Bob Dylan’s victory marks chance for Nobel Committee to change awards system

November 21, 2016 — by Derek Chen and Kyle Wang

Decades later Dylan appears to be at the center of yet another revolution: on Oct. 13, to much controversy, he became the first songwriter in history to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, winning the prize over accomplished novelists such as Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.

 

The 1960s were a time of political both abroad and in the United States; young students flooded the streets outside of the White House to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, chanting such slogans as “Hey, Hey, LBJ / How many kids did you kill today?”

In response to these events, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote powerful lyrics such as “Come, senators, congressmen / Please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway / Don’t block up the hall,” urging the seemingly disconnected politicians in Washington D.C. to recognize the changing times.

Now, decades later Dylan appears to be at the center of yet another revolution: on Oct. 13, to much controversy, he became the first songwriter in history to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, winning the prize over accomplished novelists such as Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.

Some have suggested that these novelists deserve the prize more than Dylan does. But Dylan, more than any other artist of his era, provided a voice that both uniquely appealed to the masses and defined his generation.  

One key trait of any great artwork is its ability to capture the essence of a moment in history. Like Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” for instance, which offers readers a glimpse into the then-untold story of the Dust Bowl workers who fled to California, or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which lends insights into the psychological destruction wrought by slavery, Dylan’s songs exemplify the turmoil of the Vietnam War era and the decades that came afterward. From his gentle love poems to subtle anti-war protests, Dylan gave the youth of his era a voice.

No, he hasn’t written dense, metafictional novels about American consumer culture or the state of modern civilization, but Dylan, nonetheless, deserves to be recognized for his importance — even if that recognition comes long after Dylan’s work wrought such important cultural change.

Dylan’s nomination also raises important questions about the meaning of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Should artistic form, be it song, novel or poem, matter? Or should the prize be awarded solely based on artistic merit?

Alfred Nobel wrote in 1901 that his award should be given to the individual who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” By that logic, Dylan could justifiably have won decades ago. He provided a voice for an alienated generation that so desired change, especially considering that literature’s many definitions almost always include poetic composition.

And now, years later, America may very well have found its next Bob Dylan already: Kanye West. Ego and fashion fiascos aside, Kanye West represents the peak of America’s next great literary movement — hip hop. Not only has hip hop already made its way to Broadway, but it also toys with poetic form in ways that haven’t been seen before, erasing the boundaries between music and poetry in ways that even Dylan could not conceive. No, Kanye isn’t entirely responsible for hip-hop’s waxing influence, but he nonetheless has played a key role in popularizing it as an art form.

Admittedly, Dylan’s lyrics may not have condoned drug use or promoted other illegal behaviors, but they undoubtedly reflected the winds of change that were blowing through his own environment; Kanye, likewise, has done the same with his music, describing America’s changing political and social environment through songs such as “Ultralight Beam” in which he writes “So why send oppression, not blessings? / Why, oh why’d you do me wrong? / You persecute the weak / because it makes you feel strong.”

Kanye, through his songs that range from rugged and minimalistic to experimental and psychedelic, has managed to encapsulate entire hip-hop movements in single albums. His work not only reflects the sentiments of a small group of artists, but the consciousness of entire communities, providing a voice for millions who previously lacked the means to speak for themselves.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times are a-changin’. It’s time for the Nobel Committee and other literary organizations to start recognizing that the nature of Nobel’s original words have changed with the rise of music and hip hop, not 30 or 40 years after those changes occur but right here and right now as that change happens.

 
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