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In Defense of Bob Dylan


In Defense of Bob Dylan

Jake Goodman

Original image courtesy of Flickr user hugovk

Editorial by Jake Goodman

I stumbled out of sleep into the brightness of my room, heavy-lidded and sour-breathed, and reached over to silence my relentless alarm and check my notifications on my phone. The New York Times: “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature”. WHAT? SERIOUSLY?. I experienced a thoroughly conflicted train of thought: I love the guy, I mean he’s the greatest musical lyricist of all time, but what about Philip Roth? Or Don Delillo? Or Haruki Murakami? And take that Mom, I told you he’s incredible even though he’s not the best singer.

I was not the only one to have conflicted feelings. Bob Dylan is the first musician in history to win the Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary compared Dylan’s work to Homer and Sappho — a class of “poetic texts that were meant to be listened to.” In reaction, many writers, among them Salman Rushdie, Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, and Joyce Carol Oates, congratulated Dylan, but the backlash was even stronger than the praise. Writer Gary Shteyngart tweeted: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” Scottish writer Irvine Welsh stated: “I'm a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Dylan himself didn’t help quell the fire, either.. The singer  didn’t comment on his win until October 28th in an interview with the Telegraph promoting his art exhibition — his first interview in almost two years. When asked if he would attend, his answer was “Absolutely. If at all possible.” Very mysterious. And yes, it took two weeks after he was awarded the prestigious prize for him to acknowledge anything even happened. As expected, the Nobel committee did not take this smoothly; one Academy member called Dylan “impolite and arrogant” for not responding. The Swedish Academy wasn’t even sure whether Dylan would attend the ceremony when they announced his win.

Those not familiar with Dylan will note the absurdity of the whole situation. Bob Dylan seems to be duping the organization that awards one of the most prestigious prizes in the world. Why? (If I won, I would be jumping at the press: “Who wants in interview? You want an interview? Here’s an interview.”) Those who are familiar know that Dylan is just… different. He’s a perpetually reclusive genius— distrustful of the press, distrustful of his authority as an icon, distrustful of America at times. In one of his rare interviews in the ‘60s, Dylan thoroughly questioned a TIME Magazine reporter instead of letting the reporter interview him. Dylan’s intelligence was biting at the reporter, critiquing the reporter’s profession instead of just letting the man do his job. This interview is a pivotal key to understanding Dylan. As the Academy member who criticized him pithily stated, “He is who he is.” Yes, this is a cliché. But Dylan reminds us that even icons can maintain their idiosyncrasies without feeling pressured by fame. Sure, Dylan can be nutty - he should’ve said something about his win. But this isn’t abnormal by his reclusive standards.

Dylan seems to me a rare figure in American music in his reclusiveness.The way icons exist in the 21st century is insane; we have incredibly invasive amounts of access to the lives of our icons —tethered to them through social media. Yet, the world couldn’t even get an acknowledgement from Dylan for two weeks. Dylan has and will continue to remind us that there is something so mystifying and intriguing about icons who have the courage to create mystery about themselves. It allows true followers (I’m looking at you Twitter users) to sift through the art and the interviews for the real individual — the true artist. And this is happening even at Brown. Professor Kenneth Sacks is teaching a comparative biography course on Bob Dylan and Ralph Waldo Emerson and poses a fascinating question on CAB: “What is the celebrity intellectual’s responsibility to society while remaining true to oneself?” Bob Dylan, all in all, has remained true to himself. I think that’s why he remains so iconic. Dylan’s ‘self’ was something he constantly reinvented; he has at one point or another been a folk musician, a writer, a painter, a civil rights leader, a gospel singer, a country crooner. Dylan is unapologetically limitless, and even though he may be his classic self when it comes to accepting the Nobel — distrustful of the press — he deserves this prize.The times may be a-changin’, but Dylan sure isn’t.