Bob Dylan is to Pop Culture as a Vulture is to a Parakeet

by Gurang

One of the more vehement objections to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in literature is that he is “only” a pop singer.  We’ll examine this line of reasoning to its most logical conclusion.

Pervasive Pop

First it is obvious that many of the things we love are part of pop culture:  Blue jeans, café au lait, Game of Thrones, an online Vegas casino, baseball, the Heritage Trail, and so much more. All are part of pop culture and none deserves an award of the scale of a Nobel Prize however we may cherish them. 

Literature More Heartfelt than Mathematics

It is also true that the Nobel Prize in literature is far more subjective than the prize in chemistry or mathematics.  We can read the prize-winning literature; most of us can’t fathom the first page in the corpus of work that a Nobel Prize-winning chemist or mathematician produced over the course of several decades.

Has every Nobel Prize in literature been given to someone who was as eminently deserving of it as Toni Morrison?  Every literature winner has been roundly criticized by people who simply don’t like their creative compositions.  It’s hard to say that you “don’t like” new discoveries in chemistry.

What is Pop Culture?

Let us try to arrive at a definition of pop culture that will satisfy most people given that we can’t possibly hope to satisfy everyone.  Pop culture is fleeting; here today gone tomorrow.  When was the last time you saw someone in bell bottoms or a man with long sideburns?

By this definition, Dylan is not part of pop culture even if he is popular.

Pop culture is the bailiwick of young people, at least in the West.  It may be true that young people have set trends in the past but that was primarily when they were the biggest cohort in the society.  Today Baby Boomers may be ageing but they outnumber millennials.  So, while millennials are texting right and left, their parents and grandparents are curled up listening to Bob Dylan.

By this metric, Dylan is so far removed from pop culture as to make a mockery of the comparison.

Pop culture is characterized by doggerel.  You know what I’m saying?  I was like happy when the Cubs finally won the World Series.  No soup for you. Bazinga.  Let’s compare “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy” with “the times they are a-changin”.

By any fair definition of doggerel, Dylan has never written a single line of doggerel in his career.  I might have said life but who knows what he wrote when he was seven?

Commonalities between Dylan and Pop

Here are some ways that Dylan and pop culture coincide: they are both commercial; they begin locally and expand to a worldwide reach; recognized by everyone; always evolving.

So here are four areas where Dylan and pop culture coincide but co-incidence does not necessarily mean tautology.  Cheap wine is popular; is Dylan’s writing comparable to a bottle of cheap wine?  A lot of slang terms begin in inner cities; are they as uplifting as “his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean”?  Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan are recognized by billions of people; does the comparison go beyond recognition?  True pop culture evolves because it loses its luster after a short time; Bob Dylan evolves to accommodate an ever-growing luster.

Samples of Dylan’s Work

Can anyone truthfully say at this point that Bob Dylan is part of popular culture?  The argument then must “evolve” to the objective quality of his work.  So, we’ll present some samples of his work to see if it measures up to the stature of a Nobel Prize.

  • I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.
  • Knock nock knockin’ on heaven’s door.
  • Lord knows I’ve paid some dues getting through.
  • You say you’re lookin’ for someone
    Who’s never weak but always strong.
    To protect you and defend you
    Whether you are right or wrong.
    Someone to open each and every door,
    But it ain’t me.
    No, no, no it ain’t me Babe.
    It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, Babe
  • How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows
    That too many people have died?
  • And she takes just like a woman,
    And she aches just like a woman,
    And she wakes just like a woman,
    Yeah, but she breaks just like a little girl.
  • Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved.
    You cannot depend on it to be your guide when it’s you who must keep it satisfied.
  • You used to laugh about
    Everybody that was hangin’ out.
    Now you don’t talk so loud.
    Now you don’t seem so proud.
    About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
    How does it feel?
  • May you grow up to be righteous,
    May you grow up to be true,
    May you always know the truth,
    And see the lights surrounding you.
    May you always be courageous,
    Stand upright and be strong,
    May you stay forever young,
    Forever young, forever young,
    May you stay forever young.
  • The world is old,
    The world is grey,
    Lessons of life
    Can’t be learned in a day.
    I watch and I wait
    And I listen while I stand
    To the music that comes
    From a far better land.

What is the Muse?

We can never know what runs through a creative mind at work.  We see or hear the finished product but we cannot fathom how the artist got there.  It could very well be that the artist also doesn’t know how he or she got there. 

Often we hear of an artist or an athlete being “in a zone”.  Surely Khatia Buniatishvili must be in a zone when her fingers fly across the piano keys at jet airplane speed.  The creative genius of Bob Dylan is that he can get into a zone far more often than most other songwriters and far more often than most people during their own life’s work.

Someone who was knee deep in pop culture would have rhymed take, ache, break, and wake into an easily forgotten lyric.  Bob Dylan took the same common words and turned them into an eternal truth.

Turning everyday words into eternal truths is the most powerful ability of Nobel Prize Literature winners and is why Bob Dylan so richly deserves the award.

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