It ain’t literature

The correct argument against Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize in literature is not about songs not belonging to literature, it’s about Dylan himself.

There are many others who would represent the literary virtue of song lyrics more rightfully than Bob Dylan. But I am not going to make a list of my own, as it would only reflect my taste (however, this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t enjoy reading your lists in the comments).

One half of the point is well explained by Germaine Greer, as she explains why he believes that lyrics are not literature: I do not agree with this point, but the argument is nevertheless valid for most lyrics – and definitely is for Dylan’s. Here she goes with a beautiful description of the alchemy between words and music, working together to create an artistic effect:
When Morrissey sings a Morrissey song, he knows exactly what colour every part of every word is meant to be, and whether it crosses the rhythm to build up tension, or cannons into it to gain emphasis. If Morrissey repeats a line, he may vary it in a new context, or he may keep it exactly the same, as he does with “Every day is like Sunday”, because part of the point of the song is the anguish of monotony as perceived by hapless youth – but the music catapults the repetition towards us like a javelin. The music does what the words alone cannot do. To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.

The other half of my point is that I believe that there is at least one author whose songs operate the magic in the other direction: Leonard Cohen. It’s not because I like him better than Dylan (by the way, there are others whom I like much better than both), but Leonard Cohen truly belongs to literature, as he does exactly the opposite: his words enlighten his unremarkable music.

Just listen to the first 15 seconds:
Not exactly a great piece of sophisticated music, is it? Now just read the following aloud, with a plain voice:
Here is your crown
And your seal and rings;
And here is your love
For all things.
Here is your cart,

And your cardboard and piss;
And here is your love
For all of this.

and you are tangled in the symmetry between these two extremes, the king and the homeless. When you add the music, it will sound tragic and sublime and Cohen’s voice will speak to you as if a fallen angel were disclosing you the secret of life and death.

Here is it.


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