Bob Dylan delivered his Nobel Prize lecture on Monday, just before the deadline, as a celebrated nonconformist should. Although he spoke at length about classic books that inspired him, he declined to classify his own work within that tradition, saying that “Songs are unlike literature.”
When Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in October, it sparked a widespread, heated conversation about whether songs should qualify as “literature.” Lyrics are only “literature” when they’re impactful without music, some said. The plays of some Nobel-winning dramatists only reach their full potential onstage, so lyrics that depend on music should count, too, some said.
Now Dylan himself has taken a side in the debate — and it’s not the side that validates his win. At the end of the lecture, he says:
“Songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.”
Although he doesn’t believe that songs are literature, he acknowledges a “connection” between them. Throughout the speech, he lists literary themes that influenced his lyrics, apparently trying to reckon with his Nobel win. “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature,” he states at the top. “I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was.”
Dylan has always refused to explain the meaning of his songs, and he’s using this prize as additional justification for that defiance. If songs are similar to books, and authors don’t have to explain themselves, then neither do I, he argues. “I don’t have to know what a song means,” he said. “When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.”
Obviously, it’s bizarre for a Nobel winner to use their required lecture to acknowledge that the prize isn’t a perfect fit for their work. But if Dylan didn’t have this propensity to brazenly tell it like he sees it, his music wouldn’t wield such enormous power.
Read the full lecture here.