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At Large

Genius and chutzpah

Last I checked, Bob Dylan is still part of the American artistic community, not to mention the performance/entertainment/“show business” community.

But why did the news that the Swedish Academy had just honored him with the Nobel Prize for Literature—thereby smashing tradition and opening itself to accusations of going “show biz” and thus lowering its standards—seem to fall like a stone into the murk of US entertainment journalism?

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In an industry where every quirk and movement of the Kardashians and every detail of the continuing dispute in the ongoing Brangelina divorce proceedings is covered to almost nauseating levels, the news of the honor accorded Dylan seems to have been dismissed as mere fluff.

Of course, Nobel Prizes in general don’t really get much attention. Indeed, the Literature Prize and the Peace Prize have through the years received the most mention and attention among all the annual Prizes being given—especially for the more obscure scientific categories.

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But still. Bob Dylan as a Nobel Laureate? How much bigger can this news get? So why the studied silence—or worse, the ignorance or indifference—to this momentous, brave decision?

Maybe it’s generational. It’s been decades, actually, since Dylan even had a minor hit. But “Blowin’ in the Wind,” released at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, became an anthem for a generation, and a harbinger of the possibilities that a marriage between art and politics could give rise to.

Or as the Nobel committee’s citation puts it, Dylan was recognized “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Of course, as of this moment, Dylan himself has yet to acknowledge or comment on this unprecedented honor. It’s an honor, moreover, that has upended common notions about what “literature” or “poetry” is or should be, and opened the Nobel committee to accusations that it was “pandering” to popular, more accessible tastes.

Given the courage it took to break stereotypes or bypass long-time expected nominees, Dylan, it must be said, must at least be grateful not just for the honor accorded him but also for the recognition of songwriting as a form of literature, which is just as valid (and some say is the origin) of poetry.

Then again, Dylan has not always been the most outgoing of artists. Instead, it is said, he prefers performing in small venues and working with a posse of close collaborators.

There was a brief mention of him being a “winner of the Nobel prize in literature” on the home page of his song collection “The Lyrics: 1961-2012,” but even that passing acknowledgment was removed just 24 hours later.

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Now the Academy is reportedly on tenterhooks about whether Dylan will deign to be present at the Awards ceremonies. But if he does snub the rites, he won’t be the only one, or even the first, to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Of course, to schlubs like us who labor in obscurity, winning a Nobel Prize would be unprecedented, life-changing, transcendental. And of course we would show up, with all our loved ones in the audience. But maybe that’s what makes Dylan a real genius. It does take genius, or genius paired with chutzpah to the max, anyway, to walk away from one of the world’s most prestigious honors and risk disapproval, scorn and maybe condemnation. Will he still get the cash prize even if he’s a no-show?

Still, this is a tribute not just to one man who wrote songs that encapsulated the mood and the historic reality of his times, but also to all songwriting that combines music with meaning, giving us a soundtrack to live by. Surely, this deserves more than just passing mention, or at least equal air time as the Kardashians?

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate. It’s a title and an accomplishment that no one can take away from him now.

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TAGS: Bob Dylan, literature, Music, Nobel Prize
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