As many of you know by now, the Nobel Committee recently shocked the world by rewarding not a traditional poet or author, but instead Bob Dylan, the renowned 60s singer/songwriter. Many people were shocked, because no sole musician had ever won before (although Indian poets have been victorious in the past, and they used to share their art through music), and debated if Dylan even deserved it (personally, I was just shocked he was alive. I thought he died July 25, 1965 [congrats all five of you who actually got that joke]). However, despite all these claims, the only proper conclusion is an enthusiastic “yes.”
Crafting the perfect lyrics to a song is an art form akin to poetry. It requires intelligence, timing, symbolism and beauty. Sure, in recent days it’s resorted to “Baby, baby, baby, ooh” and “Shake shake shake shake shake it off,” but that hasn’t stopped a strong handful from elevating the game. Some artists have gone beyond the world of simple songwriting and found a way to say something poetic, prophetic and profound to accompany their elaborate use of instruments. So, in honor of Dylan’s win, I offer up a list of ten artists who should also be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
Before I begin, I want to make one clarification: you must be known for your songwriting (so, for example, Prince would not qualify, as he was known for his musical skills more than his lyrics), and you must be alive (so also not Prince). Ironically, Leonard Cohen was the first name I wrote down when starting this list, but sadly that is no longer an option. And I can promise that, were he still alive, Harry Chapin, the greatest musical storyteller, would have qualified.
Other names I considered due to one or more songs were Burt Bacharach, Kate Bush and John Cale; however, Bacharach is a little too saccharine, Bush is held back by “Wuthering Heights” (oh trust me, that video will make an appearance on this site at some point), and Cale is a good writer, but I suspect the late Lou Reed had a bigger hand than he did. I also looked into Fela Kuti, who I decided I didn’t know enough about to consider. Sorry-I have my blind spots. And I even considered Weird Al Yankovich before deciding he was just too silly. With that out of the way, let’s look at the Ten Songwriters Who Deserve the Nobel Prize.
One of America’s favorite songwriters, Carole King’s fingerprints are all over the American music scene. From pop to folk, King has written for almost every musical genre, and dominated each one with a lyrically rich, intelligent song. Starting her career as a writer for anyone and everyone else, she eventually managed to become her own singer, giving us songs on love, loss, feminism and triumph, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You Make Me Feel,” “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move” and “Where You Lead (I Will Follow).” King’s simple lyricism spoke for both decades she was prevalent: the joy and triumph of the 60s and the hopeful longing of the 70s.
Best Song: “You’ve Got A Friend.” Not her most lyrically challenging, but there’s a simple beauty to it. There are few lines in all of literature as memorable as “Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall/All you have to do is call…”
I was determined to include a country singer on this list. When country was at its peak in the late 50s through early 70s, it had all the key ingredients of poetry: pain, anguish, sorrow, joy, and earnestness. Unfortunately, many of the greats-Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings-are deceased. Luckily, Kris Kristofferson is still alive and kicking, and he’s one of the most talented there are. Touching on things like freedom, sexual intimacy, and alienation, Kristofferson made his name as the chief writer of the genre. His songs were performed and covered by Cash, Joan Baez and, famously, Janis Joplin, and demonstrated to the world that Kristofferson’s lyrics were powerful, poetic and, above all, universal.
Best Song: “Me and My Bobby McGee.” A ballad about drifters traveling through the South feeling alienated and alone in their quest for freedom, the song is perhaps best known for Joplin’s powerhouse performance. However, as great as she is at singing it, it means nothing without Kristofferson’s powerful words, proving that country music, at its core, can speak to anyone and anything outside it’s genre and musical constraints.
There may be no style of music in existence at the moment as similar to poetry as hip-hop. Poetry often comes from pain, and hip-hop started as a way for the African-American community to protest their plight-the racism, the classism, and other issues are often prevalent themes. And while some of the titans are still around, like Ice Cube (the chief lyricist for N.W.A.), I’m going to go with a new powerhouse on the scene: Kendrick Lamar. He’s released two seminal albums that have changed the game with their lyrical genius. His writing is like a musical version of James Baldwin while mixing in the anger of Cube and the rest of his group. From Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City’s look at his childhood in Compton to To Pimp a Butterfly’s extended look at modern race relations and violence against black people, by police, racism, the system, and even his own community. It’s smart, intelligent, rich, and beautiful, and he’s perhaps the most clear example of combining powerful music with the art of storytelling to inspire social change, and that’s what the Nobel Prize for Literature is all about.
