Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. That strikes me as a mistake. I think of myself as a Dylan fan. Blood On The Tracks and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan are two of the great albums of the rock era. I’ve seen Dylan in concert several times. So, it’s not that the Nobel committee picked someone I don’t like. It just seems wrong.
In fact, none of the normal complaints seem right. I’m sure there are more deserving artists out there, but that’s always true. I don’t begrudge William Golding his award just because Vonnegut never got one. And it’s not a problem for me that it went to a musician. It’s not like anyone thinks of Winston Churchill or Bertrand Russell as writers of literature and they both won the prize.
The more I think about it, the more I think it bothers me that the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature wasn’t given to a person as much as it was given to a nostalgic dream. For all the talk of innovation and forward thinking, ideas have a bad habit of ossifying. This is normal. For as long as there have been people, those people have had their tastes and preferences set when they are young and they don’t understand the tastes and preferences of the people whose tastes and preferences were set at a different time. Two things seem different now, though. One is that the post World War II baby boom was so big that those people have wielded an extra large influence long past when younger generations would normally have taken over. And the other is that technology is now really good at preserving the past.
The size of the post World War II generation is nothing more than a demographic quirk. It just means that they are always the largest voting bloc and they have the most money. This in turn means that politicians listen to them and companies that wish to make money market to them. As a result, those of us that are not part of their generation have had to learn to live with the baby boomers’ tastes and preferences.
The technology piece is not often talked about, but in the last hundred-ish years, technology has completely changed the way we interact with the past. It used to be that when one generation gave way to the next, the older generation would tell stories about how great it was, but the younger generation couldn’t experience it for themselves. If my great-great grandfather saw William Gillette perform and thought it was amazing, all he could do was tell his kids. It’s not like he had any way to record the experience except with words. But now, I can listen to the same Little Richard and Fats Domino records my dad listened to as a kid. Even though it is not of my generation, I was raised on the music of the baby boom generation.
When you put these two things together, the size of the baby boomers and the ability to preserve history, things get set in a way they never used to. Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist. It doesn’t matter that there have been players since who can play everything he played plus a bunch of stuff he never dreamed of playing. He is the greatest guitarist ever, by definition. He hit at just the right moment to excite all the baby boomers, so they wrote about him in magazines and books and they recorded him on tape and video. They made documentaries about him. And now, he is the greatest guitar player ever and I’m not even allowed to argue about it.
The same thing happened with Bob Dylan. Never mind that Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon and Smokey Robinson are all better songwriters and lyricists. Forget that Paul Simon is better in every way. Bob Dylan was named the voice of the biggest, most influential generation at a time with it could be documented and therefore defined as such. His shtick just worked better than the other songwriters at the time. Bob Dylan is the worlds greatest songwriter, he might as well trademark it.
That’s what really bothers me about this Nobel Prize. Bob Dylan did not win it as a person for his body of work. The prize was given to a legend, a figment of our collective imagination. And the prestige of the Nobel Prize with only help to solidify the definitional nature of Dylan’s greatness. I like Dylan. It think he’s talented. But, it makes me sad that no one will ever come along and be better because the baby boomers declared it so.