‘The Image of me was certainly not a songwriter or singer, it was more like a threat to society in some kind of way’. These are the words of this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. A decision that was met by controversy but also a wave of expectation and surprise that the decision hadn’t come sooner. At the age of 75, Bob Dylan has again added to his long list of accomplishments by being presented with this award.
With a career rivalled by few in terms of achievement and length, Bob Dylan’s career has lasted more than five decades. His influence in undeniable, with his lyrics about social and political issues which account the different changes within American society and really personifies some of the darker times and events of it.
Despite this, many argue that the greatest prize in Literature should not be awarded to a singer-songwriter. The man himself does not even identify with the label he has been cast. Some would argue Dylan’s song lyrics are not always poetic and are more a convenient fit for a melody, which makes him unfit to be named on par with previous winners such as Harold Pinter, Joseph Brodsky and William Golding.
A year that was blackened for music from the very start with the death of David Bowie, has been gifted somewhat of a triumph, as the year draws to an end, with the announcement of the first singer-songwriter ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Has Bob Dylan’s accomplishment pathed the way for future Nobel Prizes for Literature to be awarded to artists within the music industry? Has an artist ever existed that would leave critics struggling to write articles about why this is the worst thing to happen to the Nobel Prize?
Now if we dissect the reason why Bob Dylan was awarded what is universally recognised as the greatest prize in Literature, then we could argue it is applicable to various artists past and present. The Swedish academy stated Dylan was awarded this “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” For writing lyrics that not only defined their own genre but also pioneered new aspects of it and in some cases created entirely new genres, there are very few artists that come to mind. But the fact there are some artists that fit this description shows that maybe the future could see another songwriter being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
No doubt when reading the last paragraph, you were thinking about some names that fit these apparent guidelines to win a Nobel prize and I’ll start this off by mentioning a name that came into your mind- David Bowie. Will there be another artist who will have the same influence and creative genius as Bowie? It is hard to see. He constantly adapted his style and image to stay relevant whilst also making the music industry adapt to the new ideas he was pushing through. On top of the visual beauty that he gifted the world with his many characters and art work, he was also a talented writer- which is obviously why I believe he is a worthy candidate for future prizes in Literature. He had whole albums that read like poetry and the instrumentals are merely complimenting his thought process. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, released a year apart, are great examples of what Bowie is capable of lyrically. Even right up until his death he was releasing music that was dark and capturing that period in his life, with 2016’s Blackstar. Not only was he brilliant at provoking different reactions and interpretations from his lyrics, Bowie was also a great storyteller. What will probably set him apart from the rest of the artists I will go on to mention is his ability to
tell the story of the characters he made. His earlier work vividly describes fictional astronaut Major Tom’s life with Space Oddity (1969) and made appearances throughout his career, even possibly in Blackstar. “For years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazeless star” Is just an example of how he could describe the most complicated things, so simply. A personal favourite of mine lyrically, and I can only assume you, as a conscious reader, also share my opinion, is Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide. The seemingly cheery guitar at the start that sets up “time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth”. That contrast in emotion created by his lyrics just shows how Bowie winning the prize would not cause as much controversy as Bob Dylan. If you’re still not convinced, then Life on Mars will help clear that up.