Best Song: All of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Butterfly is the better album, lyrically; however, it doesn’t quite live up to the scope of Lamar’s first brush with fame. It explores his life, his childhood, and his identity, and it demonstrates his talent as one of our greatest writers.
Look, we knew there was going to be a Beatle on this list. Personally, I like Lennon’s poetic cynical optimism a bit more. However, there’s something about Paul McCartney’s earnest longing that makes him just as incredible. Writing most of the band’s greatest poems (and that’s what they were), from “Eleanor Rigby” to “Hey Jude,” from “Let It Be” to “Blackbird.” Sure, his songs are a bit lighter and more uplifting than the average Nobel laureate (I’m looking at you Toni Morrison), but he has a richness in his descriptions and his writings that make him stand out. Mix that in with how he changed the game for songwriting, and you have one of the most deserving writers in the not just the music genre, but the entire world of writing altogether.
Best Song: “Yesterday.” Sure, I’m fonder of “Hey Jude.” And “Maybe I’m Amazed” is arguably his most well known song. However, if you’re asking my personal opinion, I prefer the melancholy nature of “Yesterday.” Reflective, longing and exploring the nature of love that can’t work out, “Yesterday” is a poignant, somber affair, but it might also be the greatest song the Beatles ever wrote or performed. And it wouldn’t have been around if it wasn’t for Paul McCartney.
Some might see this as my weakest pick. I mean, as a solo artist, her biggest hit was “Edge of Seventeen.” However, that song alone should prove why she deserves this spot on this list. What sounds like a basic song about coming of age is, in actuality, a sobering look at loss, both of family and of heroes. Indeed, Stevie Nicks’ talent spreads wide across her career, from the simplest pop song to the most profound emotional study. Her simple prose cuts to the heart of human emotions, from love to loss and everything in between. I could continue describing her talent in general terms, but Nicks’ career is best summed up through one song. So I’m going to direct you to the Best Song section so we can discuss…
Best Song: “Landslide.” Well of course “Landslide” is her masterpiece. It works on every level-a song about potentially losing love, a song about potentially losing your career, a song about what you hope to accomplish, a song about discovering who you are…the list goes on. It’s a transcending, gorgeous poem, and it proves that Nicks isn’t just one of the greatest American songwriters, but one of the greatest songwriters, period.
Every once in a while, the Nobel Committee goes with a populist pick. That’s not to say the person is completely undeserving; it just means that it’s more because they’re really likable at what they do, whether or not it makes a major difference. A recent example was Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize. A similar (but more deserving) pick would be if the Literature Prize went to Smokey Robinson. Robinson’s writing is simplistic, yet with a sense of poignancy. This can be seen in his more thoughtful songs, like “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a Clown,” as well as more popular, simpler poems, like “My Girl” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.” Robinson isn’t one to completely “wow” you with his writing ability on the surface, like Nicks or Lamar, but he has an authenticity and a sweetness to his lyrics that make him one of the best around.
Best Song: “The Tracks of My Tears.” There are few sets of lyrics in all of music as elegantly simple and softly beautiful as Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.” It’s gentle, yet passionate, simple, yet honest. It takes a keen creative eye to write such a song, and that’s exactly the kind of eye I want the Nobel Committee honoring.
The folk genre most easily walks hand in hand with poetry, I think. I mean, this entire list is inspired by Bob Dylan winning for his collection of such songs. However, while I understand people’s love for Dylan’s incredible music, my personal favorite folk singers are Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. And while it would perhaps be fairer to include both of them, let’s be honest, Paul wrote the bulk of the songs. And more importantly, he’s continued turning out great music even after separating from Art. Hell, he’s been putting out beautiful lyrical music as late as this year. With a selection of lyrically perfect songs including “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” “Homeward Bound,” “The Only Living Boy in New York,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” it’s more shocking that Simon hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize yet.
