In The Year Of Trump, Bob Dylan Needed To Win The Nobel

The timing is not just fortuitous, it is critical at this moment in American politics.

13/10/2016 10:54 PM IST | Updated 13/10/2016 11:36 PM IST
Robert Galbraith / Reuters
Rock musician Bob Dylan performs at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, U.S., May 5, 2004. REUTERS/Rob Galbraith/File Photo

The Nobel committee will strenuously deny any political subliminal messaging but if there was ever a year for Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize it is this.

In a year when the image of the American abroad has been hijacked by the grotesque bluster of Donald Trump, Dylan has been the pinprick that bursts the bluster.

In that sense the timing is not just fortuitous, it is critical at this moment in American politics when there's a battle outside and it is ragin' and jugglers and clowns all come down and do tricks for you.

While money doesn't talk, it swears

Obscenity, who really cares

Propaganda, all is phony

It is as if the Nobel committee is telling American voters, the times they are a 'changing but surely not that much. As the image of Barack Obama honouring Bob Dylan gets a new lease of Twitter life, it's another reminder of a country that once dared to dream, as the Internet memes tells us, about the audacity of hope rather than the audacity of grope.

When Dylan came to perform at the White House, Obama noted that unlike the other talent he had no interest in a photo-op with the Obamas. Instead he finished his song, stepped off the stage, shook the president's hand, tipped his head with a little grin and left. Obama wrote, "That's how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise."

But even the president of the United States

Sometimes must have to stand naked

That skepticism has always been the most attractive feature of America even as its sense of manifest destiny has been its most deplorable. And Dylan has been the poet laureate of that skepticism, still relevant, still skeptical even in his 75th year. Whereas Paul McCartney is remembered as a Beatle and Mick Jagger as a Rolling Stone, Dylan is just Dylan, the singer who gathered no moss.

His Nobel coronation has not unexpectedly been met with some eye-rolls. It's as if the staid Nobel committee is trying to go pop all of a sudden on the coattails of a septuagenarian rockstar. Novelist Hari Kunzru tweeted it was one of the lamest Nobels since Barack Obama got one for not being George W Bush. That was a rather unkind cut. Obama's Nobel was undeserved for he had done nothing at that point to warrant a Nobel. It was given almost as an expression of supplication and hope to a new political superstar. Dylan has a lifetime of work behind him and even on the day he won the prize was performing in Las Vegas. One could argue whether his songs were literature, but Mr Tambourine Man was no Johnny-come-lately.

Kunzru later explained his disappointment. Dylan's wonderful but he is famous already. This is just a confirmation of Dylan love. This Nobel will not be transformative for the winner and a publisher especially ones who do "important and badly rewarded work". On top of that Dylan, Kunzru alleges, has appropriated other people's work, unattributed, into his work.

AFP/Getty Images
Books by US songwriter Bob Dylan who was announced the laureate of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature are displayed at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 13, 2016.

While the criticisms are worthy of debate, it does not change the basic fact. While the Nobel can advance the profile of a writer and a publishing house, that cannot be its goal. That's only a welcome side effect. That Dylan is already an icon should not get in the way of his recognition.

I live in another world where life and death are memorized

Where the earth is strung with lover's pearls and all I see are dark eyes.

Those of us with roots in South Asia understand the pointlessness of this debate about poet vs songwriter. Our only Nobel laureate for literature from these parts, Rabindranath Tagore is remembered the world over as a poet. To millions of Bengalis, though, he is a song writer and they remember him through song as much as they remember him through verse.

And the same is true for masters today like a Gulzar. As Salman Rushdie aptly observed "From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition." The song is imprinted in the memory even more indelibly than the poetry and that is why Bob Dylan's "lyrics" have a life outside his song. Thus someone can sit in a bar in Kolkata drinking cheap whisky and imbibe Dylan on the death of a relationship and the blood on the tracks just as easily as someone can sit on the Supreme Court of the US and quote Dylan in a judgement. (And it's not just the liberal justices, the court's conservatives from Antonin Scalia to John Roberts have taken refuge in Dylan too, who the New York Times tells us is the most quoted songwriter in US Supreme Court arguments.)

But most of all Bob Dylan matters because in the depraved toxic atmosphere of this presidential election with a candidate like Trump, we all need a little Bob Dylan. And the Nobel just administered a welcome dose. We need him because who better to administer a sneering snarling takedown than Dylan? Especially at a time when an idiot wind is blowing like a circle around our skulls.

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/ You'd know what a drag it is to see you.

That hard rain's a-gonna fall. In fact, it's already falling.

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