Assistant Professor of Journalism Tim Riley is an NPR critic and the author of several books on rock music and musicians, including Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary (Knopf/Vintage 1992, Da Capo 1999).
Emerson College Today asked Riley about the announcement Thursday, October 13, that the Swedish Academy is awarding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.
The decision has been met with some criticism from those who think that it was gimmicky, nostalgic, or fawning to give the prize to folk-pop legend. Would you defend the decision?
It's just a matter of time before “legitimate” and “respectable” institutions like the Nobel Awards committees acknowledge the great aesthetics enjoyed in the popular arts. One you start giving knighthoods to Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, the Swedes will want to play along.
It's glaringly obvious to anybody with ears that rock music created some of the greatest art of the 20th century, and now the venerable academic and scholarly institutions finally catch up with the listeners. Did a jazzer ever win the Nobel? Seems like Louis Armstrong had one pointed his way. I’d recommend Woody Guthrie for one, but they don't award them posthumously. Still.
Why do you think the Swedish Academy singled out Dylan for this honor, as opposed to, say, Lennon/McCartney, Springsteen, Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Tupac, [insert great lyricist here]? Does he hold a [n extra] special place in the pop music pantheon?
Well, the first answer has to involve his incredible use of language, where he holds an elevated space even among all those you mention. All the above artists owe an incredible amount to Dylan's presence, his striking originality with a lyric, and how he transformed the very nature of song lyrics into something bold and bracing and dangerous.
The much overused term, “poetry,” gets applied to Dylan before most others, even though for a poet, he's incredibly sloppy and prolix. As a lyricist, however, he's shapely, full of invective, color and nuance, makes figurative language sound somehow familiar, and inserts wayward, abstract concepts that transcend their particular moment. His vocal delivery of his own lyrics imbues his words with fluid meanings they wouldn't otherwise have as well, so the award really goes to the whole Dylan package, not just his words or his words and music, but to his recordings and performances of same.
Do you have a favorite Dylan lyric?
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face,” Visions of Johanna
“You just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can't you reach?” She's Your Lover Now
“She inherited a million bucks and when she died, it came to me/I can't help it, if I'm lucky…,” Idiot Wind
As long as they’re giving Nobels to songwriters, who should be next year’s winner?
Well some poets argue there oughtta be a separate category, since we don't wanna cheat any text poets out of any more awards, and we're not handing out Grammys to Mary Karr. And we have this toxic award-heavy culture, where someone like Dylan already has way too many and others seem deserving in different ways.
My list includes Joni Mitchell, Irma Thomas, Aretha Franklin. And what about CRITICS? Don't WE write literature too? Give a big kiss to Clive Davis before he dies!
The other problem with the Nobel lies in the whole Kissinger problem: Once you give it to someone like him, all others get tainted by association. [They] seem to have a better track record with the sciences than the arts.