If the Nobel Prize in Literature was established to celebrate words that empower, then the Swedish Academy’s selection of Bob Dylan is long overdue. In the past fifty years, one would be hard pressed to find an individual — presidents and popes included — whose words have had a more profound societal impact than Dylan. With the scratchy spin of the vinyl and the crackling of the radio, he disseminated ideas with poetic messages that verged on the prophetic. Through his words, Bob Dylan dramatically effected the trajectory of world culture through his reflection on social justice and his lasting influence on the masses and political leaders alike. More than simply honor his poetic contribution, the Academy’s selection of Dylan proves that he is still a figure engrained in the American political and social landscape.
Despite his reluctance to consciously enter the political arena, Dylan’s influence has had a vast and meaningful impact on politics. Breaking into the world of music in 1961 as a politically charged songwriter, Dylan emphasized the agency of his listeners in the issues of the era. This marked a clear shift in the nature of political expression in music. While many of his successors, such as Sam Cooke in “A Change is Gonna Come” and Pete Seeger in “We Shall Overcome,” offered listeners fortitude in the face of oppression by stressing that one day the oppression would end, Dylan advocated the ability of the individual to be the change they seek. Through major hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan called to action likeminded youth, while simultaneously requesting that obstinate sources of power — among them senators, congressmen, mothers, and fathers — to step away from their “rapidly fading” old order. Dylan’s words helped usher in the new decade, one marked by the promise of political and social progress based upon the agency for change, not faith in it.
Dylan’s commentary on social justice was both timely and poignant, a meaningful combination for many in the American public. He wrote songs that were inextricably linked to specific social injustices in the United States. In “Only a Pawn in the Game,” he simultaneously lamented the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the social degradation that caused a poor white man like Byron De La Beckwith to kill him. In “Masters of War”, Dylan forcefully admonished the military-industrial complex. In “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he mocked fear of communism and counter-culture movements, using the song to warn against the dangers of stifling political expression. Dylan was remarkably in tune with the American left, which was frustrated by the slow progress of the Civil Rights Movement, uneasy about the increasing American military presence in Vietnam, and still recovering from the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.
Even when Dylan’s music stopped being overtly political, a transition marked for many by his infamous electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he continued to be a societal figure, forever analogous to the ideals of youth rebellion and dissatisfaction. Dylan’s impact, nebulous by the design of the artist, is perhaps best exemplified in how he inspired his fellow musicians. In serving as an inspiration to those who continued his topical songwriting, Dylan’s legacy multiplied. Credit must be given to Neil Young for the ingenuity in his politically-charged songs; his song “Ohio” with bandmates David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills embodied youth angst after the 1970 Kent State Massacre, and “Let’s Impeach the President” represented the musician’s disapproval of George W. Bush. However, Young is also quick to give Dylan the recognition he deserves as an inspiration: “[Dylan’s] the master,” Young said in 2005. “If I’d like to be anyone, it’s him.” In keeping with the post-Dylan era of topical songwriting, both of Young’s songs are calls to action, the former being a call to end political suppression of youth and the latter a call to end the Bush Presidency and with it the War in Iraq.
Dylan remained a commendable force even after his break with topical songwriting due to his ability to incorporate implicit societal analysis, rather than explicitly discussing political or social issues, in his songs, a strategy later adopted by artists like Bruce Springsteen. In his memoir Born to Run, released this October, Springsteen paid homage to Dylan, the subtle societal commentator:
“Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home [Dylan’s first two non-political albums] were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived…The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated…A seismic gap had opened up between generations and you suddenly felt orphaned, abandoned amid the flow of history, your compass spinning, internally homeless. Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become.”
Dylan’s profound impact on American youth, is supported by empirical data. In the 1979 book Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman found that 72 percent of the respondents asserted their admiration for Dylan, and claimed that he had significantly influenced them as a societal leader. This statistic made him the most influential individual in the entire study, with only the Beatles, at 79 percent, having more reported influence. These results are even more astonishing when compared to that of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who only influenced an estimated 62 percent of respondents.
While the legacy of Dylan has long been felt and recognized in many private circles, his impact on the public sphere is also evident. President Obama’s praise of Dylan, delivered during his presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Dylan in 2012, was markedly personal and revealed of Dylan’s deep-rooted impact on Obama himself. At the time, the president said, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music…I remember, in college, listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital.” And while he is not known to speak that openly about artists, in many ways, President Obama’s embracing of Dylan seems natural. It would only be logical for a man who campaigned for the presidency in 2008 with the messages of change and hope to have found inspiration in the counterculture of Bob Dylan.
However, it should be noted that Dylan as a political symbol has been conversely utilized to challenge the progressive ideals that he represents for so many. There has been a long history of the American judiciary system using quotes from Dylan in cases. However, what is so surprising is that the most notable evocations have come from the more conservative justices, such as Chief Justice John Roberts and the late Antonin Scalia. The citation of Dylan by the Justices, particularly the late conservative bulwark Scalia, is perplexing. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of City of Ontario v. Quon, delving into the application of the Fourth Amendment and its ban of unreasonable search and seizure in the modern technological age. The case involved officers from Ontario, California who had used government-issued pagers to send personal messages, some of which were sexually explicit. The Court ruled that the city had not violated the officer’s Fourth Amendment rights in searching the devices, and that the officers should not have had expected confidentiality when using the government-issued resources. While concurring with the Court’s decision, Justice Scalia nonetheless chastised the Court’s fickle stance on the intersection of technology and privacy. He suggested that the Court’s tendency to handle events like on a literal case-by-case basis shirked its responsibility of informing private action through the lens of the Constitution. He concluded: “‘The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty.” Yet, Scalia’s use of the reference delivers a message far from the intended original meaning of the song. In quoting this iconic symbol of progress, Scalia suggests that even though entities like technology are in a state of evolution, how our society handles their interaction with our core legal values must remain constant. Through such analysis, Dylan, an emblem of societal inversion for so many, is equated with the American political left, likening the rebuking of Dylan with a critique of the progressive political current.
In a press conference in San Francisco in 1965, an astute reporter asked Dylan, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” Through a cloud of cigarette smoke and with a coy smile, Dylan’s retort was “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.” For decades, fans and critics of Dylan alike have attempted to prescribe a set of labels and political policies through which they can understand the ideology he represents. However, the genius of Dylan as a cultural icon is that even after he left both politics and the limelight, he continues to inspire countless people. In constantly defying the expectations of others, whether it be on the Newport stage in 1965 or winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan has cemented himself as an emblem of change, progress, and innovation, ideals that remain present in every stage of the American political landscape. These ideals immortalize him an ever-relevant societal and political force.