It’s been a weird month for Bob Dylan fans. A couple weeks ago the esteemed Nobel Prize committee announced they were awarding Dylan the prize for literature, a decision let’s remember, that he had nothing to do with. Artists don’t nominate themselves, nor are they made aware of nominations. Actually, there’s a 50 year seal on the whole nomination process. (I hope a reporter in 50 years breaks a story on who nominated Dylan, it’ll probably still be relevant.) So far, Dylan has not responded to or acknowledge the prize or the committee who awarded it in any way.
While I wholeheartedly agree with the estimation that Dylan’s lyrics have expanded the palette and imagination of American literature — he almost singlehandedly brought literary impulse into the songwriting process — I don’t think the Swedish committee were very thorough in their investigation of Dylan’s hierarchy of values if they assumed he would play by their rules. He probably won’t.
Throughout his life, Dylan has refused to comply with what has been expected of him. It’s never been out of rudeness, it seems he’s just been sure of what he does and doesn’t want from a very young age. His parents, who were both second generation Americans, surely expected him to stick around their small tight-knit Jewish community in Minnesota. Instead, he moved to Minneapolis to attend University of Minnesota for only a year, dropped out, and moved to New York to do things like visit an ailing Woody Guthrie. I really wish I knew what his mother’s reaction to that news was.
He quickly built a name for himself as a folk singer and songwriter — mostly because he was really f*cking good at it and no one was writing folk songs this expansive and literary at that time — and landed a record deal. But then, like almost any current folk and acoustic musician who achieves a modicum of success, Dylan infamously abandoned his initial, quieter style in favor of the electric guitar at Newport Folk Festival. Remember — initially, people hated it. They called him “Judas,” betrayer. “Arrogant,” as one committee member called his silence, isn’t too far afield from that insult.
After his rock style became a success, Dylan had a country phase. People hated it, and many still call Nashville Skyline his “country album,” as though country underpinnings haven’t been part of his style from the jump. He abandoned that, too, post-Basement Tapes (which was definitely more of a throwback to his folk style, so people loved it) and began making weird 80s-infused pop-rock that even his most diehard fans still dismiss as terrible. Though, I’d recommend ’81’s Shot Of Love or ’85’s Empire Burlesque if you want to know what this phase sounded like.
Both before and after that ’80s phase, Dylan, who was born Jewish, embraced born again Christianity and wrote several overtly religious albums that parlay the language of charismatic Christianity into gospel and soul. People hated it then, and some vehemently still do. Note the pattern.
Eventually, he also abandoned that phase and meandered back into a strand of existentialist folk-rock that has become his trademark. The songwriting and melodies on Time Out Of Mind in 1997 hold a candle to the ’60s work he was praised for, but it’s still usually dubbed late-era-Dylan. He doesn’t seem to mind the categorizations, any time they come, but they don’t determine what he does next. In the 2000s up until now, he got into jazz, cover albums, a Christmas album, and whatever else appealed to him. None of this was done with any aim to please anyone but himself. Some people may define that as arrogance, I call it serenity.
In the same way, the Nobel Prize is attempting to categorize Dylan as a Nobel Prize winner. Nobel Prize winners, on the whole, must be deferential and thankful to the academy. They are publicly grateful to the organization for such an honor. They give a lecture as instructed in order to receive the $900,000 prize. They show up to the ceremony and are endlessly appreciative someone noticed their work. Perhaps, they feel vindicated that the world has noticed the power of their work. But I don’t think Dylan has any questions or lingering concerns about the power of his work. He’s confident in what he’s produced without needing outside confirmation. He also doesn’t seem to need money, and at 75, he’s probably not that concerned with it.
So, I doubt Dylan is maliciously rejecting the prize or that he hates the Nobel committee — the fact that a member called him “arrogant” for showing no interest in their honor is telling though. He’s according a willfully negative sheen to Dylan’s silence where there is none. Or maybe there is, but after reading some of this organizations fairly pretentious website, I wouldn’t begrudge him whatever reason he may have to decline or ignore their calls. Most fans who have followed his career in earnest, who have done more than listen to more than Blonde On Blonde on vinyl a couple of times, are not at all surprised that he hasn’t bothered to call the Nobel Prize committee back.
Why should an artist who has routinely done whatever he wants and honored only the things he finds valuable be forced to convey a sentiment he plainly doesn’t feel? It’s the same Newport Folk Festival sh*t all over again, all throughout Dylan’s career. He’s not a “Judas” for not kowtowing to the Nobel Prize’s own conventions — which, honestly, are fairly arrogant in their expectations — and he’s not destroying the prize for literature by winning it for his songwriting. In fact, he’s not even the first songwriter to win the Nobel in this category.
The truth of the matter is, Bob Dylan doesn’t owe you, or me, or the Nobel Prize committee anything. His silence isn’t an insult, or arrogance, or malicious. It’s just Dylan. The only mistake the committee made in awarding Dylan the Nobel for literature was their assumption that he’d care.