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View from The Cheap Seats - Nobel Prize for music lyrics

View from the Cheap Seats is an extension of the newsroom, which is frequently a site of heated debate on topics ranging from the extremely serious to the utterly ridiculous.

View from the Cheap Seats is an extension of the newsroom, which is frequently a site of heated debate on topics ranging from the extremely serious to the utterly ridiculous. This web edition features the views of print edition columnists Thom Barker (Wednesday) and Calvin Daniels (Friday), as well as web exclusive content by Devin Wilger (Thursday).

This week: Was Bob Dylan a good choice for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature?

Applauds award

I want to applaud the Nobel Literature Committee for awarding Bob Dylan its 2016 prize. I do like a good controversy.

I want to because the decision boldly breaks new ground. Why not a songwriter? And if a songwriter, Dylan is a likely choice by sheer longevity and volume of work. And, some of that work is brilliant. Some is the polar opposite of brilliant, but that is to be expected with someone so prolific.

Nobody can argue, however, that he has not been impactful.

I want to applaud the committee, but I can’t, just as I am a reluctant fan of Dylan. I do like the fact the choice expands the boundaries of literature, I’m just not sure Dylan is the right guy to do it with. I am also not sure it is appropriate given all the truly great authors to choose from. Before the announcement, Ladbrokes, the British bookmaker had Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami leading the pack at 4/1 with Dylan bringing up the rear at 50/1.

I have to admit, though, I am kind of enjoying his snubbing of the venerable Swedish organization. The notably cantankerous musician has been silent since the announcement and the committee has taken to calling him “rude and arrogant.” Hello? Where have they been for the last 50 years? They didn’t know Bob Dylan is rude and arrogant?

Some have suggested that the songwriter, who made his bones on the anti-war movement, might look unfavourably upon the man for whom the prize is named. If that is true, it would not be entirely fair. While Alfred Nobel did make his fortune on explosives—he invented dynamite—he was a well-known pacifist.

In any event, it certainly makes for an interesting debate.

Dylan’s website briefly noted the Nobel win to promote a new book of Dylan lyrics from 1962 – 2001, but that has since been removed.

Maybe he will ultimately refuse the honour as Jean-Paul Sartre did, although the French philosopher is still listed as the laureate for 1964 as Dylan will be for 2016 no matter what he does or what I, or anybody else, thinks about it.

-Thom Barker

I’d pick someone else

The man who wrote Wiggle Wiggle is getting a Nobel Prize for Literature. The man who wrote Mr. Tambourine Man, one of a rare number of songs that makes me want to stab my ear with a screwdriver, is winning a Nobel Prize for Literature. The man who wrote one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, Masked and Anonymous, has just received a Nobel Prize for Literature.

It’s unfair to judge an artist on their worst work, I know, and I will begrudgingly admit some positives about Dylan. He did influence a generation of songwriters, most of whom did not choose to sound like a half-broken lawnmower (on his early albums) or a frog on its deathbed (his most recent ones). He has written as many good songs as he has terrible ones, which I think is true of every great songwriter, though most throw out the bad ones. All Along the Watchtower almost makes up for Mr. Tambourine Man, in other words.

Selecting a songwriter does push the boundaries of what literature means, and this seems to dilute the prize into being about the arts in general since the Nobel Prize committee does not have an arts or music category, but songwriting is basically poetry so this doesn’t bother me as much as some people. If you’re going to give it to a songwriter, it should be someone who is hugely influential, and Dylan is, even if I personally prefer many of the people who he influenced.

I just can’t help but think that someone really should have sent the Nobel Prize committee a copy of Self Portrait before they made this decision.

-Devin Wilger

One-time nod

Well if nothing else it was a landmark decision when it was announced Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel prize for literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

That does sound like a worthwhile reason for bestowing a Nobel prize on Dylan, who is certainly iconic in terms of American music.

However, Dylan is by no means unique in terms of being a trendsetter in music. Nor does he have the market cornered on compelling lyrics.

So why is Dylan the first songwriter recipient since the prize was inaugurated back in 1901?

And then there is the more basic question of whether a popular song is literature?

I have no doubt many song lyrics are simply poetry with accompanying music, but Nobel worthy poetry I am less convinced of.

It is unlikely the literature award will be handed out to songwriters on anywhere near a regular basis, meaning Dylan as a choice is likely rather a unique decision, and in that regard I suppose Dylan as much as anyone is deserving to carry the torch for songwriters gaining some validation for their craft as literature.

- Calvin Daniels

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