Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Like a complete unknown ..."

I suppose I'm going to have to weigh on on this whole Bob Dylan-Nobel Prize thing, but since Dylan himself hasn't acknowledged  it yet, I haven't felt too much pressure. According to Adam Kirsch, our latest laureate isn't even returning the Swedish Academy's phone calls, and now the Lords of Literature are getting all huffy, accusing their newest poster boy of being "impolite and arrogant."

They're surprised? The guy has made a career of being impolite and arrogant.

The truth is, I'm neither outraged  by the prize, nor am I raising huzzahs, as some have. I'm just not that into Dylan, and the Nobel is not a ticket to immortality. Every year when the prize is announced, we recall the greats who were never named -- Proust, Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Nabokov, Auden -- and we overlook, yet again, the many mediocrities who were. Every Novel, every Pulitzer, every Oscar, every Grammy is a reminder, as if we needed reminding, that life is unfair.

And then there's the question, is what Dylan does literature? I'd say yeah, sure, why not?, but that admission doesn't make me prouder to be an American living at this particular time.

In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante argues that while Dylan's lyrics, on their own, might not scan as well as those of Cole Porter or Smokey Robiinson, he added a new dimension to song: "As great a Porter and Robinson were as songwriters,  they were working in -- and profiting from -- the air of frivolity that attended lyric-writing by the mid-twentieth century, an era that prized verbal dexterity and rapid evaporation. Dylan, through his ambiguity, his ability to throw down puzzles that continue to echo and to generate interpretations, almost singehandedly created a climate inn which lyrics were taken seriously."

In other words, Dylan is more pretentious. What, one may ask, is un-literary about lightness and frivolity? And I hardly think Porter's lyrics have evaporated.

But Dylan was not awarded the Nobel Prize for his lyrics. He was given the ward for his songs: the combination of lyrics and music. Anyone who recalls "Like a Rolling Stone" or "When I paint My Masterpiece"  doesn't recite the words.  They sing them to themselves, and it is this mutual dependence of words and music that led Alex Ross to compare Dylan to Wagner.

I don't think the comparison quite holds, since Wagner is regarded primarily as a composer. The music, without the words, is still ravishing. Gershwin's melodies, too, stand on their own and have become standards of the instrumental jazz repertoire. Dylan's have not.

Give him his due, though: There may be  better lyricists, better guitar players, better tune smiths -- heaven knows there are better singers, but few others have combined their talents into something so memorable. He  is one of the few cases where the overused word "synergy" is appropriate.

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