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Column: For Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize goes pop

By Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune

In something of an upset, Bob Dylan was named Thursday as the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the first to come from popular music.

The literature prize has previously gone to writers of prose, poetry and drama. Yet the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobels in a variety of categories ranging from the sciences to the humanities, cited Dylan not for his well-received 2005 autobiography, but “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The 75-year-old Minnesota native born Robert Zimmerman is being honored, in other words, for his groundbreaking work in the American folk music tradition, beginning in the 1960s. Inspired, he has said, by Woody Guthrie, he stretched the boundaries of the genre with lyrics and song structures that, among other achievements, launched a thousand English papers on poetry in popular music.

Dylan becomes the first American to win the literature prize since the novelist Toni Morrison in 1993. And Dylan’s name will surely be added to the Nobel website’s very short list entitled “Surprise Literature Laureate?” The only other person on that list: Winston Churchill who, the site explains, won the 1953 prize for literature not, as many believe, the Nobel Peace Prize typically awarded for diplomatic efforts.

Dylan’s victory came as a surprise to Nobel watchers. It certainly came as a surprise to The New Republic, which on Oct. 6 published a piece with the headline “Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature? Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.”

That surety seemed a safe bet. Arts awards have almost always had an inherent bias toward so-called “high culture,” a category that tends not to include people who got their start singing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

Look at the United States’ most celebrated, and lucrative, prize for creative accomplishment, the MacArthur Fellowship. The so-called “genius grants” dispensed by the Chicago philanthropy can be delightfully quirky – a juggler! A puppeteer! – but in recognizing the arts, they mostly stay highbrow. Indeed, in the last 10 years of the MacArthurs the only winners I’d label popular-culture figures are TV producer David Simon (“The Wire”) and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Alongside their names you see jazz and classical musicians and composers on their list, and you see a bowmaker for stringed instruments, but you don’t see singer-songwriters like, say, a young Bob Dylan.

The Guggenheim Fellowships explicitly exclude those who perform others’ work, yet you do not find rock songwriters or writers for film and television in their extensive list of honorees.

To some extent, sidestepping pop culture is understandable. These fellowships are meant in part to shine light where it has not been, or to brighten a moderate light. Pop music, movies and television already suck up too much of the cultural oxygen, and an individual performer in those genres still has a better shot at wide recognition than, say, puppeteer Basil Twist or even than a composer for music theater who is not named Lin-Manuel Miranda.

And someone like Dylan at 75, a proven and celebrated creative power, would never be the choice of the MacArthurs, which like to tap the shoulder of those who are on the cusp of doing something big.

But with the arts audience becoming ever more fragmented – with the popular-music business model having essentially collapsed, for instance; with filmmakers finding it ever more difficult to tell stories aimed at adults – perhaps it’s time to consider letting pop culture through the door a little more often.

The times are changing, as someone once said. And maybe what the Swedes did for Dylan can set an example.

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