Dylan’s Nobel: the true birthright of the male artist

Whichever of his songs Dylan got the Nobel Prize for, I certainly hope it wasn’t for ‘Neigborhood Bully’, his frankly racist excuse-making for the paranoid violence of Israel. ‘Neighborhood Bully’ was released in 1983, on the album Infidels. With lyrics that could have been approved by Ariel Sharon not only does ‘Neighborhood Bully’ enthusiastically buy into the perception of Israel as a friendless, misunderstood victim of anti-Semites – and conflates the historical persecution of Jewish people with the politics of the Israeli state – but it also does so at a particularly critical time.

Thirteen months before the release of Infidels, right-wing Christian militias massacred hundreds of civilians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The massacres were carried out with the likely connivance of the IDF, and Ariel Sharon was later deemed to be personally responsible by the commission investigating the crimes.

‘Neighbourhood Bully’ blatantly erases Palestinian claims to autonomy with the lines:

Neighbourhood bully

He’s just one man

His enemies say he’s on their land

Dylan then positions those ‘enemies’ as immensely powerful and numerous. It mimics the arguments that Israel has used over and over again for decades: Palestinians don’t deserve to exist and are not real – but they are also able to swamp us at any time and kill us in our beds.

It’s hard to think about Dylan without examining this sordid little song, embedded in an album that followed Dylan’s evangelical period, and was regarded as his return to secular ways. What gets lost, in the predictably binary discussions about Dylan’s worthiness for a literary prize, is any kind of interesting argument about the purposes of literature, and whether it is even a politically interesting enterprise in an age when malignant, misogynist proto-fascists can come within coo-ee of the US presidency and the Australian parliament is becoming thronged with white supremacists and right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Dylan put the tropes of English lyric poetry into popular music, which is a useful and meaningful thing to do. Not many have done it, mostly because rock and roll has often been preoccupied with other modes of verbal expression (a-wopbobaloopa-a-wob-bam-boom!). But he also maintained the codes of romantic love, male-centric sadness and worship of women. When David Bowie sang about Dylan’s endless odes to women

Here she comes again

The same old painted lady

From the brow of the superbrain

he was pretty much on the money. It’s hard to listen to Sara without wanting Dylan to just shut up whining and perpetuating ancient sexualised stereotypes of women – ‘so easy to look at, so hard to define’. It’s a habit he’s been prone to for a very long time. The Guardian – always up for cutting-edge criticism – listed the lyrics of ‘Just Like a Woman’ as among Dylan’s best. This in a week when it was revealed that Donald Trump had publicly fantasised about sex with a ten-year-old girl, and also deliberately walked into the dressing room of the contestants for Miss Teen USA.

Dylan’s politics, and his periodic misogyny, get obliterated in the rush to exalt his writing. When we do discuss Dylan’s politics it is usually in the context of ‘Chimes of Freedom’ or ‘Hurricane’. Though when I imagine that Dylan might still be able to inhabit a subversive politics – an imagining that is in reality long dead and buried – I think of ‘Senor’, from 1978’s Street Legal album, a parable of the USA sleepwalking us into Armageddon.

Dylan has been a critical artist in the history of rock and roll without a doubt. But rock and roll has very much been a male-dominated enterprise. At the recent elite Desert Trip Festival of ancient rock and roll icons in California, every single performer was male. What Dylan’s Nobel perhaps shows us is that mainstream rock and roll has more in common with the production of literature than we might think. When I see Dylan’s Nobel being championed by the male elders of English literature, I want to ask what they are potentially getting out of Dylan’s elevation to a place they dream of occupying.

Rock ’n’ roll deification has all the characteristics of a contagious male hysteria, a demand (among other things) for the true birthright of the male artist: absolute adoration and limitless sexual control. Literature can partake of the same dynamic, as it continues to exalt male writers and ignore female ones. It is hard for men to remember that we live in a world of male privilege and male entitlement. That is because we never have to look at it and we prefer not to. Even when we pretend we are, and call ourselves ‘feminists’, we usually aren’t. We’re often just reminding ourselves that we are sensitive and cool. Women have to look at and endure the impacts of male privilege every day. Michelle Obama’s barnstorming speech yesterday in which she not only shredded Donald Trump in comprehensive fashion but also spoke to the daily humiliations that women and girls everywhere have to undergo every day is as good a place as any for male writers to start thinking about the gaze we inhabit very time we sit down and write.

