No one has ever known what to do with Dylan, not really. For whatever reason—and maybe it’s because he pioneered the breed—“songwriter” never seemed like it was enough. So, for the last 50 years, people have been embarrassing themselves by throwing all manner of descriptors at Dylan to capture what he does. “Poet” is the one that’s been most overused, but he’s been called a “bard” and a “troubadour,” and probably much worse—though it’s hard to imagine what’s worse than being called a “troubadour.”
That people have such a hard time labeling Dylan is not just funny, it’s anachronistic. The “Dylan is a poet” idea started in the 1960s, when there was still doubt that songwriting—particularly pop songwriting—was an art. There’s no doubt about that now, and we have Dylan (among many others) to thank for that. But it’s silly to see this get re-litigated just because Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize has gone to playwrights and Winston Churchill (Winston Churchill!).
Of course, the problem with giving the Nobel Prize to Dylan is that it’s unclear what the Swedish Academy is giving it to him for. By comparing him to Sappho and Homer, they seem to be suggesting it’s mostly for the lyrics, but that would be a mistake—a point proven by this tweet, which the Nobel Prize sent out after Dylan won.
This is a funny tweet for a lot of reasons. The biggest being that the lyrics come from “Pretty Saro,” which is a traditional song, though Dylan certainly puts his own spin on it. The video they link to, however, is “Thunder on the Mountain,” in which Dylan sings about wanting to bone Alicia Keys. But, if we stick with “Pretty Saro,” the point is made. Those lyrics aren’t very good—they read like a 19th-century Hallmark card. But my god, the song itself is stunning. For decades people have been devoting way too much attention to Dylan’s lyrics, and not enough to his songwriting and even his production (and “Pretty Saro” is a subtle masterpiece on this count).
My colleague Ryu Spaeth is right insofar as giving the Nobel to Dylan is a departure—there isn’t really a comparable Laureate, except maybe Churchill, and only then because he’s the exception to the rule. But Dylan is also exemplary—comparing Philip Roth to him on this count is not fair to either, but Dylan is certainly the more important artist. And he’s a worthy Nobel Laureate.