No Surprises from Bob Dylan

Thoughts on the Artist’s Initial Refusal to Acknowledge his Nobel Prize Nomination

Illustrator: Emily Hill

Illustrator: Emily Hill

Bob Dylan doesn’t like to do what’s expected of him. Whether it’s publicly sponsoring Victoria’s Secret in a wildly sexualized ad campaign, changing his entire musical style or religious belief system at the drop of a hat, pledging a frat, or, most recently, patently refusing to respond to his Nobel Prize nomination for weeks on end—the man has always marched to the melody of his own harmonica. In short: Bob Dylan has never allowed himself to be pinned down or defined by institutions or “The Man,” if you will. In this way and in many others, Dylan has always been a true “rolling stone.”

Rewind to 1964 when memories of the Cold War were still fresh in American minds, second-wave feminism was taking its first toddling steps, plans were underway to put the first American boots on Vietnamese soil, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. This was the tense, electrified environment within which Bob Dylan released one of his most popular and renowned albums: The Times They Are A-Changin’. Musicians, artists, journalists, scholars and even world leaders have lauded the title track of the album time and time again as a profoundly impactful protest song with ingeniously poetic and politically salient lyrics. Personally, I agree with these commendations. Bob Dylan, however, disagrees violently with all of them.

Dylan has historically and vehemently denied the political weight of his music. He has defined it as “a feeling,” divorced almost entirely from social justice in his mind. In a 1965 interview, Dylan told a reporter from Time Magazine: “I got nothing to say about these things I write. I mean, I just write ‘em. I’m not gonna say anything about them—I don’t write them for any reason. There’s no great message. I mean if you want to tell all the people that go ahead and tell them. But I’m not gonna have to answer to it.”

Dylan has historically and vehemently denied the political weight of his music.

The main idea here is that Dylan doesn’t want labels of social warrior, progressive or activist pinned on him. He’s always rejected them. He just wants to make music; he won’t be the social justice warrior institutions like the Nobel Committee want and expect him to be. As he states in a different track, “It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for.” The Nobel Committee sees Dylan as a poet, artist and conduit for political change. I don’t think anyone would say this is objectively inaccurate but, as Dylan said, he doesn’t have to answer to it. The Nobel Committee can go ahead and assign grand meaning to Dylan’s work, but he’s not going to have anything to say about it. It just ain’t him, babe. It never has been.

People say Dylan was ungrateful and childish in ignoring his nomination—one Nobel Committee member even went as far as to characterize Dylan’s actions as “impolite and arrogant.” And maybe it’s true. But is it surprising? I mean, come on, the man is like 100 years old. Have people not realized yet that he’s pretty much the staunchest individualist in the musical game? Has no one noticed that he’s always refused to be defined, institutionalized or co-opted to fit specific agendas? I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anybody who’s even remotely familiar with Dylan that he was initially inclined to ignore the award. Even now that he’s granted it minimal acknowledgement, he still seems incredibly reluctant to flaunt the prize. It’s consistent not only with his erratic and individualist personality, but with his rebellious attitude when it comes to people trying to label him and pigeonhole his music.

He just wants to make music; he won’t be the social justice warrior institutions like the Nobel Committee want and expect him to be.

I want to make something very clear. I’m not saying I “get” Dylan. Nobody gets Dylan. Stephen Hawking doesn’t get Dylan. Dylan probably doesn’t even get Dylan. He’s the great enigma of the 20th century. My thoughts here are just one interpretation of his actions, and I’m certain he would reject them all. Even in writing my interpretation of Dylan, I too am trying to pin him down—something he has never wanted. All this being said, I’ll leave you with one final request: just let Dylan be Dylan. Stop trying to tell him who he is and what his music means. You can call him ungrateful or arrogant all you want, but he’s not going to change and he’s absolutely not going to be who you want him to be. He’s Bob Dylan. He’s a rolling stone. That much will never change.