Talk about things have changed. If anyone predicted Bob Dylan would win the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, which still hardly seems real, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it. An American hasn’t won that particular award since it went to Toni Morrison in 1993. A musician hasn’t won since, well, ever.
As awards go, the Nobel is a Big Deal, beyond even a Grammy or an Oscar. Dylan has of course won both, the Grammy many times over including a 1991 Lifetime Achievement Award. (The Nobel comes with a big purse, too: almost a million bucks.) The literature prize is given out by the Stockholm-based Swedish Academy, whose Permanent Secretary, Sara Danius, praised Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions in the great American song tradition” in her official announcement, which greeted Americans waking up Thursday.
A few voices from the literary establishment have complained that giving the award to a musician amounts to a betrayal of writers in the more traditional sense, apparently because “[Dylan’s] writing is inseparable from his music,” Anna North wrote in The New York Times. Not sharing that opinion is Danius, who told an interviewer after the announcement that her favorite Dylan album is Blonde on Blonde. “If you look back, far back — 2,500 years or so — you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to; they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments,” she added.
But let’s leave the literary bickering to the scholars (and Vice). Dylan’s win launches a few unspoken affirmations we would do well to consider. First, that the “great American song tradition” deserves to belong within the much larger body of great world literature. Or that thanks to Dylan, rock and roll — still regarded by some as a lesser tributary of that tradition, even 60 years after its messy birth — has been granted a measure of credibility in the upper reaches of the cultural hierarchy. (Not that any self-respecting rocker, Dylan chief among them, ever asked for anybody’s approval.) If nothing else, it’s a welcome reminder that at a time when this country’s image is rightfully taking a beating around the world, Americans are still capable of making great things — namely, great music.
But Dylan’s Nobel is also a win for rock and roll, and its fans, at a time when they could really use one. Hardly a month has gone by this year without another prominent musician’s obituary. Later on this evening, Dylan and his band will perform in California at Weekend 2 of the Desert Trip festival, sharing a bill with the Rolling Stones. Though the festival has been snickered at as “Oldchella,” it’s drawn plenty of attention from millennials, bucketloads of money for its creators (up to $160 million, by some estimates), and more than a few musings about how the festival is a surefire signpost pointing to rock’s sunset years. “The gathering itself felt like a tacit goodbye to the rock age,” Chris Richards wrote in his superb Washington Post review of the festival’s first weekend, “as well as a loud consecration of this music’s everlasting life.”
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Dylan, who Richards said “continues to nourish his legend by refusing to fulfill anyone’s expectations,” has always been the furthest thing from a typical rocker. Injecting social issues and the freewheeling language of the Beat Generation writers he admired so much (both poetry and prose), his arrival — especially after he “went electric” at Newport in 1965 — split rock into “before” and “after” eras like no other artist save Elvis and the Beatles. Following his mysterious motorcycle wreck the next year, something else awoke in him and, along with his loyal abetters in The Band, Dylan more or less invented Americana music as we know it today.
Even in more recent times, say, since 1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, his albums have continued to examine and advance that great American song tradition Sara Danius spoke of, often by combining its various core elements (folk, blues, rockabilly, standards) in novel and surprising ways, and by following the tradition’s back roads instead of the superhighways. Even at 75, Dylan’s brain makes connections that almost nobody else's does, musically and lyrically, even the other top names in his field. Gifted as they are, it’s hard to imagine even the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith ever taking home a Nobel for Literature, although Dylan’s win raises the issue that maybe there should be such an esteemed prize for music, too. Perhaps one day there will be.
If the rock era really is ending, maybe it’s because more people like Dylan haven’t come along. Then again, Dylan has long since transcended both his era and rock itself; it’s almost like history wouldn’t allow someone of equivalent talents to share the same space, although more than a few people have come close. A similar scenario arguably happened to jazz – over a long period of time, a form that once occupied the center of mainstream popular music got pushed to the margins. But as geniuses like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman helped push jazz out of broad popular favor, they also helped push it toward immortality for that relatively small subset of fans who were picking up what they were laying down. Just as with those men, Dylan’s body of work is a fountainhead that musicians will worship, study, adapt, rip off, debase and every so often even improve upon for generations to come. He didn’t need to win a Nobel Prize for that to happen, but it sure is nice to see him getting the kind of lofty recognition he deserves.