Pop songs as literature? Bob Dylan as a Nobel laureate? What is this world coming to?
But it’s not so strange. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awarded Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, compared him to Homer and Sappho, and it’s a fact that great literature has its roots in lyrics that were set to music and transmitted from town to town and from generation to generation by a succession of minstrels, troubadours, cantors and choirs. And then records, radio and streaming services.
Most ancient lyrics, like most pop songs today, were almost certainly forgettable. But some were psalms. Some continue to be sung. In recognizing Dylan, the academy is rightly recognizing the literary pedigree, power and potential of the lyric that is set to music.
It is also reminding us that pop culture is more than just reality shows and celebrity scandal, even if that culture is currently steeping us in a low-brow presidential campaign that offers intellectual engagement on the level of a Kardashian tweet or “Mob Wives.” Or “The Apprentice.” Dylan demonstrates that pop can be art, yet remain pop. It can have broad appeal to a mass radio audience of adolescents and young adults and still have something to reveal to those same people in their later years, and to the generations that come after them.
He turned centuries-old ballads like “Lord Randall” into searing social prophetic-style commentaries like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and did it in a way that made 13-year-olds listening on transistor radios and college professors listening on stereo consoles think differently and seek deeper understanding. That’s what literature does.
Dylan’s lyrics predicted and then described the civil rights and anti-war movements, but they seem uncomfortably current. He wrote of more personal things like the break-up of relationships and his shifting religious identity. The best of those lines are timeless.
Is Dylan the best pop lyricist ever? Is he more poetically introspective than Joni Mitchell, more vital than Tupac Shakur, more lyrically intelligent than, say, Cole Porter? If you take away the simple tune and leave yourself with just the lyrics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” (the full version, not the shortened one made famous by the Byrds), does Dylan reach the literary level of Walt Whitman? Is it any less right or fair to separate song lyrics from music than it is to separate Shakespeare scripts from the stage?
Those are questions for the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, and they answered it Thursday to their own satisfaction. That’s usually the end of the inquiry. But in recognizing someone who writes and sings pop music, the academy is in effect turning what is too often a rarefied and elitist discussion of literature over to the populace. That makes those questions fair game for anyone with a few minutes to spare and an open and inquiring ear.