Literature, like rock and roll, has always been dominated by men. Women never really make it to the top of rock’s Olympus, a mysterious enclave inhabited only by men, rock and roll’s true Gods, just as women writers, however much they are praised, never really get to keep their seat at literature’s table. One of the things I hate about getting older is that I won’t be around in a century to see the entire edifice of male artistic exaltation come tumbling down: a world where Ian McEwan isn’t regarded as the pinnacle of English literature, where dangerous orange buffoons can’t become President of the USA and where songs like ‘Just Like a Woman’ or Mick Jagger’s rapey ‘Stray Cat Blues’ aren’t hailed as transcendent artistic products of the sublime male mind.


Image: ‘Bob Dylan 70th Birthday Collection’ / flickr

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. How can we respond to this if you have the nerve to write such? Easy. Ol’chella? As the sobriquet suggests, that’s a backward looking dead white male festival to begin and end with, so the line-up is scarcely a surprise. As to the dud Dylan song singled out, if that’s all criticism amounts to, the man gets off lightly. The times have changed, somewhat, yet answers to gender equities blow in the wind still.

  2. It is true that some of Dylan’s work doesn’t stack up and some is offensive.

    However there’s no denying his brilliant, much more so than people like Mick Jagger or Taylor Swift.

    Joni Mitchell is also brilliant, but she’s not really rock and roll…

    So Stephan, what music style would you put forward as less sexist: hip-hop?!

    If you are anything like most people in the English speaking world, you probably know nothing about music from other countries, even if those who identify as being of non-English speaking background are rarely interested in music from other countries unless it’s bland alternative, hip-hop or rock cookie cutter crap. But that’s a discussion for another time!

    1. Well, I think you’ve proved my point about only men being allowed in to the rock god pantheon, and the embedded sexism in popular music when you say that Joni Mitchell isn’t rock and roll. That’s not only ludicrous, but you’ve also used Dylan to backhandedly put down two women: Joni and Taylor Swift.

      I’m not proposing any specific musical genre that isn’t sexist. But as Anwen Crawford asked in her excellent little book on Hole and Courtney Love, ‘Live through This’, what would rock and roll look like that prioritised women’s experiences?

      I think if you put together a playlist that went: Joni; Poly Styrene; the Raincoats; Indigo Girls; Courtney Love; Taylor Swift; Janelle Monae; Beyonce, you’ve got a pretty cool spread of rock and roll, And guess what? There’s a marked absence of misogyny.

      And I think Taylor Swift is pretty clever. She seems to me to be a young woman trying to make her way in a world dominated by men, and finding a lot of obstacles and disappointments. I suspect her songs get dismissed as pop trifles because she is a woman.

      1. What about Patti Smith? Kate Bush? Quite clearly Wuthering Heights was robbed of the Nobel Prize for literature.

        Anyway, I do want to know when Beyonce is going to get the recognition that’s due her as artist, collaborator and auteur, e.g.

  3. Re. Joni, I actually don’t think she is rock and roll, so it wasn’t a put down at all.

    She initially played folk music with unusual (for Anglo music) tunings. And then I would say she moved into jazz music and jazz fusion, probably bored with simple rock/folk chords and harmonies.

    Taylor Swift is quite a good lyricist to be fair, but just playing in a very musically limiting genre

    1. That limiting genre being rock and roll. So not that limiting at all.

      Taylor’s lyrics to ‘Mean’ made me think of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. So she is tapping into quite a lineage.

