outsiders they can freely criticize. Tell nothing except who to idolize. And then say God Bless him.And if my thought-dreams could been seen. They’d probably put my head in a guillotine. But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.”
Those words have all the cadence, rhythm and depth of poetry, and they’re as thematically relevant today as they were in 1965. The depth and sophistication of lyrics such as these is what made Dylan so revolutionary. He inspired most songwriters during his time and after him, directly or indirectly — from The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen to modern artists such as Ed Sheeran.
Another popular argument against Dylan winning the Nobel Prize is that there are other “real” authors who are more qualified for the award. There are many deserving authors who have not gotten the recognition, including Cormac McCarthy (“The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Meridian”). But giving the Nobel Prize to a musician expands our modern definition of literature. The main difference between lyrics and poetry is the musical performance, which many argue is absolutely crucial as to why songwriting differs from literature. The live performance of poetry, plays and other forms of literature, though, has long been a tradition into which songwriting fits.
Opponents to the committee’s decision also like to point out that Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize. That then forces us to ask whether or not popularity should have an effect on who is chosen for the award. By choosing Dylan, the committee acknowledged that his writing transcends the literary constraints posed by being a musician. The decision validates the art of songwriting as something on par with the art of literature, which has been given the highest artistic praises for centuries — and that validation is truly inspiring.
Bob Dylan is one of America’s finest poets, who explores the human experience through his writing and spoke to a generation of restless young men and women amid the brewing turmoil of the 1960s. His importance, musically or culturally, cannot be understated. Even today, we can see the relevance of his early work regarding social justice through his fierce questioning of the stagnant 1960s society his generation was only starting to challenge. Songs such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Hurricane” seem like they were written for today’s social-political movements, and they should be required listening for any Loyola students interested in social justice.
It’s this caustic, early 1960s side of his personality that gave Dylan the reputation of a rebel, so it is only fitting that he stirs up controversy over his Nobel Prize win — an honor of which he is absolutely deserving.
If you’d like to visit his website, feel free to peruse the tour dates, sound files, lyrics and discography of Bob Dylan.