When I heard Bob Dylan was so highly awarded for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, and Ziggy Stardust had left my mind, the next artist that I thought would be worthy was Lou Reed. If you think about it, it takes a true genius to not be appreciated in the moment but so adored decades after- that was obviously the story of Reed’s former band The Velvet Underground. His solo efforts found more mainstream success and so deservedly. The ones that worked, really did work. Rolling Stones included two of his albums, Transformer and Berlin, in the Greatest Albums of All Time and they did look out-of-place. The same list put 4 Bob Dylan albums in the Top 31, so I guess you could say they don’t just let any old Nobel Prize in Literature nominees (from my colourful mind anyway) in this list. The argument that has been debated for years that ‘is Lou Reed the most cited influence in Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a valid one. Some half-drunken man wearing a battered Led Zeppelin t-shirt in a pub may even care to remind any unwilling listener that we would not have had punk without Reed. He is recognised as the man who has influenced a wave of bands. Bono publicly announced on one of U2’s many, many, tours that all their songs are Lou Reed rip offs. Morrissey recalls seeing Reed live, when he was 12 on his own, (oh sigh, Morrissey was Morrissey before Morrissey was even a thing), saying “[it] seems extraordinary to me now, to imagine a 12 or 13-year-old going by themselves, to see somebody such as Lou Reed who was at the time singing exclusively about transsexuality and heroin and death and the beauty of death and the impossibility of life.” To Morrissey, Reed was nothing less than the WH Auden of the modern world. (But more about Morrissey later on). Lou Reed’s influence cannot be doubted and if they gave Nobel prizes out for that alone then he would have won one back in 1999. Lou Reed was known for his poetry and deadpan vocals which puts him high on my list to receive this prize in Literature. “Thought of you as my mountain top, thought of you as my peak. Thought of you as everything, I’ve had but couldn’t keep”, yes I know I am right to include him in this post. His overtly sexual and dark lyrics presented in a way that makes the subject of overdose seem topical just makes you fall in love with the man’s poetry. No praise of Lou Reed is complete without a mention of the genius behind Walk on the Wild Side. Produced by David Bowie (remember him?) and Mick Ronson, this is perhaps Reed’s most commercially popular song. The song talks about some people and their journey to the Big Apple. This song encapsulates Reed’s solo career for me as It covers issues such as drugs, transsexuality and oral sex- and you have to admit he does like to sing about these. The lyrics paint a picture of each person and their life up until this point so clear. The shock factor and the punk attitude that Lou Reed transmitted into this song made it the cult hit that it is and still remains many young listener’s gateway into an obsession with the former The Velvet Underground man- and rightly so. If you are still not convinced on either Bowie or Reed’s addition to the nominees for the Nobel Prize in Literature, then deconstruct the poetry in Walk on the Wild Side and Make Up. Pretty much get your head around the whole Transformer album.
The achingly beautiful poetry in the Blue album by Joni Mitchell is, for me, reason alone for her to be included in this list. Mitchell has been highly respected by critics throughout her career and deservedly so. She has influenced a range of musicians across many genres. Rolling Stone do not just
hand out compliments such as “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, to just anybody who pens words to music. Her lyrics… her poetry, addresses social topics as well as natural beauty and personal feelings. The Canadian singer was important in developing music across genres such as Folk, Jazz, Pop and Rock- finding success in the majority of her creative ventures. As I mentioned before, 1971’s Blue in its poetic and melodic genius should be enough reason for you to agree that Joni Mitchell deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature. This album was a commercial success, reaching number 15 on the Billboard 200 and number 3 in the UK. Her lyrics on this album covers the infatuation one may feel when they are in relationships to the insecurity that accompanies these emotions, and all with effortless vocals. Blue has been described by the New York Times as representing the “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”. A personal favourite verse of mine is from The Circle Game, from Mitchells third studio album. “We’re captive on the carousel of time, we can’t return we can only look behind, from where we came. And go round and round and round, in the circle game.” Many have tried to replicate her song writing technique but few have come close, I would argue if any at all. Her lyrics seemed like little confessions that the listener shouldn’t be allowed to hear. They were adventurous, ahead of their time and thought-provoking, it is hard for anyone to find controversy surrounding the idea that she could one day win this award. Joni Mitchell has received numerous Grammy awards and nominations and in 1995 was inducted into the song writing Hall of Fame. I am sure one day we will be able to add Literature Nobel Prize winner to this list. For all of you unaware of Mitchells emotive poetry, firstly I pity you but also wish I could listen to her entire discography like it was for the first time again, I cannot speak highly enough of the Blue album, as well as songs Big Yellow Taxi and Help Me. I shall leave this point with lyrics from the latter, “Help me, I think I’m falling, in love with you. Are you going to let me go there by myself? That’s such as lonely thing to do”, I know, right.