Best Song: “The Boxer.” “The Boxer” is my all-time favorite song. I’m not sure a more perfect song has been written. There’s something so poignant about the toils and quests of a young boy trying to make a name for himself in the city, living on the streets, and realizing he may not be able to make it, before finding solace in the perpetual, Sisyphus-esque life of a boxer he sees. It’s a powerful tale for anyone trying to make it in life as they are flung into adulthood, and a lot of the reason it’s so great is Simon’s writing. Drawing on personal experience, Biblical allusions and general observations, it pulls from the greatest traditions of poetic writing and literary writing to construct something unique. If you want proof that there’s crossover between literature, poetry and music, this song is the living embodiment.
There is nobody in all of songwriting right now as clever or as brilliant as Stephen Sondheim. Sure, he can settle for more simpler ballads like in West Side Story (not to say “bad,” just not as complex as his later stuff). However, what Sondheim is known for are his rich, metaphor-laced heavy rhyme schemes. There are thousands of words in his song, each with several different meanings and exploring complex themes. I mean, the man wrote a bunch of songs about fairy tales that turned them into a 1980s Cold War satire, for God’s sake! His songs are deep, rich and intelligent, from “Finishing the Hat’s” exploration of creating art to “No One Is Alone’s” exploration of how people are inherently flawed, but are still good on the inside. His songs are beautifully poetic, thematically rich, and continue to push the boundaries in every outing.
Best Song: “Being Alive.” “Being Alive” is arguably one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and it’s all because of how brilliant Sondheim is in changing one word. For most of the song, the character of Bobby rants about why he doesn’t need love, listing off all the problems that come with a relationship, beginning each line with “Someone to…” It’s an angry, bitter rant about a system that Bobby apparently can’t understand or appreciate. However, things change shortly into the song when the line, along with the actor’s response, change to “Somebody…” No longer is he ranting about love, he’s begging for it, asking for someone to help make his life complete. It’s beautiful and rich, and it only works because Sondheim changes one word to brilliant effect.
The Talking Heads
The only time I am crediting an entire band, because the band actually wrote every song together (although I suspect David Byrne had a larger impact than the others). The Talking Heads are, undoubtedly, one of the greatest bands to come out of the 80s. Known mainly for their unique sound and Byrne’s eccentric onstage performance, they were also masters of crafting intelligent, lyrically complex pieces of satire. From “Nothing But Flowers’” take on materialism in the 80s to “Life During Wartime’s” exploration of civil unrest in the cities, the band took on the world around them in a fresh, unique way. In the same way Dylan used folk music to explore the ideas of the 60s, The Talking Heads used funk and new wave to explore the ideas of the 80s.
Best Song: “Once In A Lifetime.” What makes “Once In A Lifetime” a great song isn’t just Byrne’s spirited singing. It’s the message, and the fear in each line, as its narrator has an existential awakening, realizing that his successful quest for the American Dream has left him still feeling empty inside, and unable to recognize his own life. Styled to resemble a radio evangelists’ preachings, forcing its listener to accept without question, the song is the band’s most intelligent, and most beloved, a rarity for a song literally about questioning the reality of life itself.
Of course I was going to end this list on Brian Wilson. Sure, he’s a much better musician than lyricist, but he still contributed to the lyrics on most of the Beach Boys’ songs. And while he was more well known for songs like “California Girls” and “Surfin’ Safari,” he did have songs with lyrics matching his artistic abilities-ranging from the deceptively simple “Fun Fun Fun” (a song I declared the #1 Beach Boys song, and received derision for) to the more lyrically rich “Heroes and Villains” and “Caroline, No.” He even is writing songs of this magnitude to this day, including “Love and Mercy” and “One Kind of Love.” Brian Wilson is perhaps the last of the United States’ truly great artists, and a Nobel Prize is perhaps the only way to truly honor his accomplishments.
Best Song: “God Only Knows.” This is perhaps Brian’s best written song. It’s simple, powerful, elegant, charming and perfect, all at the same time. It’s a perfect little poem about the beauty of love, free of cynicism or anger. Even when sung by a 70 year old who is slowly losing his mind, it still is an overwhelming, emotional experience, and that’s quite an accomplishment. It’s the kind of writing the world needs, and the kind of writing only Wilson can provide us.
And that’s about everyone I think the Nobel Committee should honor now that Dylan has opened the floodgates. And a quick announcement: while this was a typical Wednesday Listicle, I will be changing up the formula for next week, experimenting a bit more with the format of short essays and personal memoir. It’ll be a fun little experiment, and I urge you to come back to see it in action. And, as usual, if there’s anyone you think I’ve missed on this list, let me know in the comments.