|Bob Dylan's manuscript|
Pop lyrics aren't literature? Tell that to Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan
Yes, lyrics usually work better when set to music – but 60 years of rock and pop have produced words that stand on their own as poetry
Thursday 13 October 2016 15.05 BST
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius struck a slightly curious note as she announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the 2016 Nobel prize in literature. It wasn’t apologetic, exactly, but she certainly seemed to be qualifying the committee’s decision in a way that you suspect she wouldn’t have felt the need to had the award gone to Haruki Murakami or Don DeLillo, writers also rumoured to be in the frame. She even offered the press a brief guide on how to approach Dylan’s work, advising them to start with 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, as if afraid people might not have come across it before, a slightly weird way to address one of the most celebrated albums in rock history. It’s hard not to wonder if she would have done the same thing had Ngugi wa Thiong’o got the nod instead.
Of course, Danius was trying to pre-empt criticism of the decision. There’s doubtless an editor on the phone to the stuffiest writer they can think of as we speak, keen to commission 1,500 words on why this means the absolute desecration of everything Alfred Nobel held dear and the collapse of literature as we know it – potential headline: JUDAS! – but, leaving the fulminating wingnuts aside, there’s a sense in which Dylan winning the Nobel prize in literature isn’t surprising at all. If any rock star was going to win it, it was pretty obviously going to be him.
In 2008, he won a special citation at the Pulitzer prize. His lyrics have been the subject of academic study for decades. Even before that, he was being feted by poets and authors as their equal or more, as he is to this day. If the former professor of poetry at Oxford University Christopher Ricks’s interest in Dylan has been treated with a certain bemusement, it might have less to do with its subject than the fact that his books on Dylan occasionally seem a bit barmy. Anyone who’s dutifully struggled through the bit in Dylan’s Visions of Sin where he spends four pages dissecting the lyrics of All the Tired Horses, which consist in their entirety of “two lines of words followed by a musing hmmm sound that might be one line or two”, will concur.
There’s a wider point here. At the risk of sounding like the kind of English teacher who insists on first-name terms and keeps saying Great Expectations was the EastEnders of its day, why shouldn’t lyrics – or rather the best lyrics – be treated as literature? Pretty much everyone who really loves rock and pop music can quote at least a handful of lyrics that genuinely bear comparison to poetry, in their incisiveness, or power, or the richness of their imagery.
Occasionally they lose something by being written down rather than sung – “the music does what the words alone cannot do,” as Germaine Greer put it when complaining about this kind of thing – but equally there are others that, to repurpose another of Greer’s phrases, carry their music with them. When, at the end of his celebrated 1979 essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the critic Lester Bangs quotes the title track’s opening lines next to lines from Lorca’s Ballad of the Small Plaza, it doesn’t look like affectation. The notion that not a single word that’s been set to pop music over the last 60 years is worthy of mention in the same breath as literature is clearly nuts. Indeed, a more compelling counter-argument might be that pop music, lyrics and all, is an art form in itself and doesn’t need validating with a pat on the head from the literary establishment.