Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The 2016 Nobel Prizes I: The Literature Prize joining the Peace Prize as a joke

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On my website, I have at least two articles relating to the Nobel Prize for which the 2016 Prizes have given more input. Since I still have not gotten around to consolidating the website, I will address them in two blog posts (this being the first):

I have already concluded that the Peace Prize is a joke, often being awarded to those unworthy, for political reasons, for things that might deserve some other award but not one for peace, or otherwise absurdly. Many similar criticisms can be raised against the Literature Prize, which has a similar degree of subjectiveness and is also, as far as can be guessed from the outside, occasionally abused to support a certain ideology, world view, or similar*.

*Today, this would be something in the general Leftist family. In earlier years, others might have had an advantage.

This year, one of the most controversial awards in the history of the Literature Prize has taken place: Bob Dylan.

When I first heard it, I actually assumed that it was an real, non-metaphorical joke… At this point, I am not willing to give the Literature Prize much more credence than the Peace Prize—and the Peace Prize absolutely none.

Now, I do not deny that Dylan has been one of the more important makers of music of the preceding century. He has a considerable talent, he has inspired and influenced many of his colleagues, and his commercial (if somewhat paradoxical) success has been considerable. If not for his weakness as a singer, I would likely be a fan myself.

However, even if we assume that his works should count as literature*, there are considerable questions as to his worthiness when it comes to this type of award. There are many, many extremely capable “regular” authors that have accomplished so much more in terms of literary achievement and are still awaiting their Prize. Worse: Is Dylan even the most accomplished lyricist in the world of music? Unlikely: He is more likely to be the (or one of the) most famous and visible among the lyrics-centric artists—and one who had considerable importance for the sixties movements that find approval with the election committee. (Realistically speaking, and without denying his very considerable abilities, much of his fame is a result of having had the right message for the societal moods of the 1960s. Ten years earlier or later and he would have been a smaller deal.) His musical attraction also stems to a large part from his highly unusual melodies and delivery, and when we look only at lyrics his stature is considerably weaker than when we look at his music as a whole**. All in all, I sincerely doubt that Dylan was given the Prize in recognition of his literary accomplishments, with political reasons and/or an attempt to cater to the wide masses on behalf of the committee being more likely explanations.

*I am open to the idea myself. Indeed, when we studied Swedish literature in school, the starting point was medieval ballads. However, others might want to rule it out, and they could turn out to be right. Certainly, if viewed as literature, there should be a strong focus on lyrics and not the overall music.

**This is obviously a problem when trying to judge more or less anyone: What part of the overall impression is lyrics and what is music? Would the lyrics that seem so great work without the music or with different music? Etc.

As for the actual Peace Prize: Santos is not someone I had on my radar screen until very recently. However, it is notable that his peace plan failed in a recent referendum (for good reasons, in my impression, being to lenient with evildoers) and he might not have an entirely white vest himself, depending on how the above Wikipedia page is interpreted. In a best case scenario, he was chosen a year too early; in a worst case scenario, he is the same complete dud that Obama turned out to be in terms of making the world more peaceful.

Excursion: If Dylan is not the greatest musical lyricist, who is? Frankly, I have nowhere near the depth and breadth of knowledge to answer that question authoritatively, even discounting the necessary degree of subjectiveness and the complication of dividing credit within groups. However, I suspect that the number of candidates stronger than Dylan is very large and that someone with the corresponding depth of knowledge in a given, mature area of music (with lyrics…) could find several or many such candidates in that area—opera, musicals, rock, blues, jazz, …

Note in particular that many of the candidates will be local forces singing in international obscurity. For instance, Cornelis Vreeswijk and Evert Taube were living legends, when I grew up in Sweden, but I doubt that any non-Swedish readers will have ever heard of them. (Admittedly, they are both dead and therefore ineligible.) Similarly, many candidates are likely to be found outside of the infamous Top-40 and be unknown even to their own compatriots.

For myself, I am very impressed with the works of Tori Amos* and Depeche Mode in terms of lyrics. The artist for whom I have spent most time listening to the lyrics is probably Eminem*—while they are not necessarily stylistically or aesthetically pleasing, there is a lot to think about with regard to what they tell us about Eminem and how that might apply to ourselves. Simon and Garfunkel go in the other direction, with lyrics that are rarely deeply thought-worthy but often beautiful or original. My exposure to REM has been comparatively small, but from what I have heard so far they could rate very highly.

*In a twist, both Tori Amos and Eminem appear severely troubled and if the often raised accusation of misogynism towards Eminem is given credence, a corresponding accusation of misandrism towards Tori Amos seems appropriate, although she is considerably more subtle. (Consider e.g. the song “Precious Things” or the album “Boys for Pele”—the one containing lines like “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys”; the other even having a thematic title that implies sacrifices of men to a goddess… ) In both cases, it can be argued that what appears is not so much a statement about perceived truth about the other sex—but of personal weakness, feelings of inadequacy, and/or frustration with the other sex. To boot, this is something that the respective artists seems to be at least partially, possibly fully, aware of, partly using the lyrics as a means of self-exploration or -therapy.

In a first draft, I also included Sondheim, specifically citing “Send in the Clowns”, and Paul McCartney*. I do not rule out that I would rate either above Dylan; however, for the purposes of candidates for “best lyricists” they likely fall short, with my favorable impression being too based on the overall music. (With the added complication of who contributed what to that impression: A very significant part of McCartney’s work is co-credited with Lennon, often with unclear responsibilities. Sondheim’s greatest success and, to my personal knowledge, best result was the collaboration “West-Side Story”, with music by Bernstein. The music by Sondheim himself has been so-so in the few works I have seen in full, e.g. “Sweeney Todd”.)

*John Lennon is dead and not eligible. (But I would likely still have favored McCartney.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2016 at 9:52 pm

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