Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bob Dylan – "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" (1965)

But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

The Swedish Academy, which was created by King Gustav III in 1786, consists of 18 members.  Its raison d’être is to further the “purity, strength, and sublimity” of the Swedish language.  

Most of what the Academy does is of no interest to anyone outside of Sweden.  There’s one exception to that rule: every year, it awards the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

Last month, the Swedish Academy awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan.

I have to admit that I didn’t see that one coming.  Neither did Alex Shephard of the New Republic, who handicapped the 2016 Nobel Prize field a week or so before the winner was announced.

Shepard characterized this year’s Nobel competition as “wide open,” and admitted that he had no idea who was going to win.  

But he listed a number of authors who he believed were certain not to win – including Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates . . . and Bob Dylan.

“Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win,” Shephard opined.  “Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.”


Shepard shouldn’t feel bad – he wasn’t the only one surprised by the Academy’s decision.  According to Reuters:

The announcement was met with gasps in Stockholm's stately Royal Academy hall, followed – unusually – by some laughter.

A number of highly-regarded (and envious?) authors questioned the Academy’s decision to give the Nobel to Dylan.

Anglo-Indian novelist Hari Kunzru: “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush.”

Russian-American novelist Gary Shteyngart: “I totally get the Nobel committee.  Reading books is hard.”

The very envious Gary Shteyngart
Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

(That “rancid prostates” line isn’t entirely fair.  After all, one third of the Academy’s members are women – including one with the truly remarkable name of Lotta Lotass.) 

A lot of people have offered their two cents’ worth on whether Dylan should or should not have been given the prize.  One of them was critic Stephen Metcalf, who wrote an article in Slate that was titled “Bob Dylan Is a Genius of Almost Unparalleled Genius, but He Shouldn’t Have Gotten the Nobel.”

Metcalf’s point is that while you can experience a Bob Dylan song in the same way that you can experience a poem – by reading words printed on paper – you aren’t experiencing the whole Bob Dylan song if you just read the lyrics and don’t listen to the music.

Christopher Ricks, who has been called “the world’s leading Dylanologist,” made a similar point when he compared reading Dylan’s song lyrics to reading the screenplay for Citizen Kane:

The words in the movie are terrifically good, but they only constitute part of the art that it is.

It’s not really fair to give even the world’s best screenwriter the Nobel Prize for Literature because it is impossible to judge the quality of his writing without being influenced by your experience of the finished movie.  

The same is true of Dylan’s song lyrics – you can read the lyrics in a book, but you’ll hear the music in your head as you do.  If you pit Dylan against a poet in a competition, Dylan has an unfair advantage because he can use both words and music while the poet has only words – the poet is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.  

Dylan was awarded the Presidential
Medal of Freedom in 2012
But if you had never heard a Bob Dylan record, it would be unfair to Dylan to judge him as an artist  solely on the basis of his song lyrics.  He didn’t write those lyrics to be read silently by a reader – he wrote them to be sung to his music.  

Bottom line?  Comparing a poem and a song is something like comparing apples and oranges . . . but I would argue that apples and oranges are a lot more alike than poetry and songs.

It’s true that when you print a song’s lyrics on a page, they look just like a poem.  But a song’s lyrics are not a song any more than a screenplay is a movie.

I agree with all the literary types who say Dylan shouldn’t have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature.

That’s not because I think his work is of less artistic worth than a great poet’s work.  To the contrary – I would much prefer to listen to songs than read poetry.  (Truth be told, poetry kinda sucks.)

But I wouldn’t give Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature for the same reason I wouldn’t give him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry or Economics.  

But while I have my doubts about the wisdom of the Academy’s choice, I’m not going to complain too loudly: after all, they could have given the prize to Bruce Springsteen.

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Of course, the Swedish Academy couldn’t care less about what I think – they’ve given the award to Dylan, and that’s not about to change.

I have to wonder if the Academy’s decision can be explained by the fact that they were desperate for attention, and knew that giving the prize to a celebrity like Dylan would get them plenty of notice – notwitstanding the fact that Dylan’s heyday was fifty years ago, and he is as unfamiliar to most millennials as Zez Confrey is to baby boomers.

The Swedish Academy building in Stockholm
That’s hyperbole, of course.  Most millennials have probably heard all about Dylan from their annoying boomer parents.  If not, they likely know from all the TV commercials he’s done in recent years – for Apple, Cadillac, Chrysler, Pepsi, and Victoria’s Secret.

If generating more publicity was was what the Academy was trying to do, it worked.  I can guarantee you that awarding the Nobel to Dylan generated about a thousand times as much press coverage as the Academy got when they gave the prize to Belarusian nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, or Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in 2011, or French-Mauritian novelist and essayist J. M. G. Le Clézio in 2008.

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“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was released in 1965 on Dylan’s fifth studio album, Bringing It All Back Home.  It’s one of Dylan’s favorite songs – he had performed it live some 772 times as of March 2015 – and most critics agree that it is one of his very best.  

But while the song is full of quotable lyrics, I think it makes a much better song than poem. 

Here’s a video of Dylan performing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” live.  I’m featuring this particular version of the song because Dylan reads his lyrics more than sings them – it’s more like a poetry reading than a musical performance:

Click below to buy the original recording of the song from Amazon:

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