A move that would be certainly be met with more controversy than the Literature Nobel Prize being awarded to Bob Dylan would be gifting it the former The Smiths frontman, Morrissey. Controversy is not an alien concept to the The Queen is Dead singer as he has moulded a career around lyrics that are anti-monarchy, anti-meat eaters, anti-government and anti-happiness (it seems). Morrissey was most famously known for being in The Smiths in the mid 80’s but has also had a solo career since, making the top ten of the UK Singles Chart on ten occasions. His 2015 novel List of the Lost does not put forward a strong argument for him to receive this award, getting bashed by critics and music lovers alike whom expected his wit and cynicism to be transferred into a book that would be a great read. It wasn’t. Morrissey has been often citied with transforming the indie genre into what it is today through his music and outré attitude and behaviour. He wrote about things undesirable to ‘pop stars’, things that affected real people. In How Soon is Now he sang about the isolationism of life, about how lonely and unloving life can feel. “I am human and I need to be loved”, he proclaims, accompanied by Johnny Marr’s eerie guitar, “Just like everybody else does”. I’m sure most people can relate to this feeling of seeing everybody else appearing to be happy and you feeling you deserve this feeling too. His lyrics are relatable and touch on issues such as sexual ambiguity and this sudden societal need to sacrifice our own happiness to please others, just the voice that was needed for that era. I included Morrissey in this list because he, for me and many others, has been important in influencing many aspects of life through his lyrics and words. Through his complex and sophisticated lyrics, he gives the illusion of experience to listeners whom may have never experienced these situations before. You only have to read the lyrics to Hand in Glove to see how important he was in influencing my view on my relationships with people from an early age. Although I may have never had the feelings that the narrator of the song seemed to feel, I believed I could empathise with them. This is what Morrissey was so good at, this is why he has managed to maintain a successful solo career and generate so much hype after all this time and to be able to sell
out a homecoming gig earlier this year in a matter of moments. With reoccurring themes of being unfairly (but then again sometimes admittedly deserved) hard done by in this life, what is often overlooked are the beauty of his lyrics. There is a Light That Never Goes Out is a perfect example of this. On the surface this song may appear to be about the dissatisfaction of life and love and not caring if it all ended in this moment. It is actually one the sweetest and most raw love songs written in that decade. “To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die”, if it all ended in this moment, you with me, then it is actually a pleasure he explains. Morrissey sets himself apart from other song writers of that time because he puts the listeners in the shoes of the narrator so effectively. Nobody is sure if he writes from experience, his sexuality and relationship status has been the topic of many interviews to which he so rarely attends and his answers have always been ambiguous. The mystery behind his work creates a new level of excitement and admiration from us. He personifies the awkwardness of life and social anxiety through his lyrics. He is an idol for people who don’t relate to these mainstream common Rock star idols who are bold and outgoing, singing about things like cocaine and sex, something a teenager from-say- the north-east cannot relate. “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” speaks more to the young male living in a Conservative-governed England than any Bruce Springsteen song could. Morrissey has been noted to be the influence for many bands, (such as Radiohead, Blur and Pulp), which goes to show the importance of his lyrics to a younger person facing the obstacles that adolescence may hurl at them. A recommended listen for those of you who are not convinced of Morrissey lyrical ability are 1992’s solo album Your Arsenal and The Smiths albums The Queen is Dead and Meat is Murder.
Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature will hopefully lead to more songwriters winning the greatest award in Literature in the future. This was a huge victory for the music industry, and although met by some controversy, it will open a gateway for the mainstream recognition of poetry in perhaps publicly previously-unexplored genres. I have focused on David Bowie, Morrissey, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed in this post but I have to acknowledge other song writers across many other genres. Patti Smith is another influential artist whom fits the description given to why Dylan won the prize. Also Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and John Lennon could have easily been the focus of this article. Bob Dylan’s award and recognition for his song-writing is exciting for music, and he celebrated in typical Dylan fashion by staying completely silent.