  4. Sure, Zimmerman-Dylan wrote the odd politically crook Zionist song, and plagiarised the English ballad Lord Randall (by a Nonny Mouse) to come up with Hard Rain, and stole whatever from whomever as he pleased, and was no Saint Bob (thank the devil) where women and much else were concerned, but hey, he did a lot of creative and social good too, and made more than a strong mark both musically and literarily in his time, and who gives a stuff about the Nobel Prizes anymore anyway (a lot probably), but the man deserves the accolade for a lifetime achievement of simply keeping on keeping on, in my reckoning, and just as it takes a lot to laugh, takes a train to cry (just throwin’ that one in as it’s my fav Dylan song), so was he a writing machine too, so much so that I recall Joan Baez commenting once how, when she played Love is a Four Letter Word to him, he asked who and if she wrote it, and she replied, ‘You did, you dope’, ‘dope’ being the creative operand, I guess, and so to conclude, my apologies for a non-stoned rave, and nice read, Mr. Wright, my thanks to you, and music in general too … even if it ain’t capital L literature on the say-so of wowsers

    1. Mentioning Saint Bob in the same breath as Bobby D reminds me of a Russell Brand quip: “No wonder he’s an expert on famine, he’s been dining out on I don’t like Mondays for thirty years”. (I think it’s forty now, actually).

  5. Well, a year or two ago the Nobel Literature Prize went to Alice Munro. She is a lady, and Canadian short story writer. We are very proud of her, and of course, Bob Dylan IS a poet, but not all his material is Nobel worthy… nor is all of Munro’s. It’s their lifetime body of work that counts. He made a huge cultural impact through his folk music poetry in a time of hope and emotional questing for a better world, in a growing and hopeful adolescent country, in an emotionally adolescent world. You can’t hope to prove a negative point through a few songs. Look at the big picture. You don’t have to make this negative from a Feminist point of view. Be happy for the man – he has been a brave minstrel, and touched the heartbeat of a generation.

    1. I’m not part of the Dylan’s-not-worthy-of-the-Nobel camp. I don’t care either way. To be nominated for the Nobel you can only be put up by a select group: profs of literature, past laureates, members of the Swedish academy or similarly august bodies; in other words, mostly fairly conservative sources of popular taste. The Nobel campaign for Dylan has been going for years and years, which means that lots of white literature profs are Dylan fans.

      My argument about Dylan’s Nobel isn’t about his worthiness for it or his status as a poet. It’s about something else, which I won’t repeat because I’d just be writing the post all over again.

    2. Fact is, Dylan, with the exact same CV, wouldn’t have won a Nobel Prize for Literature if she were a woman

  6. As of 2015, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 822 men, 48 women, and 26 organizations.[4][5][6] Sixteen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize, fourteen have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, twelve have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, four have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, two have won the Nobel Prize in Physics and one, Elinor Ostrom, has won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.[5][7] The first woman to win a Nobel Prize was Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel.[5][8] Curie is also the only woman to have won multiple Nobel Prizes; in 1911, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, making the two the only mother-daughter pair to have won Nobel Prizes.[5] The most Nobel Prizes awarded to women in a single year was in 2009, when five women became laureates. The most recent women to be awarded a Nobel Prize were Tu Youyou and Svetlana Alexievich (2015). (Wikipedia)

  7. I would say in musical circles Joni is as respected an artist as Dylan, obviously not in sales terms but she’s a far more innovative musician, and as good a lyricist.

    Let’s not forget she had her unfortunate moments too e.g. Blackfacing on an album cover and declaring that she had the soul of a black man.

    A problem with Taylor Swift so far is that since her switch from country to pop, you can’t say there’s been much musical diversity in her albums…

  8. So Dylan only won the nobel because of ‘male privilege’ … and as for ‘swamping us and killing us in our beds’ …. well there’s hundreds of examples to that now … so it was a visionary line. It seems that the feminists want to outbloke the blokes ( football/ rock music) … yet (though this type of doubling may be a compliment) … mostly – the blokes are still better … and the outbloking stuff just makes it look like the feminists have no ideas of their own …. and who knows … that may be the truth … the blokes are just better at somethings (and the girls at others) no matter how much ‘opportunity’ you can provide … and whats wrong with that ? But certainly lets cut the gender and race stuff out and just concentrate on the sublime.

    1. Are you alright? You sound drunk. Inasmuch as I understand what you are saying, you seem to start with a politically hard-right statement and follow it up with a series of fairly crude misogynist slogans and then round the whole lot up wit the usual sentimental literati claptrap about art being sublime. That’s quite some ground you’ve covered.

      1. Well ‘diversity’ does not produce ‘art’ … it produces polemics ( view any ‘Gay Art’ for example… its all pink and fluffy and plastic. Indigenous poets do not produce ‘poetry’ they produce ‘war cries’ for sovereignty. If you know what ‘art’ is … then you know when it is not present. I have no trouble recognising Dylan’s art … to claim its all because of his gender .. disrespects his art ( and all those who recognise it) .. as … well …. misogynists – (just like all those against Gay Marriage are homophobes) In reality its you who is the male hater … you seem to believe you need to hate the male in order to love the feminine… this is , in truth, just reverse misogyny. … or ‘misandry’. Certainly it puts ‘Art’ down as a bad second to ‘diversity’… and diversity does not make art.

        1. Seriously, you are a real worry. Carrying all that anxiety must be difficult. I’m not going to bother with the racist, and homophobic statements you are making because they are (a) ludicrous and (b) just need to be put gently aside and left to die. But I will say that diversity is very very obviously critical to the making of art. Otherwise it’s propaganda.
          And I am always amazed that over the years, whenever I’ve written a post or essay about misogyny, angry men suddenly appear from nowhere and begin spouting stuff about ‘reverse-misogyny’. You have very thin skins.
          I’d like to strongly suggest to you that what you are calling ‘diversity’ is an unstoppable force and age is not going to be kind to your opinions.
          And you are probably skating on the brink of OL’s comment policy, I’d be guessing. Racism, homophobia and misogyny are never a good look and you are parading it in spades.

          1. All that needs to be done to stop diversity (the unstoppable force) is to focus on excellence and ‘art’. Art has been made for millennia without the need for ‘diversity’ … take anything from Shakespeare to Picasso for example. As for anything produced without diversity being propaganda… well what rubbish … are you saying that the writing and poems of TS Elliot are propaganda ?… how about Ulysses by James Joyce … is that propaganda ??

          2. Your argument about diversity makes me think of Inigo Montoya: ‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means’.
            If Joyce or Eliot (or let us say white males) are the only role models allowed then we will in effect just get weird iterations of what is allowed; propaganda for the view that these are our only models.
            And I can’t be bothered deconstructing
            ‘excellence’ for you. But you obviously ain’t read any serious political criticism of the term for, I’d say, 30 years. Which means you are either very young, and will need to get your act together quick smart to survive in a changing world – or, you are getting on a bit, in which case your views are already severely outdated and will soon be of no interest to anyone, living or dead.
            We’re done. Thanks for dropping by.

        2. Hey ‘Wolfie’,

          I meandered over to Quadrant to find out what the loopy Right might be saying about all this and guess what? There’s this guy called Patrick McCauley saying exactly what you’re saying here and he even has your signature problems with the ellipsis. It’s like you’re the same person. How fantastical problematical!! Maybe he’s plagiarising your ‘brilliant’ take on things.


          Cam Lowe

  9. Sure, they should have changed the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter ages ago. But the artistic merits of Joni or Taylor isn’t really my point; except inasmuch that it points to an inherent misogyny in the production of both literature and music. After all, if Joni was really regarded as a better lyricist than Dylan she’d have the Nobel, not him. The history if lit criteria is misogyny central. And of music.

  10. I”m assuming the focud of this post to be the under-representation of women in whatever field one chooses to name, as exempified here by music/literature through Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and by extension, to questions of race, ethnicity, class and gender representations too in whatever field, hence the often myopic focus on male considerations too, which undercuts the central argument of the post, that’s if I have the gist of the argument?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *